A hearing today could clear the way for Isa Muasu's
forcible removal from Britain on 17 December.
Isa MuasuAsylum seeker Isa Muazu
survived his 104 day hunger strike but remains locked up in Harmondsworth
Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow Airport. He continues to resist his
forcible return to Nigeria. Home Secretary Theresa May and the Home Office have
shown they will to stop at nothing to ensure his removal.
and costly actions to remove him so far have included chartering a private jet,
organising three months of sponsored health care in Nigeria, instructing a
Crown solicitor the night before the attempted deportation and deploying
doctors' reports that did not involve an actual examination of the patient.
The UK government hired a private jet to deport Isa
Muasu to Nigeria in the early hours of Friday 29 November, at a reported cost
of around £100,000. The next day he was back in Britain, the plane having been
refused entry to Nigerian airspace.
On the night of Tuesday
10 December, Muasu was issued with fresh removal directions — for 17
December, on a charter flight with other Nigerian nationals who are currently
fighting immigration cases in detention centres across the country.
I volunteer at The Unity Centre in Glasgow. We offer
practical support and solidarity to asylum seekers. We are often contacted by
individuals who have been detained. Since early September I've been in
telephone contact with Isa several times a week. Isa's
needs and demands have been consistent throughout his protest; he wants his
freedom, he wants to be taken off the detained fast track system (whereby
asylum seekers are detained if their claims are deemed straightforward and
capable of being decided quickly). He wants no
longer to be treated like a criminal. Now, Isa also wants to be given the
chance to recover from his dangerous hunger strike without security guards
hovering over him when he is finally taken to hospital.
As the jet, privately chartered to deport Isa, was
almost back in the UK on Saturday 30 November, a guard showed him his picture in a newspaper article
and told him he was "a very lucky man". Isa sipped water upon return, water that he
describes as tasting bitter like medicine. The escorts rushed to write down
that he had started accepting fluids again. Isa doesn't feel lucky. He made himself grievously
ill to gain support for his cause.
In UK detention centres 3000 men and women
are locked up without the right to appeal and without having committed any
crime. They are locked into their rooms every night, some detention centres
locking individuals in their rooms three times a day. Isa says he never wants
to hear the sound this makes again, a sound he describes as like chains.
Seeking asylum is treated with suspicion and
disdain by the UK government. A punitive asylum policy and an ingrained culture
of disbelief make it almost impossible to be recognised as in need of
protection. Under international law, it is not illegal to travel to another
country by any means necessary to seek asylum from danger or persecution. Yet the UK government treats
asylum seekers as though they have committed a crime. The burden of proof is upon them to
provide evidence for every aspect of persecution stated.
Every stage of the claims process is a barrier to entry, not a system for fairly establishing who is
in need of help. Initial interrogative interviews may last almost a full
day with up to 400 questions, followed by sometimes bizarre reasons for refusal, and in many cases a right of appeal only after removal (known as Out of Country Appeal Rights). The system is weighted against the vulnerable people it is supposed to serve.
The detained fast track system, on which all Nigerian
men are placed (along with many other nationalities and often women) appears designed to fail. Lawyers may have less than two hours with
their clients and are increasingly reluctant to take on detained fast track
cases due to legal aid cuts. Those legal aid lawyers who have permission to
represent individuals in detention are scarce and tend to take only the most
straightforward and winnable cases rather than cases with a 50 per cent
likelihood of success, as the law requires.
Hunger striking is one response to injustice.
Currently, three individuals being supported by The Unity Centre in
Harmondsworth remain on hunger strike without public support. One man is
protesting the policy of third country removal under the Dublin II convention; he faces removal to Belgium on 12 December, then certain,
immediate deportation to Iran. The others share the same demands as Isa
— to be taken off the detained fast track system and given a fair chance
to claim asylum. These men are suffering. The first has sewn his lips together
and not eaten for 52 days. Another can barely speak yet screams out in the
night in pain and frustration.
Isa says he fears that if he is returned to
Nigeria, the militant Islamic organisation Boko Haram will kill him, as they
have killed other members of his family and friends. When someone fears for their life in their country of origin, a decision to send them there to await the result of their case is barbaric. A hearing scheduled for today will review the
decision to certify Isa’s case for Out of Country Appeal Rights. Such
certification makes it easy to remove people, and radically restricts
their ability to make an appeal at all.
Penguin books were a fine example of a 'cultural democracy' that has now withered against the reactionary dominance of the mainstream. We need to rediscover the passion for dissent and questioning, and technology may ultimately be the key.
Flickr/HellolmNik. Some rights reserved.
Once there were giants. They had
names like Allen Lane.
You know whom I mean, the founder of Penguin Books which for at least half a
century led the field in paperback publishing. Penguin Books was in the
vanguard of the widening of awareness. It was a cultural equivalent of the
welfare state, an educative process developed throughout society by paperback
and evening classes and societies, with some back-up through print and
broadcast journalism. Literature and science and thought were working their way
into the everyday life of ordinary people. Not everyone benefited. Not everyone
wanted it. And there remained obstacles, especially of class, to fulfil the
dream of cultural democracy. But there was some achievement. If the process had a central focus it was
Penguin Books, publishing almost everything of quality, and very little that
wasn’t quality. Well presented, and at a reasonable price, Penguins were ubiquitous
in literate environments of which there seemed to be so many.
Looking back, well, we didn’t know
how lucky we were. For a long time, quite a long time, there was a developing
possibility of the dream coming true. Raymond Williams called it The LongRevolution. You remember it. You still have it somewhere, that blue
Pelican along with all the others. They filled your mind and fed your hopes. It
was thanks to Allen Lane;
not only him but especially him.
Lane died in 1970. His dream did
not die with him, but it cannot be said be said to have survived for very long.
From Dallas to Theda Vinci Code the
forces of cultural reaction have underwritten the socio-economic regression
that some called modernity. You can find Aldous Huxley titles in paperback, but
you have to search. They don’t leap out at you as they used to. There are fifty
shades of trash trying to grab you, but the books that make you wonder are
hidden away. That was not how it was meant to be. Had things gone the other
way, had there been real progress (and not the ersatz world of false choices)
then the spirit of Allen Lane
would have survived. All we have is the memory.
The vocabulary of memorial needs to
meet the occasion of celebrating someone whose ventures were far more for the
common good than for any personal profit. How about pioneer or trailblazer? It
is not possible to imagine anyone of progressive instincts disparaging Lane’s
achievements. The only trouble Penguin caused was to vested interests in
commercial publishing, and of course to that strange, ethereal presence: the
Establishment. Lane challenged the accepted way of doing things. And that is
never liked by the powerful. They fear that their inadequacies may be exposed.
They fear that the truth may be told. Extending the reach of culture is
generous and visionary.
Libraries preferred hardbacks for
their sturdiness in withstanding the strains of wide circulation. But for the
ordinary book-buyer it was the paperbacks that filled the sitting-room shelves,
a row of glowing magenta, a row of classics in sombre black, and another of
academic azure. The wiser heads in publishing did not find Penguin a challenge
but an exemplar. Reasonably-priced, well-produced paperbacks became the
mainstream of bookselling. Penguin dominated, but Papermac brought out Thomas
Hardy et al, and Faber, especially for poetry, was ever dignified but now
within wider reach. In 1970, as Lane was dying, Granada
brought out its Paladin range, Fontana
produced its Modern Masters.
For a long time it seemed that
Penguin Books and its successors were part of an emerging alternative to
institutional society. A colloquium of new voices was articulating potent,
sometimes mysterious, and always interesting energies. An air of experiment, in
which Penguin played its part, was speaking to the general feeling within
society. It was powerful enough to submerge the feelings of reaction although
these have returned with a vengeance, of course.
Historians one day may be in a
position to define the critical moment when the experiment failed to make the
decisive break in the continuum. Social experiment did not become the natural
governing principle of society. How close it came to happening is one of those
uncharted questions. Historians one day may be able to discern the reasons why
the revolution was deferred. (I say deferred, not defeated.)
At first glance it may seem
inexplicable that an expansion of higher education has not led to an expansion
of new ideas from young idealists. It clearly hasn’t happened. The mainstream
bookshops now pack ephemera on the shelves, giving equal status to entertainment
books. The habit of serious reading has not grown in proportion to the number
of people registering for courses. There may be more qualifications, but there
are not nearly so many ideals.
The idealists always formed a
minority, although a generation ago there was far greater idealism then than
there is now. But education, especially at a university, used to mean a
broadening of interests, an expansion of horizons. A material culture has
narrowed the purpose of education to an essentially vocational role. Education
has become the acquisition of skills rather than the development of intellect
Aldous Huxley, writing in 1959,
predicted this when he spoke of a future generation trained to accomplish tasks
without being educated to ask questions. As for Aldous Huxley – ‘Oh, yeah, I
read Brave New World at school. It
was quite interesting. Did he write anything else?’
For thinking people reading comes
as a matter of course. Questioning comes as a matter of course. It is the
lifeblood of an imaginative response to the world. To think is to question. To
write is to question. These processes are integral to a valid cultural system.
In a conforming society dissent is inevitable if a creative mind is alert to
the responsibilities of creativity. It is not a position sought. It is how
things must be unless we apprentice ourselves to convention.
The point about Penguin, the WEA,
the Left Book Club, and other elements within the network was that ideas and
values were given a central place in the alternative social programme that
engaged, in varying degrees, millions of interested citizens. Not everyone signed
up to everything. But many found something useful. The twentieth century saw a
remarkable growth in unofficial education and with it came patterns of career
development according to skill and initiative rather than formal qualification.
The career of Neville
Cardus is a spectacular example. There were many others, not necessarily in
the public eye, who gained advancement to positions that now require graduate
status. There were early leavers, going out to work initially as clerks and
apprentices, who read and studied and found ways to more fulfilling work and/or
community life. Learning was not an obstacle to be overcome and then discarded.
It was a pleasure. Ordinary lives became extraordinary.
This is what is meant by cultural
democracy. It is an association of the like-minded working its way through the informal
network of feeling that is outside the official structures of society. Work may
be no more than a duty, whereas the life of the choral society or the drama
group may be the heart of a community. The key point is that there was active
involvement rather than passive acceptance. That is the liberating element. It
has not gone from social experience, but it has changed direction. It has gone
underground. It is less visible. The mainstream is inherently conservative. The
oppositional nature of literature distances it from the mainstream.
But technology has extended the
capacity for communication. That can mean more chat, more time-wasting trivia.
It also means a wider capacity for things of substance. The possibility exists
now for a conversation in society that will itself determine the nature of
society. Everyday experience needs to be part of that conversation. Older
institutions are losing some of their relevance and their authority as a
network of root feeling works its way into the social fabric. Everyone has a right
to a voice. There are other realities waiting to be articulated. Historians of
the future may be able to discern the reasons why the revolution happened.
