Thursday 23 December 2010

23 December 2010

If I were Time magazine, I wouldn’t have named Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as 2010’s Man of the Year. I’d have named Mother Nature.

Well, not Man of the Year, obviously. Maybe Force of the Year. And there are at least five reasons why.

The Haiti earthquake (January). The Icelandic volcano (April). The Pakistan floods (July). The Chile mine disaster (August). The snow in northern Europe (December).

Even as I write these words, there are reports of violent storms lashing California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Los Angeles has received half its annual rainfall in the past six days. So maybe make that six reasons.

Sorry, but if we’re looking for who – or what – has had the biggest impact on our world over the past year, I think Mother Nature beats Facebook by a mile.

And, since this is nearly the end of the year, and traditionally the time when we look back and try to make some sense of the past 12 months, well, my suggestion for Word of the Year is humility.

Humility in the sense that we have been reminded time and again that, much as we might like to think otherwise, we are not Lords of the Universe. We can blog, and tweet, and Facebook to our hearts’ content, but we cannot stop the earth quaking, nor the volcanoes erupting.

I am, by nature, an optimist. I think that, by and large, the world is a better place than it was. Fewer women die in childbirth, fewer children die before the age of five, more people live in relative comfort.

But I also like to think that I’m a realist. I understand that there is still much about this planet we live on that we do not understand. I concede that we have only limited powers to change the course of events. And I acknowledge that every day brings with it the potential to change everything.

I think of the people of Haiti, and of Pakistan, and the miners’ families in Chile. And I marvel at how obsessed we sometimes become by the tittle-tattle of the Westminster village, or the diplo-babble of the latest international summit.

So my cracked and highly unreliable crystal ball stays in the back of the cupboard this year. The predictions I made a year ago were largely rubbish; I was wrong on nearly everything. Humility starts at home.

Instead of predictions, here are some reasons to be hopeful about the future. The American economist Charles Kenny calls the first decade of the 21st century “humanity's finest, a time when more people lived better, longer, more peaceful, and more prosperous lives than ever before. “

Consider these facts, he says: in 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than a dollar a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 percent -- and it will be lower still by the close of 2010.

Some 1.3 billion people now live on more than $10 a day, suggesting the continued expansion of the global middle class. Even better news is that growth has been faster in poor places like sub-Saharan Africa than across the world as a whole.

We're also winning the global battle against infectious diseases. Between 1999 and 2005, thanks to the spread of vaccinations, the number of children who died annually from measles dropped 60 percent. The proportion of the world's infants vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus has climbed from less than half to 82 percent between 1985 and 2008.

I have no doubt that during 2011 we’ll be bringing you plenty more stories of death, mayhem and destruction. But I just wanted to remind you that there’s more to life than headlines. (Incidentally, on New Year’s Eve, we’ll be broadcasting a special programme about the revolution in African farming, and asking whether Africa is now on the brink of not only being able to feed its own people, but maybe the rest of us as well.)

As I say at this time every year: enjoy the company of your family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings.

I’ll be taking a few days off now, so no blogging until 7 January.

Have a happy and peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and fulfilling New Year.

Friday 10 December 2010

10 December 2010

A thought occurred to me as I was watching the pictures yesterday of the student demonstrations in central London. Might this kind of mass street protest soon be regarded as, well, so last century?

After all, look at the internet activists who call themselves simply Anonymous, and who have been creating all kinds of online mayhem this week for some of the world’s biggest internet payment operations (Visa, Mastercard, PayPal). Aren’t they somehow more in tune with this new webby age we live in?

What we saw on the streets of London yesterday was pretty much exactly the same as what students were doing when I was at university in the protest-heaven days of the late 1960s.

What the internet activists are up to, on the other hand – organising mass computer attacks on carefully chosen targets – well, that’s something genuinely new.

There are, of course, endless ways of protesting against things you object to. Until the dawning of the internet age, the best way to show how many people opposed a particular policy or a particular course of action was to bring them out on to the streets.

Now, you simply connect up all their computers and jam your target’s web operations. Not so effective as a way of getting coverage on the TV news, perhaps, but every bit as effective as a way of making your objections known to your target.