Government and right wing tabloids insist that Britain is too soft on
migrants and life must get harder for them. For many, life is hard
Making art, Sunday afternoon, Refugee Action York 2013
For the first time in years Sophie, her husband and three of their
children will spend Christmas together, free from the oppression, violence and fear
of violence that they lived with for so long.
They fled to Britain from a central African country – the husband first,
and then, years later when their visas allowed, Sophie and three of her
children. They live in York.
government and the Daily Mail claim Britain is a 'soft touch' for
asylum-seekers. The Home Secretary Theresa May is seeking to create a "really
hostile environment for illegal migration". The Immigration
Bill that resumes its progress through Parliament in January will create a very
hostile environment indeed, and not just for people who are here illegally. The
Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Joint Council for the Welfare
of Immigrants, along with the Residential Landlords Association, fear this bill
will result in migrants in general being refused housing and health care.
For the past eleven years in York I've helped to run a drop-in centre
for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. We're called Refugee Action York. I've
come to know families who have settled in the UK for diverse reasons.
In a world away from the tabloid headlines, life is hard for Sophie and
"In my country I was something, I was someone," Sophie tells
me. "Here I am nothing. No
An experienced social worker in her own country, the only work she has
managed to get here was as a temporary cleaner – cleaning students' rooms over
the summer. There is a chronic shortage of experienced social workers in the UK
but Sophie's qualifications are not recognised here and she has no money to
We urgently need language teachers in the UK. Sophie's husband, formerly a head teacher, is fluent in European and
African languages. He had heard of the Refugees into Teaching programme. Could
it help him convert his teaching qualification into one recognised in the UK?
He rang Leeds Met to ask if there was a course he could attend locally and was
told the programme had been terminated.
He had a job as a care worker here for a while. Just a temporary job.
The family faces Christmas with no work.
"He fills in forms all day", Sophie tells me. "He applies
for all jobs. Many jobs. That is what we need just a job…
and…" She trails off.
Sophie thinks constantly of her eldest son. Left behind in their volatile
country, she fears he will be called to fight. She struggles to find the words
to describe how young men are used as cannon fodder. "They die young –
many of them," she says. If he were aged 18 or under, then he could have
got a visa to come to join the rest of his family.
She may never see him again. A heavy, silent pain fills the room.
At Refugee Action York, one overworked staff member and volunteers are working
to make sure that lots of local families, including Sophie's younger children
get presents this year and perhaps a small Christmas tree.
If you met Annie at our Sunday drop-in, where people learn English,
enjoy football and drama, share food, you might think she was a volunteer, helping
out for her Duke of Edinburgh Award like my daughter and her friends. Annie
arrived in the UK five years ago with her mother and two brothers. They came
from the Indian subcontinent to join her father, who was working here legally.
Annie speaks impeccable English. She wants to be a GP – her grades are
amazing. She has a real chance.
Instead, it seems likely that Annie, her recently widowed mum and two
brothers will be returned to a country where women and girls are not allowed
out of the house without a male escort.
I researched her chances of becoming a doctor if she were returned to
her country of origin. Girls from her village don’t go to school over the age
of 13. It is unlikely to be in her best interests to return to a country she
does not like to talk of, one where she’ll get no education. Our law says that the best interests of the child can be set aside in
the interests of immigration control.
Britain needs doctors. Annie needs Britain if she is to complete her
education. No matter.
It has been a difficult few weeks for
Lebanon. Perpetually unstable, the suicide bomb attack on the Iranian embassy
on 19 November, the placement of the second city, Tripoli, under army
protection, and the assassination of one of Hezbollah’s top commanders last
week; all these events have demonstrated that the winter months can be as fraught as summer
While the attacks against Hezbollah may
represent trigger points, and the ongoing ‘mini-civil war’ engulfing Tripoli may
be seen as a physical manifestation of otherwise relatively latent tensions,
these events serve more to deepen existing fault lines rather than carve new
ones. On the face of things little has changed; the county remains a patchwork
of operatives and agendas, peace and conflict. But the deepening of fault lines
further increases the number of pressure points, and the asymmetrical nature of
threats both internally and externally create further unpredictability.
Internally, private groups; some
radical and backed by more established external operatives, and some more
localised and spontaneous (such as those setting up checkpoints within central
Hamra), are increasing in number and confidence – owing no doubt in part to the
eight-month absence of government. Speaker Nabih Berri last
week compounded suspicions that a new government is a long way off by warning
that the deepening political deadlock will remain until presidential elections take
priority at the beginning of next year.
It is open knowledge that Al-Qaeda as well as other Takfiri
Salafist groups, are operating in various ‘black holes’ across the country,
namely Tripoli, Sidon and the north-eastern border regions with Syria. If
Al-Qaeda are spreading their transnational tentacles ever more widely into
Europe and Russia, as is widely reported, they are enjoying the very
accommodating environment in Lebanon (and Syria) to help them on their way. In
particular the Palestinian refugee camps are fertile spaces for infiltration.
These are spaces where Lebanese sovereignty and law are not directly enforced but
operate through multiple Palestinian political factions. Tensions run at a
perpetual high here, largely unreported by mainstream media, heightened by the
networks of criss-crossing agendas of various localised factions. This week has
witnessed a slight increase of tensions in the Ain el-Hilweh Palestinian camp
(always prone to instability), just outside the southern city of Sidon, as
clashes between members of Jund al-Sham and Fatah groups led to the death of a
man and wounding of several others. The subsequent funeral was then marred by a
bomb attack, widely blamed on ‘people with foreign objectives’.
The situation in Tripoli is also concerning. The Lebanese
Armed Forces (LAF), long accused of ‘ignoring Triploi’ by the city’s residents,
have now placed the city under their control in an attempt to appease serious sectarian
violence which has been ongoing in the past fortnight, leaving 11 dead.
All of this serves to illustrate the fractured ground which
exists across the country. Fragmentation caused by localised forces are easily
coopted by fundamentalists. The LAF’s intervention in Tripoli attempts to
reassert the presence of the Lebanese state, but has encountered various
protests and is not guaranteed to last. Moreover, the increasingly fluid
borders in the north of the country, as arms, soldiers and refugees drift
between Syria and Lebanon, and fighting or shelling are becoming increasingly
indiscriminate between the two sides, suggests the increasing geographical
rupture of the country. Arab Tawhid Party leader Wiam Wahhab has even suggested
that Syrian warplanes might well raid areas of Tripoli if the Alawite area of
Jabal Moshen comes under attack – an unfeasible claim, probably, but
demonstrative that the north is becoming ever more closely physically integrated into the Syrian conflict. This would signal
the end of Tripoli merely being a proxy of Syria.
Inevitably Hezbollah still remains the
key actor in the country. The Iranian embassy which was bombed is located in a
Shi’a district of Beirut – Iran is Hezbollah’s staunchest ally – and its attack
is widely viewed as a clear message against Hezbollah; the assassination of
Hassan Hawlo al-Lakkis, claimed to be a senior military figure is an even more
clear-cut attack. But Hezbollah’s reaction has been strategic - with their
hands tied in Syria, they can ill afford to ratchet up sectarian tensions in
Lebanon. Attempting to quash sectarian inflammation, Nasrallah, leader of
Hezbollah, made the strange decision to blame the suicide attack on the Iranian
embassy on Saudi Arabia, despite an Al-Qaeda affiliated Sunni group, Adballah
Azzam Brigades, claiming responsibility. The accusation against Israel for the
assassination of Lakkis was less surprising, although the various dubious (and
probably false) claims of responsibility from previously unknown Sunni groups expose
the number of internal enemies to Hezbollah wanting to take some of the ‘glory’
Does this display a slight
change in Hezbollah’s dynamic within the Lebanese state? More significant than
the actual attacks (which are perhaps inevitable), their fallout has allowed
the slight reshaping of Hezbollah’s identity. Unwilling to retaliate against these
provocations, their role may be seen as taking on that of a stoical victim,
upholding order whilst being attacked from all directions by petulant and
impatient enemy forces. They can claim some form of high ground in this
exchange, albeit one which is logistically necessary – their self-serving desire
to preserve some unity in Lebanon improves their credence as a natural
‘sovereign’ protector. Meanwhile the number of localised Sunni groups claiming
attacks against them display the ever widening network of small-scale, private
militias willing to make a name for themselves, and highlight that the Sunni
population in Lebanon is still essentially leaderless and fragmented.
Where does this leave Lebanon? The
environment continues to be highly fractured, with geographical enclaves hosting
increasingly entrenched conflicts which are spewing out more private groups threatening to create greater national disunity. While Hezbollah continues to
provide a ready target both for those unhappy with its activity in Syria and
those taking advantage of its distraction, the number and agenda of actors
hostile to it are increasingly unpredictable and increasingly likely to be co-opted. This is bad news both for Lebanon, and opponents of extremism.
The Temple of Hercules/Wiktor Szymanowicz. All rights reserved.
As you stand on the hilltop at Um Qais on the topmost
tip of Jordan, Israel-Palestine to your left and the sound of shelling from
southern Syria carrying across the Golan Heights, the tranquillity of this
popular tourist site makes Jordan feel like an oasis of stability in a chaotic
In the west it is easy to disregard Jordan in
discussions about the Arab Awakening. Its protests in 2011 were quickly
diffused with the promise of reforms from the government, and its westernised
monarchy (with a king who even had a cameo in Star Trek in his youth) appears
unthreatening. Jordan's status as a
centre of tourism, a base for Arabic language learning in the Middle East, and
a US ally has increased since turbulence rendered so many of its neighbours
inhospitable, and Amman is an easy and pleasant place to live as a foreign
But Jordan must not be overlooked in relation to the
Arab Awakening, precisely because it is not immune from the tensions that
inspired other revolutions in the region. Economic dissatisfaction is perhaps
the most obvious overlap. The cost of trying to make your way in Jordan as a
citizen is a topic so frequently bemoaned by Jordanians that it becomes like a
mantra. Every taxi driver in Amman comments on high living expenses. The vast sparkling
malls and boutique-lined shops in west Amman are in stark contrast to the east,
testament to the divide between rich and poor.
And it is getting worse. The influx of Syrian refugees
to the country has increased economic strain to the extent that some
Jordanians are resentful of Syrians leaving the camps to live in cities. Fuel
prices are set to rise in the new year, and many government schools now split
the school day in half so that twice as many students can attend – half in the
morning and half in the afternoon. While there is no dictate governing which
students should come in when, usually Jordanians attend at the normal time, and
Syrians in the afternoon. Charities such as Generations for Peace have been
employed in combatting the violence that sometimes breaks out between the two
High level corruption, dissatisfaction about the
degree of freedom allowed, and disagreements about what it means to be a
citizen are just a few more issues mirroring the causes of Arab Spring
revolutions across the region. The law of lèse-majesté forbids overt criticism
of the king, but Abdullah’s traditional support base of East Bankers (and particularly
Bedouin tribes) have begun to feel betrayed by market reforms that benefit the city-based
economic elite, who are mainly Palestinian Jordanians. Some Bedouin in Wadi
Dana now blame the government for the abandonment of the mountainside village
of Dana (elsewhere put down to population moves on account of new industry),
with a few speaking of being ‘forced’ out of their homes. The age old social
strain between East and West Bankers often gets inflamed, and Syrian refugees
of Palestinian origin are currently not allowed into the country proper, but
must stay in the Cyber City facility near Ramtha.