I’m not in the business of telling protesters how to go about their business, but it is possible to imagine, isn’t it, a student movement of the future organising a mass web attack on, say, a university website, or a government website.

It is also possible to imagine that the action taken against WikiLeaks this week is likely to become the revenge attack of choice for targetted authorities. Deny your attackers server space; pressure their bankers, their payments operators; disable their social network sites so that they can no longer be used to pass messages between their supporters.

I wonder if perhaps the whole WikiLeaks episode does mark the beginning of a new era of online activism. Some people are already calling it the first cyber-war. Maybe that’s overdoing it, but I think some new battle lines are being drawn.

WikiLeaks fired the first shots by publishing their leaked material online. There was nothing all that revolutionary about what they did – it was simply an internet-age version of what the New York Times did back in 1971 when it published the Pentagon Papers (a secret US government history of US involvement in Vietnam which showed that successive administrations had been less than candid about what they were up to in south-east Asia).

Or you may remember Spycatcher, the colourful insider account of alleged MI5 skullduggery by Peter Wright, published in the mid-1980s despite the strenuous objections of the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Leaking government secrets is a time-honoured form of journalism. (In fact, one definition of news is: “Something that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to print. Everything else is advertising.”)

What’s new about WikiLeaks is, first, the sheer volume of the material they’ve got their hands on; and, two, the way governments have responded and supporters have retaliated.

It’s openly acknowledged that Washington has been encouraging companies that do business with WikiLeaks to suspend all cooperation. Server space has been withdrawn; payments companies have frozen accounts. And the pro-WikiLeak internet activists have gone into battle in response.

You could, if you wished, think of the US government – any government, in fact – as an elephant, under attack by a fearsome swarm of thousands of stinging insects. The elephant is, of course, much bigger and stronger than the insects, but if there are enough of the insects, and if their sting is painful enough, then the elephant will be in real trouble. The internet activists are the insects.

So perhaps what we’re witnessing is the beginning of a new battle for control of the dissemination of information. Internet enthusiasts like to claim that the web is beyond any authority’s control, that it is a genuinely open space, available to every stinging insect on earth.

But someone, somewhere, provides the infrastructure that enables the internet to function. And it’s that infrastructure which seems still to be vulnerable to government pressure.

So, notwithstanding the hacktivists, as the internet warriors like to call themselves, perhaps there is still a future for mass street protests. After all, as we saw yesterday, the police can’t control all the streets all the time.

By the way, you may remember that a couple of weeks ago, when I was in China, I asked on this blog if China is now “throwing its weight around, becoming more assertive, even more aggressive as its economic power increases?”

Well, here’s an answer (an answer, not the answer) from the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, as quoted in a WikiLeaks cable dated February of this year from the US consul-general in Lagos: “China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals.”

Friday 3 December 2010

3 December 2010

I’ve been doing some heavy duty eavesdropping this week, eavesdropping on what were meant to be private conversations between American diplomats.

In other words, I’ve been reading the Wikileaks files, hundreds and hundreds of supposedly secret missives, sent to Washington from US embassies around the world in order to inform the policy-makers back home.

And, perhaps oddly, I’ve been thinking of Robert Burns. You may be familiar with the lines: “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as others see us!”

(They come from a poem called “To A Louse”, which may be appropriate given how some US officials have been talking of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange.)

But why Burns? Well, if you’re Kim Jong Il of North Korea, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, or President Sarkozy of France, or Silvio Berlusconi, or Vladimir Putin – yes, even if you’re David Cameron or Gordon Brown – you can now, thanks to Wikileaks, see yourself as others see you. Or at least, as US diplomats see you.

It won’t come as a great surprise to Kim Jong Il that the Chinese are not all that enamoured of him. Nor will President Ahmadinejad be deeply shocked to discover that he’s not flavour of the month in Riyadh.

But to see it written down, to read in black and white what’s being said about you behind your back – well, that must be a bit of a blow.

Still, I think we need to retain a sense of scepticism. Just because something is said in a document marked “Secret” doesn’t always mean it’s the Gospel truth. (And remember, these particular documents were so secret that they were available to something like three million US government employees.)

Take, for example, one of the more interesting disclosures – that China is apparently prepared to countenance the idea of a reunified Korea under South Korean rule.

Says who, you may ask. And it turns out that the source for this little nugget is a senior South Korean official, talking to a US ambassador, about what he believes Chinese officials “would be comfortable with.” I know plenty of journalists who would think long and hard about going into print with that kind of flimsy sourcing.

So what about the description of the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as “exceptionally dangerous”? The quote comes, in fact, from an unnamed “high-ranking [Turkish] government adviser” – and we all know about the perils of relying on unnamed advisers as sources.

I’m not suggesting that this vast document dump is uninteresting. Far from it. It shines an unprecedented bright light into corners where normally very little light shines at all. The sensation you get reading the documents is rather like what a child feels, ear pressed to the key-hole, listening to the adults talking on the other side of the door. It’s not so much what they’re saying that’s exciting, it’s that they have no idea we’re listening.

Much of what I’ve read so far confirms what was already pretty well known. The Gulf states are deeply distrustful of Iran; corruption and organised crime are a major problem in Russia; Gordon Brown wasn’t much good at being prime minister.

Embarrassing for some of the diplomats who wrote these missives? Of course. Unwelcome to the sources quoted in them? Undoubtedly.

But deeply damaging to US interests? Here’s the verdict from the US defence secretary Robert Gates, who as a former director of central intelligence presumably knows plenty of real secrets:

“Every other government in the world knows that the US government leaks like a sieve … Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for US foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

Friday 26 November 2010

26 November 2010

BEIJING -- There’s a saying – I think – that you should sometimes try standing in another man’s shoes, so that you can experience what it feels like to be someone else.

For the past several days, I’ve been here in Beijing, standing (metaphorically) in Chinese shoes, trying to look at the world through China’s eyes. (You can hear a fascinating discussion about this on tonight’s – Friday’s – programme, or via the website.)

Think of China as a 17-year-old, said one Chinese academic on our panel. Nearly adult, but not quite ready yet to shoulder all of an adult’s responsibilities. Whenever things go wrong (climate change, for example), the first reaction is along the lines of “Why should I clear up the mess? It’s not my fault.”

Just about everyone I spoke to made the same point: Yes, China understands that with its ever-growing prosperity come ever-growing responsibilites -- but its over-riding responsibilities are to its own people, and it’s not going to bow to foreign pressure just to keep Washington or London happy.

Take the exchange rate, for example. The renminbi is far too cheap against the dollar, says Washington. It gives China’s exporters an unfair advantage, and contributes to a dangerous imbalance in global trade. (In a nut-shell, China exports too much, and imports too little.)

OK, says China. What would happen if we revalued the currency? We’d lose valuable export orders, and tens of millions of Chinese workers would lose their jobs. Not a good idea. True, China could do more to encourage domestic demand to take up at least some of the slack -- but seen from here, that’s already being done.

Standing in China’s shoes – or seeing the world through China’s eyes – you begin to understand why its leaders are so single-minded in their pursuit of economic growth and domestic stability. This is a country which less than 100 years ago was weak, divided and at war with itself – which helps to explain why it prizes stability almost above all else.

But our panellists acknowledged that sometimes it perhaps fails to appreciate quite how intimidating it can look, especially to its neighbours. We’re like an elephant, they said, but perhaps we should try harder to look like a friendly elephant.

You probably won’t need reminding of the numbers: the biggest population of any country on earth – 1.3 billion and growing; the second biggest economy, having overtaken Japan and now catching up with the United States. Plus, it’s now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

So what does China want from the rest of the world? More patience, perhaps, and more understanding of its own domestic needs. A realisation that yes, it’s now a massive global economic presence, yet it’s still in many ways a developing nation which needs to invest huge amounts in basic infrastructure.

Is it throwing its weight around, becoming more assertive, even more aggressive as its economic power increases? More assertive, yes, because it sees its own interests threatened by the demands being made on it from outside. More aggressive, no – this is not a country that goes to war against its neighbours (we’ll leave the Tibet discussion for another day.)