Revolution has not come to Jordan, but this is a
result of particular time- and place-dependent circumstances rather than a lack
of connectivity with the rest of the region. While in Syria and Egypt the knee-jerk reaction of those in power was suppression of protests with varying
degrees of violence, the Jordanian government has, to its credit, not gone down
this path. Instead it tends to promise reform – after the protests in 2011 and
currently in 2013’s launching of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy - though
there is a general scepticism about how far these promises actually go. What is
perhaps more important currently in staving off revolution is the effect of the
war in Syria to the north, and Egypt’s chaos in the south. Stability is, for
now, infinitely preferable.
Revolution is not the be all and end all of the Arab
Awakening, just as the initial protests in Tahrir Square were neither the
pinnacle nor the end of Egypt’s political journey. The waves currently rocking
the region come in many shapes, good and bad, dramatic and contained – and,
crucially, all affecting each other. They will continue to impact on Jordan for
much time to come.
couple of days ago I took part, mostly by listening, to a conversation that was
mainly between two of my neighbours. One
of them is of the left wing political persuasion and the other is several
generations down, on the right. The topic of discussion was the Prawer Plan and both
are opposed to it. For those readers of this screed who are not aware, the
Prawer plan is the final version of several plans that have been produced over
the years which have sought to reorganize and legalize Bedouin land holdings in
the Negev as well as making it possible to supply twenty-first century services to that sector of the Israeli
two neighbors both oppose the plan but for different reasons. My left-wing
neighbor has listened to the various human rights organizations who have
claimed that the plan violates the human rights of the Bedouin. These include
the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay who said:
citizens of Israel, the Arab Bedouins are entitled to the same rights to
property, housing and public services as any other group in Israel. The
Government must recognize and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin
communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims.”
right-wing neighbor, who has worked with local Negev Bedouin for the past six
years on an informal basis, argued that the plan should be scrapped and all
Bedouin land claims should be adjudicated and settled in the courts. He made
this argument knowing that most of the Bedouin land claims are not legal
according to Israeli, British mandatory or Ottoman law, so they would be
my right-wing neighbor feels that the Bedouins are being offered too much under
the Prawer Plan does not particularly surprise me. What does surprise me is
that neither my left-wing neighbor nor anything that I have heard from the
human rights groups, including the honorable Ms. Pillay, address themselves to
the problems that Israeli Bedouins face today.
It seems to me that this latter
phenomenon arises out of what I prefer to call the Weaponization of Human
Rights or WHR. (I cannot claim credit for this term as I heard it first from an
interlocutor on another internet forum.) WHR may have begun with the
Arab-Israeli conflict as it played out in the old UN Commission on Human Rights
and its successor the UN Human Rights Council. Long ago it was explained to me
that investigations of human rights violations in conflict situations are not
restricted to one side or the other but are focused on human rights violations
wherever they may take place. However, over the years, in the case of the
Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights inquiries have been informally and formally
restricted to Israeli actions. As a consequence the violations of Arab human
rights by Arab governments and proto-governmental organizations have been
mostly ignored. This may be one of the reasons why the outbreak of the Arab
Spring caught so many observers by surprise.
any rate, when human rights become weaponized, like weaponizing technology, it
usually does no good to any human being in the vicinity. This seems to be the
situation when it comes to the Negev Bedouin. I happen to think that the Prawer
Plan is a reasonable approach to bringing the Bedouin into the mainstream of twenty-first century Israeli society especially when it comes to providing government
services. I believe that I am in agreement on this with the majority of the
Bedouin population in the Negev and in particular with a majority that desires
to exploit the advantages offered by modern Israeli society.
me provide an example of why I think so. This past Thursday the first rains of
the winter fell. If enough rain falls during the rest of the winter, in the
spring the wild grasses that are typical of our area will cover the ground.
Despite being a desert, in the spring the land turns from yellow-brown to
green and looks very much like photos of Ireland that I have seen. The grasses
grow very thick and can reach a height of twenty to thirty centimeters. However, a few
kilometers to the south far less rain falls and the grasses grow very sparsely
and short; perhaps two or three centimeters in height with a centimeter or two
of space between each blade.
The government allows the Bedouin to graze their
flocks on state land in our area. However in order to do this a permit must be
issued on condition that the owner of the flock opens a file with the Income
Tax and Value Added Tax authorities. Most Bedouin either open the required
files or already have existing files and easily acquire grazing permits. Other
Bedouin prefer to remain invisible to the tax authorities and choose to graze
their flocks on the inferior grazing lands to the south where no permit is
needed. This is not a consequence of Bedouin culture, tradition or education.
It is simply an economic calculation. However, Bedouin who prefer not to pay
taxes and do without government services are far more likely to oppose the
Prawer plan on the basis of the same sort of economic calculation, than
Bedouins who pay taxes and get government services.
example does not apply to all Bedouin nor am I going to argue that the Prawer
plan is not without its problems. But I will argue that most of the human
rights organizations who have taken a negative position on the plan have done
so, not because they wish to advance Bedouin human rights but rather because
they have become enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are using
human rights issues as weapons in that conflict.
us all pray for rainy weather in the Negev this winter.
controversial protest law was put into action, government officials as well as
local media apologists justified the consequent repressive police measures as
an innocent attempt to impose “law and order”. While the
government is immersed in its ‘war against terrorism’ (sometimes rightly so and
sometimes not), it’s also doing its best at alienating revolutionaries who took to the streets in protest as soon as the law was
prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was arrested on charges of incitement and
breaking the new protest law. According to eyewitness accounts, more than forty
‘special operations’ personnel raided Alaa’s house. His wife says she was beaten as well as Alaa himself and their laptops and mobile phones were
Al Masry Al Youm quoted a security source saying the
Abdel Maged left the country by illegal means. Therefore, the governments’ understanding of ‘law and order’
is questionable; while major suspects are fleeing the country, peaceful
protesters are arrested.
The Egyptian government’s version of ‘law and order’ permits the police
to decide whether or not to proceed with their duties and respect the law. Once
again, how ironic!
In Minya –
an Upper Egyptian city – sectarian violence has resurfaced leaving five dead,
dozens injured and at least two houses, belonging to Coptic Christians,
burnt down. While
the police were busy enforcing the new law, they failed – yet again – to
protect the Copts and impose ‘law and order’ despite several desperate calls,
as the Watani newspaper reported. To make
things worse, instead of transparent investigations into what actually took
place, the authorities are allegedly holding customary reconciliation
often end up forcing the Coptic Christian minority to relinquish their rights (at
times they are even deported from their home villages) and aggressors are offered impunity,
rather than justice.
“sharia and legitimacy” and last but not least: “the State of law - law and order”;
Egypt’s consecutive regimes, regardless of their religious or nationalistic
ideologies, are notorious for abusively flashing these slogans in order to
silence objections and repress critics.
time the narrative is reaching new levels of absurdity with a simultaneous
increase in deficient government performance, especially with regards
to security and the economy. The authorities appear to be more concerned with
how to curb their opponents than they are with the future of the country and
the wellbeing of its citizens.
The Criminal Court in Kuwait acquits 70
activists, including 11 former Members of Parliament, from charges of storming
parliament; the decision is one of the most anticipated in Kuwait’s turbulent
The seeds for Kuwait’s current political
stalemate were planted years ago. Continuous gridlock and a series of
corruption scandals have resulted in seven parliamentary elections and thirteen cabinet reshuffles in the past seven years. A large corruption scandal linking
the former Prime Minister to large unexplained bank deposits into thirteen MP's
accounts, i.e. 26% of the elected parliament, caused public outrage in 2011
resulting with the PM’s removal. The elections that followed resulted in the
creation of the Majority Bloc, a group of 34 opposition MPs, representing about
68% of the elected parliament, united under a loose banner of anti-corruption.
However, the parliament was dissolved by the judiciary four months later;
sparking a renewal of public protests culminating in the Amir’s intervention with
a decree revising the election law so as to drastically decrease the
probability of a parliamentary opposition coalition being forged.
The protests of the past two years have coincided
with protests in other Arab countries, leading many to believe Kuwait was
having its own Arab Spring moment. That’s no longer the case, as streets are
now calmer and people seem to have moved away from immediate demands of
political reform. Though many scares do still remain, public outrage over the
past two years resulted in an avalanche of court cases against activists. Most prominent were charges of offending the Emir, participating in rallies/unlicensed
crowding and crowding for the purpose of committing a crime.
Offending the Emir
On 2 December 2013, the constitutional court in
Kuwait upheld the law penalizing criticism of the Emir. The government has been
using article 25 of the National Security Law to send dozens of former MPs,
activists and tweeters to court, charging them with offending the Emir. Several
defendants’ lawyers challenged the article on the grounds that it conflicts with
article 36 of the constitution guaranteeing free speech. The court, however,
upheld the law saying it provides necessary protection for the head of state,
adding that the Emir should be treated with extreme respect. The constitutional
court is the highest court in the country and its decisions are final.
Human rights lawyers were hoping their
challenge would overrule the law. The Kuwaiti government has charged dozens of
activists with offending the Emir. According to the National Committee to
Monitor Violations (NCV), a grassroots group set up by activists, the first two
weeks of December alone are set to witness court hearings for more than 30 activists
facing the charge. If found guilty, those charged with offending the Emir could
face up to five years in jail.
The court’s ruling is a
direct violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kuwait ratified in 1996. The article explicitly
states that public figures of the highest authority are legitimately subject to
criticism. International watchdog Human
Rights Watch called on the Kuwaiti government to scrap “offending the Emir”
as a criminal charge earlier this year.
Storming of parliament
The Court has acquitted 70 individuals,
including 11 former MPs, facing charges for storming parliament on 15 November
2011. The court based its acquittal on conflicting testimonies by parliament
security over whether the protestors stormed the premises or were allowed in.
The sterile opposition is looking to the
court’s decision to reinvigorate its base. Now that the defendants were found not
guilty, the opposition is going to celebrate its “triumph”. The government
would very likely welcome the acquittal as well, as it seeks to avoid any further
political escalation or give the opposition room to regain its public support.