When we came to discuss this week’s sharp rise in tensions on the Korean peninsula, after the two Koreas exchanged artillery barrages and four South Koreans were killed, the expert view was that Beijing’s influence over its North Korean ally is probably less than many Western governments believe. The priority for China, they said, is to keep the lid on things – the last thing they want here is a military conflagration on their doorstep or the total collapse of North Korea.

For much of the past 30 years, China has opted for a quiet life in international affairs whenever possible. Its leaders understand now that they need to engage more than they used to – but I have the impression that they’d much rather be left alone.

After all, they have more than enough challenges of their own to deal with, and even though they don’t face the prospect of being voted out of office, they still know that they need to respond to public pressure. And you only have to look at some of the online chat-rooms (not an entirely free debating forum, of course) to see that much of the pressure is for a tougher foreign policy, not a more emollient one.

You may be wondering why I haven’t touched on human rights, or democracy, or the fate of the jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. They are all important issues, but our task this week was to focus on China’s foreign policy and its relationship with the rest of the world. We’ll look at domestic policy on other occasions.

Friday 19 November 2010

17 November 2010

Just about everyone else has had their say about The Wedding – so I don’t see why I shouldn’t as well.

What interests me, though, is not really what kind of dress The Bride will wear – or even where they choose to go on their honeymoon. No, what interests me is why it interests us.

Here are some suggestions.

First, in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation, the royal family remain something that unites us. Love them or loathe them, they provide us with (i) a head of state, and (ii) endless fascination.

Second, if we are, biologically speaking, pack animals – in other words, if in our natural habitat we are programmed to form close-knit groups around a single leader – then the identity of that leader is of obvious significance. (And, given that Prince Wills is the next Annointed Pack Leader but one, it follows that whom he chooses as his mate is important, since they will together, all being well, in time produce another future Annointed Pack Leader.)

And third, we live in an age that celebrates celebrity. And thanks to Prince Diana, the royal family are now A List celebs, guaranteed to sell magazines every time they feature on the cover. Which applies not just in the UK, but from what I can gather by trawling global media websites, just about everywhere else as well.

The US media, for example, in a nation that was founded largely in order to rid itself of royalty, were far more interested in Prince William’s engagement than in the fact, announced the same day, that the UK government has agreed to pay millions of pounds in compensation to British citizens who were detained at Guantanamo. Strange, you might think, but true.

It is impossible to resist the temptation to refer back to the last fairy-tale royal wedding – of William’s parents, Charles and Diana, in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981. Impossible, if for no other reason, because he chose to present his fiancée with his late mother’s engagement ring. And, being the size it was, you couldn’t exactly fail to notice.

Then, in their first TV interview together, he came out with what I thought was a tellingly poignant answer when he was asked why he had waited so long to pop the question -- “I wanted to give her a chance to back out if she needed to before it all got too much. I'm trying to learn from the lessons of the past.”

From which, surely, we must deduce that he believes that if his mother had been given a similar chance, she would have backed out. That must be a hard lesson for a son to learn. (Remember, Diana was just 19 when she got engaged; Kate Middleton is 28.)

Soap opera? Of course. But maybe that’s part of their job. For as long as there have been newspapers, the doings of the royals have been staple fare. For better or for worse, we feast on them, just as we do on Susan Boyle, David Beckham, or any other celebrity.

I don’t say it necessarily matters very much – but I do think it’s interesting. Don’t you?

A word about next week: I’m going to be in China to report on how it sees its role as an emerging global power. So do try to tune in on Thursday, and again on Friday for a special programme that we’re recording in Beijing with a panel of Chinese foreign policy experts and an invited audience at Tsinghua University.

Friday 12 November 2010

12 November 2010

What do you think is the real reason why David Cameron was in China this week?

I’ll give you a clue: he took nearly 50 British business people with him. So yes, just like President Obama a year ago, President Sarkozy in April, and Chancellor Merkel in July, he was knocking on Beijing’s door and asking: “Scuse me, would you like to buy anything?”

World leaders sometimes give the impression that they see only two things when they stare at China on a map: lots and lots of people, and lots and lots of money.

Some critics find this unedifying. Shouldn’t world leaders have better things to do than hop on a plane to China and plead for a bit of business? Well, it may be unedifying, but let’s just look at some numbers.