The struggle of the past two years has since
died out. The opposition itself was born out of abnormal circumstance uniting Islamists,
liberals, youth and tribesman under a banner of anti-corruption; it struggled
to materialize into anything substantial or long lasting. The period during
which the opposition formed the Majority Bloc in parliament is now documented
as a period where they tried to pass Sharia Law and sentence blasphemers to
The Kuwaiti government is blessed with a mellow
populace. In an annual survey of voters' priorities conducted by the legislator, ‘combating
corruption’ has dropped three ranks since last year; ‘housing’ is now everyone’s
top priority. Talk about political reform no longer dominates in the same
manner it did last year. It could be argued that regional developments and the
difficulty in establishing political reform in Arab Spring countries have caused
Kuwaitis to steer away from political reform.
Some believe it will be another five years
before Kuwait can approach the idea of political reform again. But until then,
activists should not be discouraged. Calling for an elected government in a
region governed in the purest tribal form is not going to bear fruit overnight.
Kuwait’s struggle in the 1950’s for political reform resulted in the most
advanced legislator in the region, their struggle in 2005 brought substantial
reforms to the election law, including redistricting to reduce the number of electoral districts from 25 to just five, and without a doubt their
existing struggle will produce fruit in the near future.
The struggle of the past two years revealed
many things to the public. First, it revealed a very public power struggle
among members of the royal family. It is argued that the scandal surrounding
the former PM and his connection to financial deposits in MPs accounts
which triggered the mass protests were actually exposed by a competing
member of the royal family. Second, the struggle revealed the shortcomings and
loopholes in Kuwaiti law that have led to political clamp down and trials, such
as the ones we are witnessing now. In order to push ahead with political
reform, these laws must be understood, revised and changed using any method
possible. Third, the struggle has shattered stereotypes of society and stripped away the facade of “democracy” that the ruling elite have hid behind for decades. It
revealed that those once believed to be liberals were elitist, and that moderates were extremists, and
has shown the true colours of a regressive government that has significant international
Kuwait is far from achieving a wholesome
democratic system, but it needs to start somewhere. Several issues can precede the
elected government which everyone hopes to achieve, including the establishment
of political parties as well as the financial independence of the judiciary, to
name but a few. Those activists who were acquitted should get a good night’s sleep
because tomorrow is the beginning of a new struggle.
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by
how many times I fell down and got back up again.” - Nelson
Dr.Mostafa Hegazy, the new advisor to the Egyptian interim President,
appeared on television to hail the Egyptian people on the dawn of a new era;
the era of the rule of law. The interview was given within the context of the
need to abide by a new law regulating protests. Ironically around the same
time, a group of young women were sentenced to eleven years in prison, a
verdict that was later reduced
to one year suspended sentences, after public and international outcry.
With perfect English, eloquence, a western education and a seemingly
liberal outlook, Hegazy seems to embody what the urban middle and upper middle classes
strive to become, namely more western and disconnected from the “uncivilized”
masses. Dr. Hegazy, however, is not unique; he is part of a new kind of elite,
an elite that I like to call the New Janissaries. The Janissary corps were an
elite military unit within the Ottoman army; its members were Christian slaves
taken from different provinces of the empire, as children, converted to Islam,
and indoctrinated into the service of the Ottoman empire. They became intensely
loyal to the Ottoman court, forgetting their homelands and loyalties.
a modern equivalent to men like the Janissaries, namely local elites who were
indoctrinated into a certain part of western political discourse that act
as agents to the centre, on the periphery. This indoctrination occurs in two new formulae, first in what can be aptly called “market fundamentalism”; they
believe that the free market is a vehicle that can solve all social and
economic problems, and that the only issue that the economy is facing is
insufficient liberalization - (a powerful illusion as Karl Polyani pointed out in
the “Great Transformation”, an illusion that cannot be disproved, since the
reply will always be that ‘liberalization’ has not gone far enough).
This indoctrination is coupled with another injection of western
political discourse, namely Orientalist discourse about the nature of 'the Arab
World'. In other words, these elites believe that their fellow countrymen are inferior;
lack of education is often cited as a reason for this inferiority, or something
that is fundamentally wrong with our “nature”. This of course, entails a
conception of the Middle East as a place where time stands still, with little
or no progress. If this is so then this progress must be attributed to the will of one
man, a loving father figure who sacrifices and guides his children at great
personal expense. There is an astonishing lack of societal analysis of the
causes of societal change, let alone a historical view of societal development in the
Middle East with the possible causes of decline or prosperity. And when
the past is conveyed, particularly by Islamist movements, it is mystified and
idealized in a manner calculated only to offer relief from the current situation, invoking a mystical goal that can never be achieved.
As Fanon argues in “Black Skin, White masks”, the elites in the then
colonial world, traumatized by their encounter with the white
colonizer, perceive themselves as superior to their countrymen and thus
belonging to European culture. They consider themselves European and loathe their origins. When those elites travel to the centre, they are
traumatized by the realization that members of the “superior” culture they
consider themselves part of, view them as no different from the rest of their
native communities. The best they can hope for is the “compliment” of being
called “westernized”, a label that automatically creates a dichotomy between
the civilized west and the barbaric east.
From personal experience, spending
more than half a decade in the west, this process of alienation leaves the
traumatized native elite with two options. The first, is to wholeheartedly
embrace the label “westernized” native, which means that the person is
partially accepted into the western society in which he/she lives, however, remaining
a suspect of “de-westernization” and never fully accepted. The other is to
revert to his/her native ways, and either return to the homeland, or live in a
closed community with fellow “non-westernized” natives.
The new Janissary,
logically, embraces the second option, actively immersing him or herself into the Orientalist conception of the east and thus becoming active participants in the
oppression of their own people. Rather than embracing the rich European
experience of struggle for liberty that began, arguably, with the explosion of
1789, they embrace the colonial, conservative, and imperial aspect of the
European experience. Their hidden intellectual ideals approach those of the men, like John Stuart Mill, who argued for the need to rule barbarian nations,
since they themselves are not fit to do so. These new Janissaries return to their
homelands, falling under the cultural hegemony of the centre as they
participate in the oppression of their “non-westernized” fellow natives. The National Democratic Party (NDP), the ruling party before the
Egyptian uprising, was filled with elites that fit into this model. This
includes, but is not limited to, Youssef Botros Ghali, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Ahmed
Ezz and of course Gamal Mubarak. They shared the same characteristics described
above; the apparent belief in “market fundamentalism” coupled with the
inferiority of the Egyptian people.
The situation has not changed with the
advent of the Egyptian uprising; on the contrary the effect was the opposite.
The failure of the Egyptian revolutionary movement to create counter-hegemony
within the realm of civil society has led to its inability to break the hold of Orientalism. A large number of Egyptians firmly believe in their own
inferiority and their inability to move the country out of its current backward
The failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the brief failed experience
of free elections have also reinforced this trend. The performance of the
Brotherhood, their apparent power grab, social conservatism and sectarian
rhetoric, has reinforced the idea that - to quote the late Omar Suleiman “Egyptians
are not ready for democracy”. There is now a strong sense that Egyptians
should not be trusted with democracy, because when they were given the chance
they made an incorrect choice. The coup was not only directed against President
Morsi, in a wider sense, it was directed against this new consciousness that
was developing; a consciousness that held the nascent promise of breaking down this
inferior conception of one’s self.
The new Janissaries are back playing their traditional role, men that
speak perfect English, and have apparently liberal credentials, actively
participating in the development of the crony capitalist-military alliance at
the expense of the possible development of a national progressive bourgeoisie
that could act as the backbone of a genuinely democratic system. It is
important to note that this process is not a simple linear process; not all
members of the new Janissaries need to leave the county, they simply just need
to fall under the cultural hegemony of the centre.
The Egyptian revolt was not simply a revolt against the tyranny of the
crony capitalist-military alliance, it was also a revolt against the prevalent Orientalist conception; the inferiority the Egyptian feels about himself. In
this aspect the role of the revolutionary intellectual is of the utmost
importance. See the following quote from Edward Said:
has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals;
conversely there has been no major counterrevolutionary movement without
intellectuals. Intellectuals have been the fathers and mothers of movements,
and of course sons and daughters, even nephews and nieces.”
Hence, resistance against
the new Janissaries and the counter revolutionary intellectuals, needs to be
fought on the terrain of civil society, where the revolutionary intellectuals
deconstruct the current political order and open up the way for a direct
assault on the state.
Our Editor-in-Chief on our 2013 turnaround and how our readers can strengthen our influence for years to come
I don’t want to boast
but openDemocracy is here to stay – with, that is, a little bit of ongoing help
from our friends, readers and writers. A year ago we faced a life or death crisis. With magnificent support we cleared
our debts, funded 2013 and started the work to ensure that oD isn’t just
independent of corporate power, but also sustainable
for the long-term.
We have just published
a list of everyone who have recently given financially, I hope to soon see
your name on it too!
Here are some things
you might not know about openDemocracy:
readership is growing: unique visits up 26% over the last year.
truly global, with readers in 234 countries and territories.
- 84% of you
have encountered facts or perspectives on oD you’ve seen nowhere else
- Half of
you have used arguments from oD, over a quarter have changed your
opinion on an issue after reading us.
And while our
readership is diverse, there are many “influencers” – activists, scholars,
journalists and policy makers – so when we make people change their mind, that
changes the world.
If the world knows
that openDemocracy is here to stay it will grow our influence and make what you
read and write here more important because less easily dismissed.
That’s why we are
asking for modest ongoing support. A one-off contribution is really helpful, but a regular donation is better as it
As a small token of
appreciation we’ll send you the Week in 1 Minute, written by an editor to sum
up our best content.
And unless you want to
keep it private, which you can, you will join a great and growing list of names
of those who are helping us stay independent and grow.
Text to donate: It's now possible to make a one-off donation by texting OPDE13 followed by £1, £2, £3, £4, £5 or £10 (amount of your choosing) to 70700. For the full range of donation options see our donate page.
Illegal firearms, mostly smuggled
in from the USA, are fuelling violence in Mexico. In response, thousands of
guns have been transformed into gardening tools, musical instruments and public
Credit: World Policy Journal/Pedro
Reyes. All rights reserved.
The USA's lax gun laws and holes
in gun trafficking enforcement are fueling a massive illegal arms trade across
its southern border into Mexico. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives (or “ATF”), two out of every three illegal firearms
found in Mexico originate in the USA. In other words, each year, over 253,000
guns purchased in the United States are smuggled south of the border.
Why should we be concerned? For
one, there is a direct
correlation between gun ownership in cities and gun violence: as one
increases so does the other. But that’s true regardless of location. A
paramount issue that is specific to the U.S.-Mexico border is the link between
illegal guns and the drug trade. Outside of one firearms store in Mexico City,
there are no other stores to purchase guns in Mexico. And yet, the drug wars
have claimed the lives of thousands.
Without firearms, the ability of
gangs to acquire and smuggle drugs would be greatly weakened. And given the
fact that the U.S. spends billion a year on the war on drugs, reducing the
proliferation of illegal guns flowing across the border is a security issue that
Capitol Hill cannot ignore. This issue has proven truly complicated,
especially in light of the 2006-2011 ATF "Fast and
In the absence of effective
methods to deal with U.S.-Mexico gun sales, Pedro Reyes, a young Mexican, has
achieved a milestone in combating the illegal trade of guns. He has broken
Mexico’s all-time record for the most guns that have been voluntarily
surrendered. But Reyes is not a member of law enforcement or government. He is
an artist. Born and raised in Mexico, he has witnessed the effects of gun violence
in his country, and has decided to engage directly with the population that is most
endangered by it.
“I’ve always felt that one of the
least productive activities is to complain. So, living in Mexico, I felt that
there was something that could be done about the problem of guns that are
illegally entering the country. I wanted to capture people’s imagination,”
Reyes told me.
In 2007, Reyes began his project Palas
por Pistolas (“Shovels for Guns”) in Culicán, Mexico. The project made
its debut by airing soap opera- style TV ads revealing the dangers posed by
handguns. The commercials invited citizens to voluntarily surrender (or donate)
their guns in exchange for coupons that could be used in local stores - no questions
With support from local
authorities and the Botanical Garden of Culiacán, Palas por Pistolas stayed true to its aim of curbing gun violence.
Reyes melted and re-molded 1,527 civilian guns into gardening tools. He then
organized public tree plantings using the shovels he created to show how an
object that can be used to destroy life could now be used to support it instead.
In direct contrast to the
parades, gun-shows, and gun-fairs that amount to a public celebration of arms,
Reyes’ project is a celebration of nonviolence. “There’s a kind of celebration
where there’s a community day, and people do the planting. People have the
opportunity to gather face-to-face in a public space and engage in something
that becomes sort of a ritual,” he said. Ceremonial tree plantings have since taken
place worldwide, including in San Francisco, Paris, Denver, and Vancouver.
study released in 2013 found that the amount of gun violence in
teen-marketed PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985 in the USA. Video
games like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” that are known for their
violence top the global sales charts. On social media, a surprising number of
gun-lords have started bragging
about their guns by posing for photos with AK 47’s and Colt .45s. For Reyes,
art has a lot to do with political change: “Film, television, and video games
are a big advertisement for guns. It’s very easy to be seduced by guns, and the
sense of power that’s tied to them,” he told me.
Pedro Reyes’ art is also a statement
against the “trigger happy” art industry. “[Palas
por Pistolas] is more of an attempt at a cultural shift because the way
that guns are portrayed in popular culture is very different from the impact
they have in the real world,” he said.
Most recently, Reyes’ work of
transforming guns into inspiring objects has taken on a new dimension. In
Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican government provided Reyes with 6,700 destroyed
weapons to be made into shovels for planting. With a growing following, Reyes
has since launched “Imagine” and “Disarm,” two new projects that transform
firearms into musical instruments. Incorporating intricately crafted woodwind
and percussive instruments, the project sounds as beautiful as it looks.
The fight against gun trafficking
and violence will be waged on two stages - the cultural stage and the political
stage. Interactive and direct, Palas por
Pistolas encapsulates the type of work that advocates are using to engage
people in candid conversations about an otherwise-controversial subject. From
encouraging people to dispose of their guns to exposing young adults to the
dangers they pose, Reyes believes that political artwork can bring about real
change. Alone, however, it is not enough.
On the political stage, a tough
road lies ahead for those who seek to curb gun trafficking. According to a 2012
study by the The Igarapé Institute and the University of San Diego’s
Trans-Border Institute, nearly half of all U.S. firearms dealers depend on
business with Mexico to keep operating. The ATF reports that illegal business
was about as large as the legal total of .7 billion in sales. If illegal gun
trafficking stops, so will the cash flow of retailers. Gun lobbyists will do
everything in their power to prevent this from happening.
The Stop Illegal Trafficking in
Firearms Act of 2013, a bipartisan bill introduced to Congress earlier this
year, presents a number of viable options to deal with this issue. The bill would
help both Mexico and the USA by supporting law enforcement officials to
investigate and prosecute gun trafficking and “straw purchasing” (a process
were a person buys a gun for someone else who is prohibited from buying one themselves).
Even President Obama has
recognized the importance of addressing the illegal arms trade. During a speech
earlier this year at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, he
said that U.S. gun policy reform can "save lives here in Mexico and back
home in the United States." If Pedro Reyes can gain more momentum in the
upper echelons of the political sphere, he may be able to help solve a truly
important international issue.
The British government's failure to keep its word on the issue demonstrates once again that it is determined to keep as much power in its own hands as possible. Parliamentary sovereignty remains a myth.
When as an MP I go into work to the
legislature today and pick up the House of Commons agenda I will hold a
timetable written exclusively by the very government that we are meant to hold
to account. Nothing more starkly reveals the central truth and problem of
British politics: that there is no proper separation of powers. The myth of ‘parliamentary
sovereignty’ is an ever more flimsy delusion that now barely covers the core
corruption of our politics - executive
Even the slightest challenge by
the parliamentary midgets produces a roar of outrage from the 800lb gorilla of
executive power. The 2010 Coalition Agreement included a clear commitment from
the government to implement the Wright Committee’s recommendations for reforms
to the House of Commons, stating:
“We will bring forward the
proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full — starting
with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House
Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the
third year of the Parliament.”
unambiguous statement, no action has been taken to implement this central
recommendation made by the Wright Committee, and the government has now made it
very clear that it has no intention of honouring its promise to establish a
House Business Committee at all.
It seems governments of all
complexions still fear an active, independent parliament, rather than having
the confidence to see it as a partner. The Select Committee that I chair bent
over backwards to help the government honour its promise, offering assorted
compromises and possibilities but to no avail. As things stand at present, parliament
is unable to even influence its own agenda, and remains a supplicant in its own
This was at the best moment for
reform in my political lifetime with an historically high number of new MP’S, an
executive divided by being in coalition and a clear proposition for change from
Wright. Yet even in these helpful circumstances parliamentarians have only won the election of Select
Committee Chairs and members and a Backbench Business Committee. All of these
excellent gains can be quickly repealed when normal working resumes once parliament
is taken over again by an incoming one party government. Desperate to inherit
this bloated over-centralised power the race between the front benches of both
main parties to be the least reforming incoming government in 2015 is already
too close to call.
On 5 December my Committee
published the government’s response to our report on Revisiting “Rebuilding
the House”: the impact of the Wright reforms. Our report reviewed progress
since 2009 on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Reform of the
House of Commons—known as the Wright Committee after its Chair, Dr Tony Wright.
Our report recommended:
- A key Wright recommendation—a House Business Committee
which would give backbenchers an influence on the rest of the House’s agenda—can
and should be introduced without delay. The Coalition Agreement said in 2010
that the Committee would be established by the third year of this parliament.
The Committee argued that a consultative House Business Committee should be
established, to give the House greater control over its time, whilst
recognising real world constraints.
- The House’s petitions procedure is failing to meet
public expectations. There is too much confusion between the roles of government
and parliament. The Committee argued that there is still a case for the
establishment of a petitions committee and recommends that officials work up a
detailed and costed proposition which could then be put to the House for its
Our report proposed a detailed
model for a House Business Committee. It would have enabled the government to
redeem its original Coalition pledge to introduce such a Committee, while
ensuring that the government’s programme was still considered in a timely way. The
government’s response rejected this proposal, saying that, although the
Committee’s suggestion had “some merits”, there were also weaknesses.
I am disappointed
that the government has not responded more positively to a serious attempt to
find a way forward that serves the needs of Ministers and backbenchers alike,
and I am unconvinced by the government’s attempts to justify its inactivity.
On e-petitions, the government
questioned our assertion that the system was failing to meet public
expectations, but agreed that “there is a case for some form of petitions
Committee, which could provide support for petitioners, help the House
determine what should be debated and help facilitate the provision of responses
by the government, where appropriate.” This reaction was more encouraging than
its response to many of our recommendations, and I am pleased that the government
agrees that there is a case for some form of Petitions Committee to support
petitioners and help provide effective responses.
Our Report also
renewed our call for the government to commit to submitting legislation for
pre-legislative scrutiny before presenting it to the House. Giving Select
Committees the opportunity to scrutinise legislation in draft form improves the
quality of Bills that are passed into law, not least by providing an early
warning on problems. The recent Transparency of Lobbying Bill shows what
can happen if the government attempts to dispense with this vital part of the
scrutiny process. The government has now had to pause the Bill in the
House of Lords to attempt to rectify problems that would never have made it
into the final text if a draft Bill had been subject to pre-legislative
scrutiny. However, the government appears to favour “flexibility” over
effective scrutiny, and rejected our view that pre-legislative scrutiny should
be mandatory unless there is an accepted and pressing need for immediate
legislation— something which is very rarely the case.
I strongly believe that the Wright
process has strengthened parliament in many ways—not least through the election
of Select Committee Chairs and members—but there is still a great deal to be
done. I am pleased that the government stated that it “will continue to support
efforts to improve the effectiveness of parliament”, but it needs to make firm
commitments to how this will be done over the 18 months remaining in this parliament.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee looks forward to the government’s
support as it pursues its work on making the legislature as effective as
In which our author underestimates the good vibrations in British Film
Week in Morocco, enjoys a good steel band, and rejoices in the grit of a
woman called Rabha. In Part Two he returns to the vexed question of language, concluding that the choice is between
isolation and opening up.
Instances of the Seventh Art
The last couple
of weeks have been an elongated British Film Week, with full programmes in
Marrakech and Rabat and a couple of very interesting events in Casablanca. As
Director of the British Council , I have the problem of wanting – but not being
able – to see all the films. I do, though get to see a few. This year I managed
the opening in Marrakech and both the rather special events in Casablanca.
opened with Glenn Leybourn’s Good Vibrations. I’ll admit that I set off
for the cinema with a certain resignation. My job takes me to some odd events,
and a film about punk rock in 1970s Belfast, watched in Marrakech, promised to
be one of the odder, and possibly less enjoyable, of them. I couldn’t have been
more wrong. It’s a magnificent film, quite gripping and carrying an important
message about the power of obstinate refusal to take sides in a polarized
central character is a splendidly stubborn alcoholic Ulsterman, Terri Hooley
(played by Richard Dormer), who ploughs and muddles his way through the
Troubles, through beatings and bombings, disasters and triumphs, with a
superb insouciance. He borrows money with spectacular optimism and opens a
record shop, called Good Vibrations, on a main street in central Belfast that
is a frequent target of the IRA (‘the most bombed half-mile in Europe’), and
progresses through alcohol-fuelled concerts, arguments and inspirations to
become the kingpin of Belfast punk. Never taking No for an answer (and seldom
taking Yes very easily), he promotes Belfast bands, organizes shoestring
concerts, tours the province in a beat-up camper van and records discs for
bands that he has discovered – discs and bands which are eventually fairly, but
generally not very, successful. Ultimately he organizes a triumphant,
epoch-marking concert at the enormous Unionist Hall which is a tremendous
success but loses money in shed-loads because of the number of free tickets he
has given out. He is rueful but delighted.
moments stand out particularly in my memory, from the film. The first is when
the camper van full of drunken Ulstermen with outlandish costumes and
multicoloured hair is stopped at night in the countryside at a British
roadblock, and a black squaddie interrogates them suspiciously as they stand
uncomfortably spread-eagled against the side of the van. Where are they from?