When Angela Merkel was in Beijing, Germany signed 10 commercial agreements worth more than $4 billion. The biggest slice of the action went to Siemens, which came away with a research and development deal worth $3.5 billion to provide steam and gas turbines.

Which helps to explain why Germany is still by far China’s biggest trading partner in Europe. After all, they’re both major exporting nations, so it’s little wonder that they sell plenty of goodies to each other.

It also provides some useful context for this week’s announcement that Rolls Royce have secured a deal worth $1.2 billion to provide engines for China Eastern Airlines’ fleet of Airbus A330s. Not to be sniffed at, by any means, but not yet on a par with Germany.

Selling stuff to China means jobs back home. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? And in these days of sluggish economies and high unemployment, aren’t jobs back home something we want our political leaders to concentrate on?

Perhaps there’s even a link between Mr Cameron’s trip to China and the overhaul of the welfare system that the government announced yesterday. If hundreds of thousands of people are to come off benefits and find real jobs in the real economy, well, those jobs will have to come from somewhere. And if some of them, directly or indirectly, are the result of deals struck in Beijing, I suspect there’ll be few complaints.

So what are we to make of the prime minister’s almost ritualistic remarks about China’s iffy human rights record? He knew, as do all visiting Western leaders, that he had to say something; but he also knew that if he wanted Chinese signatures on those contracts, he couldn’t overdo it.

The words may change from visitor to visitor, but the basic message is always the same: “We really think it would be a good idea if you loosened up a bit, allowed a bit more criticism, perhaps even permitted someone to challenge the Communist party.”

Or, as David Cameron put it: “The best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.”

I wonder how that sounds if you’re a successful Chinese businessman. Lessons in how to create prosperity, from a Europe struggling to emerge from recession? Talk of stability from the Europe of mass French pensions protests and British tuition fees demos?

One Chinese official was quoted this morning as asking, in the context of the G20 talks on global trade imbalances: “Why do you say we should take the medicine if you’re the ones who are sick?”

China is well aware of its economic strength these days. And it’s increasingly prepared to use that strength to bolster its security objectives. Just ask some of its neighbours, like Japan or South Korea, how they feel about China’s growing international confidence. You’ll get some very nervous looks.

I’ll have more to say about China in a couple of weeks’ time, for reasons that will soon become clear.

Thursday 4 November 2010

5 November 2010

If you’ve ever been the parent of a small child, you will probably remember those moments when, in a fury of disappointment, it puckered up its little face and screamed: “But you promised!”

You probably explained that people can’t always have everything they want, and that sometimes they have to learn to wait. And then you waited for the response.

“I HATE you.”

I mean no disrespect to American voters when I say that I have been thinking back to my days as the parent of toddlers in the aftermath of the mid-term elections this week. I’m not saying that American voters behaved like children, but after all those uplifting campaign promises of just two years ago – remember Yes, We Can, and Change You Can Believe In – well, is it surprising that millions of them are angry?

One of America’s great strengths, it has always seemed to me, is that its people are eternal optimists. They are convinced that one day, with luck and hard work, they will be rich; that the rest of the world will learn to love the American way of life; and that yes, there is no greater good fortune than to be able to say “I am an American.”

The flip-side of this is that they are impatient. Two years ago, a persuasive Barack Obama promised them better times ahead – and many of them believed him. Instead, they see unemployment levels still high and government spending growing.

President Obama now seems to recognise that he should have been clearer about the time scales he had in mind. A few days ago, he told the TV host Jon Stewart: “When we promised during the campaign change you can believe in, it wasn't change you can believe in in 18 months.”

So now he’s lost control of the House of Representatives and has only a wafer-thin majority in the Senate. The next two years on Capitol Hill will not be a pretty sight.

But we have been here before. Mid-term drubbings – or “shellackings” to use the Obama term – are standard fare, a bit like bye-election defeats in the UK. They tell us next to nothing about what will happen in the next Presidential election, when Mr Obama will be up against, well, who? Are the Republicans really ready to nominate Sarah Palin as their candidate for the White House, with opinion polls suggesting that Obama would easily beat her?