They name a bewildering variety of places, which immediately makes him
suspicious. Are they Catholic or Protestant? They don’t seem either concerned
or interested by the question or the answer. Both. Bemused by this bizarre
bunch, who defy all easy categorisation, he eventually lets them go on their
way, with a quizzical grin.
is after the credits at the very end of the film. We see on the screen the date
that the Good Vibrations record shop opened. And closed. And opened again. And
closed again. And opened … and so on, a tale of bloody-minded, obstinate
resilience that is very touching. The audience laughed and cheered at every
reopening date (and there were at least half a dozen). This is a story of the
triumph of a cussed, maddening, thoroughly imperfect but oddly attractive
individual over the malice and violence that deform society, simply through
refusing to take it too seriously.
A few days
later I found myself in Sidi Moumen, for a showing there of Nessim Abassi’s
film Majid. Sidi Moumen of course is the bidonville outside Casablanca
from which came most of the 2003 suicide bombers whose story is told in
fictionalised form by Mahi Binebine in Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen, and
by Nabil Ayouch in his film of Binebine’s novel, Les Chevaux de Dieu. It
has changed a lot since 2003. The appalling slum that Binebine described has
seen much government money pumped into housing, and much attention leading,
among other things, to a new cultural centre founded seven years ago by
Boubeker Mazouz, and another under way at the hands of Nabil Ayouch. It’s still
a pretty rough urban neighbourhood, but it could no longer act as itself when
Ayouch came to make the film, and he had to do much of the filming elsewhere,
in an unimproved shanty-town. The shacks have largely given way to concrete
apartments blocks, and Sidi Moumen has been absorbed into the city.
was screened at Boubeker Mazouz’s cultural centre, a bright, warm place which
has become a focus of community life after an initial period of deep suspicion.
The audience was welcomed with tea and cakes, and entertained by a very good
steel band which played with great gusto in the garden. As for the film, it
went down very well. We chose it because it is made in darija, and so is
accessible to an audience that speaks little French and virtually no English
(and can’t easily manage, because largely illiterate, even Arabic subtitles).
a film-maker with one foot in England (he studied at the Surrey Institute of
Art and Design and lives part of the year in London) and the other in
Mohammedia where the film begins. It is a picaresque tale, of a pair of small
street-boys who eke out a living selling cigarettes and cleaning shoes. One of
them – Majid – is determined to find a photograph of his dead parents, and sets
off with his companion, Larbi, to Casablanca to find some distant old friends
who may, just possibly, have a photo. The film is the story of the boys’
adventures on the way, and their eventual success, followed by an unexpectedly
happy outcome. Their adventures form a series of clever, linked, cameos,
with a raffish elder brother, a malignant policeman, an aggressive gang, a
dishonest taxi-driver, a generous blind man at the mosque, a demonic
drug-addict and so on. It is a simple and very effective story, seen from a
child’s point of view, with a structure that is hidden from its two small
heroes. The audience loved it: a film that is quite so accessible, in a
language that they all understand, cameos that they all recognize and with an
ending – emigration to Europe – that most want for themselves, it has instant
appeal. And it has instant appeal to me, and this on the second time of
Nessim has given the film a number of showings in
London aimed at raising funds for the boys’ - Brahim Al Bakali’s and
Lotfi Sabir’s – education. Like the characters they play in Majid,
they are poor, and from Mohammedia, and he has set about giving them a step up
in life. It’s a good story-in-a-film, and a good story-in-life.
and last film I saw at British Film Week was a documentary made by the British
film-maker Deborah Perkin, called Bastards. It follows
the stories of a number of women supported by the remarkable Casablanca women’s
charity Solidarité Féminine, in their quests to establish through the courts
the legitimacy – or if not the legitimacy, at least the paternity – of their
children. As Deborah puts it on the film’s website, “illegitimate children in
Morocco are outcasts, non-people, bastards … but recent legal reforms give
single mothers the right to register their children, either alone, or by
persuading the father to recognize the child in court. Registration on the
state birth register means access to education and health care, and a
respectable position in society.”
easy, but it’s possible, and although the situation has got a bit better since
the 2004 Moudawana reform, it is still a pretty dire fate to be the
mother of an illegitimate child in Morocco. “In the Arab world, it’s a
taboo to talk about the single mother, and in Morocco we are confronting
society and encouraging the mothers to stand up and say ‘I’m a mother and I’m
proud to take care of my baby.”’ says Aïcha Ech-Channa, president and founder
of Solidarité Féminine.
came over to show the film at Beni M’Sik’s Faculty of Letters, a notable centre
of film work, and there was a large, invitation-only audience for what was the
film’s first outing in Morocco. It tells the story of two women. One is a
rather splendid, loud and spirited woman called Fatiha, who spent many years as
the mistress of a married taxi-driver. He dumped her when she became pregnant,
leaving her with a small child and no roof or income, and her urgent quest is
to prove paternity and to extract some kind of support for herself and her
is a young woman called Rabha El-Haimer, who was married at 14 in a traditional
wedding in the presence of an imam – a wedding that was well-witnessed, but
left no documentary footprint, and was never registered. Rabha was sent off to
her husband’s family in Casablanca, abused and beaten and – once pregnant –
sent back to her own family in the country, as a reject, the marriage brusquely
denied. This left her and her daughter Salma as social outcasts, entirely
dependent on the goodwill of her family. Rabha sought help and found it in a
remarkable group of women running Solidarité Féminine; and they set about
assembling evidence, witnesses and statements, and taking her case to court.
We see her
going back and back to small town courtrooms where rough-and-ready and often
uncompromising but (if we can judge from the film) generally not unkindly
justice is administered. We see the unalloyed nastiness of her husband’s
family, her father-in-law spewing vicious insults to camera with carefree bile.
There are endless disappointments, procrastinations, lies and delays – but in
the end Rabha wins her case, and her daughter Salma is declared legitimate.
Fatiha wins her case too – DNA tests are quite clear about the taxi-driver’s
paternity – but at the time the film was finished she had still received no
financial support. And Rabha’s victory was being appealed in the Supreme Court.
ends with Rabha’s first appeal court victory. The cinema audience cheered and
clapped and rose to their feet in delight. A rather diffident Rabha, who had,
unknown to them, been sitting in the audience throughout the film, came up onto
the stage with Deborah and the film’s researcher, and Soumia Idman, the
splendid woman from Solidarité Féminine who had supported her case throughout.
They talked and answered questions, and the discussion went on long after I had
had to jump back into the car and head for Rabat. As I drove back up the
motorway I thought with admiration about the sheer grit of women like Rabha who
will stop at nothing to assert their children’s rights in a paternalistic and
frequently misogynistic society.
engrained this misogyny, and the prejudice against illegitimate children, are,
was sadly emphasized for me by what Fatiha the taxi-driver’s mistress had to
say bitterly about her former lover: “Bastard,” she repeated several times,
“he’s a bastard.”
The next night Deborah and Rabha, her enchanting
daughter Salma, and the film’s researcher all came to supper at our home in
Rabat. Rabha told us more of a very difficult but inspiring story. Salma
is at school at last, doing well; and her mother is learning to read. A more
ordinary, more charming little family – despite the difficult challenges they
still face – it is hard to imagine. But she is one of many: there are
apparently some 6,500 illegitimate babies born each year in Morocco, and each
little family faces a version of the same brick wall, and the same struggle to
This blog was first published on Mercurius
Maghrebensis in two parts, on November
23 and December
Of bald men and combs
interesting spat going on at the moment over language and education. Six weeks
ago there was an education conference in Casablanca called Le Chemin de la
Réussite. It was organized by the Zakoura Foundation, and had a fine
line-up of speakers and participants. It was an excellent event, as I can
clearly see from the report on the desk beside me (I was supposed to take part,
but sadly, in the end, couldn’t). It takes a strong line on language, making
very clear that the language question is vital to Morocco’s future: by
the 6th year of primary school only 6% of
pupils have mastered Arabic, and only 1% French. “The choice today,” says
the report, “is not between our language and those of the rest of the world,
but between isolation and opening up. And Morocco has made its choice: what
remains is only coherent implementation.”
controversial proposal (and it is controversial not because there is much doubt
about its correctness, but because it confronts a national shibboleth) is about
Arabic. The report recommends that children be taught in their mother tongues,
the Arabic or Berber colloquial dialects, in pre-school and elementary;
that darija be codified so as to link it coherently for teaching
purposes with classical Arabic, by establishing ‘passerelles,’ or linking
bridges; and that educational practice move smartly towards “a convergence
between spoken and written Arabic.” This is achingly obvious: no one in Morocco
speaks classical Arabic as a mother tongue (except, as Fouad Larbi wrily
observes, for Brazilian soap stars). And learning to read in a second language
is a high road to disaster.
Zakoura Foundation report indicates a sensible way to address the cataclysmic
illiteracy from which Morocco suffers. This seems pretty uncontentious –
it’s hard to doubt that Morocco’s dismal literacy levels are to do with
teaching darija-speaking and Berber-speaking children to read in a
language that is not their mother tongue. Arabic is often badly taught,
and the drop-out rate in the early years of public education is phenomenal,
with girls much more badly affected even than boys. Morocco’s scores in the
worldwide PIRLS test (2011) speak for themselves: out of 45 countries testing 4thgraders in
literacy, Morocco comes 45th; of the 4
levels of literacy assigned, only 21% of 4th graders
reach or pass the lowest (as against 95% for the international median).
Literacy is an absolute imperative, and classical Arabic doesn’t seem to
cut the mustard in the practical literacy department: diglossia, as this
double-language phenomenon is called, is the enemy of literacy, of development
and of cultural capital accumulation.
seems obvious to Noureddine Ayouch and the majority of academic linguists is
less obvious to politicians, and M Benkirane came out of his corner with gloves
up this week: Le Maroc continuera d’enseigner l’éducation islamique à ses
enfants et à les éduquer en arabe et ce jusqu’au jour du Jugement, said the
head of government. He was only one of many. There is a good account of this strange argument, by
Zuhair Mazouz on the Free Arabs website, which notes the reactions of
parliamentarians on both sides of the house. “In a surprising show of unity,”
he writes, “MPs from all sides of the political spectrum turned into conspiracy
theorists and accused Ayouch and (Minister of Education, Rachid) Belmokhtar of
attacking the cornerstone of Moroccan identity. Islamist MP Moqri Abouzayd went
as far as describing the proposal as an “imperialist attempt to destroy Islam.”
Across the ideological aisle, Socialist MP Rachida Benmassoud rendered the idea
“historically and scientifically irrelevant.”
it’s not for me to comment on religious education, but if Morocco’s children
are to be educated in Arabic until Doomsday, it seems probable that vast
numbers of them will remain functionally illiterate until Doomsday. This
is a high price to pay, individually and nationally, for ideological
literacy apart, the HoG’s remarks, as they touch on language, while undoubtedly
expressing a laudable cosmic commitment, don’t much make sense down in our sublunary
world of employment: of the unemployed graduates demonstrating outside
Parliament, 80% are evidently (Driss Gerraoui in the Observateur du Maroc
#235) from only five disciplines: chemistry, physics, biology, Arabic
Literature and Islamic Studies. So the elements of education that will be with
us till Doomsday seem also to be serious chômage-generators at the
therefore very sad to see the President of the Zakoura Foundation, Noureddine
Ayouch, put on the defensive by doctrinaire knee-jerk reactions. He was obliged
after the barrage of attacks against him to deny his supposed attack on Arabic:
“This is in no way a question of attacking the Arabic language, which must
retain a dominant rôle in education. Our official languages are Arabic and
Tamazight. ” But of course he sees clearly that it is only by adapting, by
seeking the convergence that the report describes, that Arabic will remain
supple enough, and education-friendly enough, to retain this rôle.
Paradoxically, it is the purists who will, over time, ensure that Arabic
becomes less and less relevant to Morocco’s future, by making of it a dead
language, like Latin.
Zakoura report is also very clear about employability: “Economic
pragmatism,” it says, “must steer the choice of languages for better
employability, better insertion into the world of work.” This means more, and
much better, teaching of foreign languages. “Enlarge the offer to the
international languages of the future’ – les langues internationales de
l’avenir – “Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin etc,” and above all “For better
insertion into the world of work, where English is predominant, English
must become the main language of scientific instruction,” and the disastrous
changeover from teaching scientific subjects in Arabic at school to teaching
them in French at university, must end.
this echoes remarks made by Lahcen Daoudi, the Minister of Higher Education,
last weekend: ““French is no longer the language of research…the language of
the world today is English … the student who doesn’t speak English is
illiterate,” he told a group of telecoms engineers. And what’s more, as
Mazouz puts it, “Fus’ha has no place in the job market.”
mustn’t make us English-speakers complacent. These remarks about Morocco and
language relate to a different but related debate going on in Great Britain,
and recently summed up in a very stimulating new report published by the
British Council, on Great Britain’s own take on les langues internationales
de l’avenir. Britain of course has its own problems with language,
notably a marked decline in the study of foreign languages caused by the
insularism of speaking “the language of the world today.” Take-up rates of
language degrees at British universities are in steep decline, and many
departments of languages are shrinking or closing. The report analyses this
decline and looks at the language requirements of international prosperity over
the coming decades. Using a list of factors, chiefly but not exclusively economic,
it ranks the ten languages that are likely to be most important to Britain’s
prosperity if we can persuade Britons to learn them.
notes David Graddol’s warning that the competitive advantage of English is
temporary, and will diminish – and that monolingual English-speakers face
longer term exclusion from multilingual environments and markets.
Multilingualism is the name of the future game – and it’s a game that Morocco
is perhaps better placed to play than Great Britain. A 2012 survey found British
schoolchildren to have the poorest foreign language skills of any country
taking part. 75% of British adults can’t have even a basic conversation in any
language other than English. And the authors’ conclusions are that
language-learning is a strategic necessity for a prosperous future. (In case
you were wondering, the ten most beneficial and important languages to learn
are Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian,
Turkish and Japanese. In that order: which means that Arabic is the second most
important world language for Britain’s future. What sort of Arabic? Ah … that’s
So it is
very important indeed that Morocco too think hard about its language future: as
many very thoughtful Moroccans like Noureddine Ayouch understand well,
prosperity depends on getting this right. English is vital, but not just
English, if Morocco is to achieve serious professional and labour mobility, a
strong place in the international research economy, growing FDI and the exploitation
of its extraordinarily advantageous geographical position on the very doorstep
of Europe. The thing that really needs to be hauled aboard is a lesson that the
British Council’s researchers know very well: second and third language choice
may be to an extent aesthetic and cultural, but it needs primarily to be driven
by economic criteria. These are hard-nosed and evidence-based. The polemics of
the last week in Morocco suggest that – alas – Morocco is not ready to think in
a hard-nosed, evidence-based way about language. I hope I’m wrong, and
that Ayouch is a harbinger of clearer thinking to come. If not, then Mazouz’s
concluding paragraph (from which I’ve already quoted) holds true:
relationship with languages is at the same time a cause and a consequence of
the deep socio-economic inequalities plaguing the country. Classical Arabic,
taught in school, is the language in which the regime addresses its subjects.
Yet Fus’ha has no place in the job market. French and English do. As a result,
the country’s political and financial elite (mostly loyal to the
Fus’ha-speaking regime) makes sure to instruct its offspring in foreign
languages. The social stratification in the country is also a linguistic one:
Darija for the masses, French and English for the elite, and Fus’ha for the
state apparatus. It is then easy to understand the fierce resistance of the
political class to any attempts at officializing Darija: a citizenry confident
in its identity is more difficult to govern.
But I hope
that the Zakoura report’s much more upbeat comment is right: “The choice today
is not between our language and those of the rest of the world, but between
isolation and opening up. And Morocco has made its choice: what remains is only
Nine ordinary Ukrainians – ‘The Nine’– are currently sitting in jail in Kyiv. They were part of a peaceful protest near the Presidential Administration building; they paid for this with their health and their freedom.
At the office of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, employees – prosecutors,
assistants and secretaries – step cautiously over human bodies to get in to
work. The bodies are alive, lying on the frozen ground in protest at the
imprisonment of innocent people – ‘The Nine’; and calling on the Ukrainian
Prosecutor General, Viktor Pshonka, to set them free.
A short while ago, these detainees were ordinary, peaceful people. They
didn't know each other, they had had no problems with the law, and they worked
in a variety of jobs. They include a journalist, a long-distance lorry driver,
a manager, a sales assistant, a student, a photographer, an architect and an
engineer. They are from different parts of Ukraine, and had come to Kyiv for
the peaceful Popular Assembly (the Veche) on December 1st. Now they are united in imprisonment, accused
of organising mass public disturbances near the Presidential Administration on
Nikolay Lazerevsky was kicked in the head and left unconscious. Video also shows his wallet being stolen as he lay bleeding.
When the demonstration was broken up, these nine unfortunates were arrested
and brutally beaten by the Berkut [‘Golden
Eagle’], the Interior Ministry Special Forces. They are all badly bruised, with
broken bones; some have concussion.
Instead of meting out punishment to the Berkut, the authorities used the courts to arrest the protestors.
Instead of meting out punishment to the Berkut, the authorities used the
courts to arrest the protesters and hold them in pre-trial detention. Seven of
the arrested remain in hospital; and another two are in police investigation
cells. If they are found guilty, the
prisoners of Bankova Street (where the Presidential Administration is located)
face prison sentences of between five and eight years.
The night of November 29th and
the day of December 1st have already been called the bloodiest in contemporary
Ukrainian history. First, the Berkut beat up, and then cleared, the students and
activists from Maidan [Independence Square], protesting at the about-turn on
the Association Agreement with the EU.This violence was followed by a planned
act of police provocation, and an even more violent clearing of the square,
with arrests of the protesters on Bankova Street. The real instigators ran away,
and innocent people, who had come to the Presidential Administration to make
their civic feelings known and protest against the bloody dispersal of the demonstrators
in Maidan, were arrested.
Immediately after they were arrested, these nine people were beaten with
heavy boots and truncheons so violently that many of them passed out. They were
kept for several hours on the icy asphalt. Some of the Berkut 'warriors' then
had their pictures taken with their victims, who had lost consciousness.
This all took place in the courtyard of the Presidential Administration,
the office of the head of state and guarantor of the Constitution; and emerged
only by chance when Vladimir Tishchenko, a journalist, filmed the beatings, and
posted it on the Internet.
Jana Stepanko explains how her fiancé was beaten by the Berkut. Video includes graphic footage of police abusing protesters.
This all took place in the courtyard of the Presidential Administration.
When the arrests became common knowledge, people watched the broadcast video,
and picked out the faces of their relatives. 'Can you imagine what I went
through?' asked Marina, wife of Alexander Ostashenko, a family man and
engineer, father of a five-year old daughter.
The video showed Ostashenko being beaten up; as the Berkut ran towards
him, he put his hands up and stood still; a Berkut officer then kicked an
apparently lifeless Alexander, to see if he was still alive. His wife told me
that he has concussion, two broken fingers, a bruised ribcage and haematomas
all over his body.
In the hours immediately following the attack on Maidan, the family and
friends of those who had been arrested were in despair – the detainees couldn't
be reached by mobile phone; it subsequently emerged that many of their mobiles
had been stolen or destroyed. It was near midnight by the time they were
allowed to inform their families where they were; and nothing more.
Jana Stepanko found her fiancé Nikolay Lazarevsky, on the video. She saw him being
kicked in the face, as he raised his hands to shield himself from the blows. The
video also showed his wallet being stolen. He now has concussion, open wounds
on his head, a broken nose and hematomas all over his body. 'His head is
stitched up from the top to the neck. He's in constant pain and there are no
painkillers. His hands are also very painful.'
Every one of those detained has a similar collection of injuries.
Every one of those detained has a similar collection of injuries. Gennady
Cherevko, for instance, was knocked off his feet and beaten so badly that
his right arm is broken, and he has cuts to his head.
Yegor Previr drifts in and out of consciousness
after his treatment at the hands of the Berkut. He wasn't only beaten, but
stripped of his clothes and made to lie on the asphalt. If he made the
slightest attempt to move, they stamped up and down on his frozen and
shuddering body. He only received medical attention, the morning of the next
day. He has cerebro-cranial injuries, a broken nose and a dislocated jaw. He lay
for five days in his blood-soaked clothes, until his lawyer insisted that he be
given a chance to change them.
Vladislav Zagorovko is a long-distance
lorry driver, and father of three little girls. He has suspected retinal
dissection, because he has fragments of a stun grenade in his eye. He couldn't
see, so was unable to get away. He fell into the hands of the Berkut, was made
to kneel down and viciously beaten. It
was only the intervention of an official working for a human rights organisation
that got him taken to the Institute of Ocular Microsurgery. If he doesn't have
an operation, he will go blind, but for the moment the inflammation in his eye
is so bad that the doctors must wait.
Yury Bolotov, ex-manager of the famous Ukrainian group 'Ocean Elsi', was not part of the protests on Bankova.
Yury Bolotov, ex-manager of the famous Ukrainian
group 'Ocean Elsi', was not part of the protests on Bankova. He had agreed to
meet a friend not far from the Presidential Administration, and was waiting for
him. Berkut officers ran up to him, so he put his hands up. They asked him who he was, and he replied
that he was a local, from Kyiv. He was knocked off his feet and dragged along
the whole street into the courtyard of the Presidential Administration, where
he was beaten. He has many soft-tissue injuries, his back is one huge bruise;
and his elbows and knees are battered.
Yury Bolotov was not part of the protests. He had been waiting for a friend when he was approached by members of the Berkut, who proceeded to beat him.
Witnesses to the truth
The nine victims of Berkut violence could go to prison for anything from
five to eight years. It is clearly of no interest to anyone in authority in
Ukraine that ‘the Nine’ are civilians with no previous connections to any
radical groups. They all have homes, jobs; ,and many of them had not been in
Euromaidan before. They were demonstrably protesting peacefully, and yet
Justice Minister Yelena Lukash has stated that the government will be meting
out punishment to all those people who, 'beat up Berkut officers with such
It is clearly of no interest to anyone in authority in Ukraine that ‘the Nine’ are civilians with no previous connections to any radical groups.
Witnesses to the truth, however, are under pressure. A doctor from the
Accident and Emergency Hospital, where six of the detainees are being treated, has
just been sacked. Attempts were made to force the doctor to sign a document,
which would have allowed the Bankova victims to be transferred to a pre-trial
The only hope that justice will be done is an appeal: friends, family
and colleagues of the nine detainees are collecting references and evidence of
their innocence. ‘There may have been tears and hysterics after the arrests,
but now the court decision has made us realise that tears are not enough – we
have to fight. RELEASE YAROSLAV!’ shouts Katerina Belogradova, girlfriend of Yaroslav
Ordinary people are doing what they can too: there is a special Facebook
page where breaking news is posted; and money is being collected for the
families. Many of those under arrest were the breadwinners. Lorry-drive
Zagorovko with his three daughters, for instance.
Not very appealing
The court will now consider the first appeal, against the unlawful
arrest of Valery Garagutsy. He himself was not brought in to the court
room: his lawyers asked for a videoconference, something that is allowed under
the new Criminal Procedural Code, but the court was unable to organise it, and
refused to consider the case without the accused. The judge adjourned the case,
initially to December 17th, but those
present in the court made such a fuss that the date was brought forward to December
13th. There are several more appeals coming up soon, but they will in all
probability be given similar treatment.
On the morning of December 3rd, three of the accused (Lazarevsky,
Pritulenko and Zagorovko) were searched. Public attention is so focused on this
case that the searches passed off with almost no procedural violations. Nothing unlawful was found on the accused.
They are handcuffed to radiators, as if they were violent criminals and repeat offenders.
Lawyers for ‘the Nine,’ say that their clients, who were beaten almost
to death by the Berkut, are brought to meetings with them in a hall, where they
are handcuffed to radiators, as if they were violent criminals and repeat
offenders. These innocent people are being framed for a very serious crime, but
not one Berkut officer (all easily identifiable from the video) has been
stood down from his duties, and certainly not detained or arrested, though
there is plenty of evidence that they exceeded their authority.
In Ukraine, being in the wrong place at the wrong time has become
If only the politicians and journalists would try to understand a bit
more not only the lives of Roma migrants, but also the poverty conditions and
structural inequalities in which so many different groups of people live in
‘They are noisy and always hang
out on the streets,’ says one of the local men. They loiter in male-only
groups, whistle and make lewd remarks at women. They like to sing their songs
loudly together and consume a lot of alcohol. Some locals find their behaviour
intimidating. One local woman says: ‘It used to be a quiet street and we’ve
never had problems. But now, ever since they’ve started to arrive, we can’t
sleep. They are shouting outside and urinating just next to our doors.’ The
same groups often end their nights out by visiting brothels. They have sex with
local girls and with prostitutes from abroad. Some of these girls are part of a
growing sex industry and women trafficking networks. Some of the locals they
say it is becoming ‘unbearable.’
Does this rhetoric sound all too
familiar to you? Who are these people and where do these scenes take place? And
is it ‘their culture,’ which makes them behave in this way? And, if so, should
we challenge them to change their behaviour and culture in order to make them
more ‘sensitive to the way life is lived’ in Britain (Nick Clegg), or else face the
prospects of a social ‘explosion’ (David Blunkett)?
The anonymity of the places and
people is intentional here. The above quoted words have all appeared in British
media in recent weeks. Various politicians use them. A moral paranoia, fuelled
with anti-Gypsy sentiments, is concerned at the prospective impact central and
eastern European Roma might have on their local communities, suggesting that
the situation might explode into ‘riots.’ We heard the same inflammatory
rhetoric about hordes of Gypsies ready to descend on us as we heard prior to
the admission of the Czech Republic and Slovakia into the EU in 2004. In
reality, these worries have never materialised.
But the worries I started with did
not actually concern British neighbourhoods and its main protagonists are not
Roma or eastern European migrants. I found them on the streets of Prague and
the culprits are ‘British lads on the tour’. The number of British tourists in
central eastern European cities has grown rapidly in recent years due to cheap
low-cost airline flights, cheap beer and the availability of other ingredients
crucial for ‘adventurous’ trips. And yet, despite the concerns of some of the
locals about the behaviour of British tourists, I have never heard predictions
of racial tension, riot, or networks of criminals implicated in trafficking. I
have never seen a single British tourist at stag parties being asked ‘to be
sensitive to the way life is lived’ in the Czech Republic. I have never heard
any politicians alleging that the behaviour of British tourists is part of
‘their culture’ or that they are complicit in trafficking by having sex with
underage girls in night clubs. Although I have seen many stag parties and
university students on tour spending most of their time partying, I have also
met other Brits who came to explore history, literature and architecture, or
just moved there for work.
When I travel to central eastern
Europe on one of the early low-cost flights, I often witness stag parties that
have already started their celebrations on board (if not the night before).
People can view this behaviour with a level of sympathy and tolerance. It is
only ‘young lads having fun,’ I am told, despite their frequent sexism towards
the air hostesses. Others, however, complain about what they consider offensive,
intimidating and anti-social behaviour. Similarly, some of my Czech and Slovak
Roma friends in Britain are upset by how some families throw away garbage, or
are noisy on the streets. Others comment that young lads hanging out on streets
and singing together are harmlessly entertaining themselves in places
where there is otherwise ‘nothing to do’ and ‘nowhere to go.’ Given their
usually miserable income from exploitative jobs, they cannot afford to go out
or to rent apartments for themselves. Instead, they share accommodation with
their extended families.
From the many years I have been
living and working with Roma in Slovakia and Britain I know that many of them
are very much aware of other people throwing their garbage on the streets.
Those who do it, however, come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of them are
Roma, some white British, some of South Asian origins and other groups. My Roma
friends made me aware of the differences within these groups, as much as of their
concern at always being lumped together and stigmatised by various outsiders.
Nothing can summarise this better than a remark made frequently by Roma
migrants whenever any kind incident involving a Roma occurs: ‘And now they will
blame all the Gypsies again.’ Roma are used to this type of stereotypical
labelling from outsiders.
When it comes to Roma, many
journalists and politicians have no problem engaging in sensationalist scaremongering.
They lump them together by circumscribing them into ‘problem’ spaces in a
rhetoric of cultural racism. One might add that this is nothing new. Roma/Gypsy
groups have no powerful state or institutions defending them against such
accusations. They have historically always been deployed as the internal Others
of Europe, in which majorities can project the ‘folk devil’ category without
fear of repercussion. Many times in history we have seen how such ‘witch hunts’
nourished by media and politicians have turned into violent crimes committed
against those labelled as ‘Gypsies.’
One of the main differences in the
perception of British tourists and Roma/Gypsies lies in the lenses we put on.
While British tourists are seen as ‘desirable’ because of their potential
economic impact for local entrepreneurs, Roma are never ‘welcomed’ and their alleged
‘negative’ difference is foregrounded. Yet, the Roma I have got to know over
the course of many years adapt quickly to different facets of British social
life and ‘culture.’ For those who might feel the need to measure their
‘integration’ on an imagined scale of ‘culture’, they dress like many other
ordinary British working class people, proudly support British football teams
and wear their jerseys with pride, they eat the same fish and chips, and their
children pick up a thick local accents in their English.
Most of the Roma migrants I know
work in the UK and contribute to the British economy. They often work at the
bottom of the labour market and are employed through exploitative job agencies
or without paperwork. Some spend long night shifts working at packing chickens
so that you can enjoy eating these. All this, of course, is not specific to
Roma migrants. Migrants’ exploitative labour conditions and inclusion in
economic production process remain invisible to the public. We never read about
this in the news. Instead of seeing these aspects of their lives, we hear about
alleged ‘problems,’ about their ‘criminality,’ their ‘noise,’ or ‘anti-social
A long time ago, George Orwell
wrote that ‘The worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them’. He
argued that a language should be seen as ‘an instrument for expressing and not
for concealing or preventing thought,’ and suggested: ‘let the meaning choose
the word, and not the other way about.’ With few exceptions the complicity
between media and politicians evidences different forms of surrendering to
various words. These words are not only concealing and preventing thought, but
also distorting and worsening the lived realities of people. Words have the
power to do things. Racialising and stigmatising categories only contribute to
the making of problems and misinform the perceptions of ordinary people. It
does not take much for overspill to occur from the epidemic violence of words
spreading moral paranoia, to various forms of physical violence targeting those
singled out as ‘different’ or as those who are seen as not ‘willing to adapt.’
It is shocking that someone with
no understandings and knowledge of Roma groups and others living in these areas
of urban poverty, can tell us that they need ‘to change their culture’ or
become ‘more sensitive to the way life is lived in England.’ These words come
from people whose lives are ‘culturally’ and ‘socially’ miles apart from the
lives of Roma migrants but also of ordinary British poor people. If only the
politicians and journalists would try to understand a bit more not only the
lives of Roma migrants, but also the poverty conditions and structural
inequalities in which so many different groups of people live in Britain today.
They would be able to see that the problems faced by Roma migrants and the
other locals living in the areas described as ‘problematic’ stem less from some
kind of alleged ‘cultural differences’ and much more from the increasing
vulnerability, structural inequalities, and swathes cut into state services for
the poor. The recent frenzy of scaremongering deepens antagonisms between
various people living in deprived urban areas. Buying into the cheap populist
rhetoric might dominate public debates and might even buy politicians some
political support, but it should not mask their own complicity in the growing
sense of abandonment among the poor, migrants and British alike.