(He’d have a much tougher time against other potential Republican contenders like Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, according to one poll this week – but as I say, I wouldn’t want to pay much attention to what the polls say now. Two years is a long time …)

A word about the Tea Party movement, which has attracted so much attention. For non-Americans, it may seem difficult to comprehend the level of antipathy which its supporters feel towards President Obama and the Democrats. But again, it does fit neatly into a long American political tradition: suspicion of Washington, suspicion of Federal government spending, hatred of taxes, a deep-seated belief that Americans do best when the government is off their backs.

Some of you may remember Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’”

But Obama does believe that the government can, and should, help – help those millions of Americans who had no health insurance, and the millions more who have no jobs. He says government spending can do it; but his now much-strengthened opponents say government spending is the problem, not the solution.

They will battle it out between now and the next election – mark it in your diary: 6 November 2012.

Friday 15 October 2010

15 October 2010

You probably thought I was going to write about the rescue of the Chilean miners this week – and I admit I was tempted.

Like millions of people around the world, I was deeply moved by the scenes of jubilation at the San José mine as all 33 of the trapped miners were winched to the surface after their two-month ordeal.

But I think everything that there is to be said has already been said – so instead I want to alert you to a looming story which could be making headlines very soon.

It’s Sudan. A referendum is due to be held there in January, to allow the people of the south of the country to decide whether they want to remain part of Sudan, ruled from Khartoum, or split away to form a separate, independent nation of their own.

If the referendum goes ahead (and for reasons which will become clear, I hope, that is a very big “if”), the general expectation is that the South will vote Yes to independence, and a new nation will be born, the first in Africa since Eritrea emerged from Ethiopia as an independent state in its own right in 1993.

But there are problems. Big problems. Sudan is rich in oil reserves, and much of its oil is to be found -- most inconveniently -- right on the border between north and south. As a result, drawing the line between the two parts of the country becomes a hugely significant exercise, with immense economic implications for both sides.

Remember, Sudan has been riven by civil war for decades. The mainly Arab and Muslim north is deeply distrusted by the Christian and animist south. Only in 2005 did they sign a comprehensive peace agreement as part of which January’s referendum is to be held.

In fact, the plan is to hold not just one referendum, but two. One will be for the south to decide if it wants to secede; the second will be for the people of a small region called Abyei, to allow them to decide whether they want to be considered part of the north, or the south.

And yes, as you’ll have guessed, Abyei is awash in oil fields worth millions of dollars.

Earlier this week, talks aimed at resolving a dispute over the Abyei poll broke up with no agreement. Yesterday, the north said the scheduled referendum can’t now go ahead because there’s no agreement over who can vote.

Does it matter? Fraid so. No less a figure than film star George Clooney has just been there, and on his return immediately dropped in at the White House to exchange notes with President Obama. That’s how much it matters.

Sudan is now increasingly a nation of major strategic and economic importance. China has invested heavily, and the US is deeply involved diplomatically. And if war does resume between north and south, you can be sure that it will also resume in Darfur, to the west.

That’s why a high-powered UN security council mission has just been in Sudan. The US ambassador at the UN, Susan Rice, told security council members yesterday that the president of southern Sudan, Salva Kiir, had warned her that the north is already preparing for war and may have started moving troops southward.

The talk now is of perhaps boosting the UN military presence along the dividing line between north and south, in the hope of deterring fresh violence. But who would provide the troops – and who would pay for them – remains unclear, and it’s by no means certain that the government in Khartoum would go along with the idea anyway.

Did I mention that the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court? He’s the first serving head of state to face such grave charges (they relate to the war in Darfur), and he is probably not too likely to heed calls for restraint from an international community that he regards as deeply biased against him.

But if you want to know what’s keeping the lights burning late at UN headquarters in New York, the answer is Sudan. There are more talks scheduled for later this month – but time is running out and rhetorical temperatures are rising dangerously.

I’m going to be taking a break now for a couple of weeks, so the next newsletter will be on 5 November.

Friday 8 October 2010

8 October 2010

MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA -- If you were listening to the programme last night, you’ll know that I’m in Colombia to report on the country’s continuing war against insurgents and drugs traffickers.

(My piece last night is still available via Listen Again, of course, and there’ll be another report on air tonight. Plus some fabulous pictures by our producer Beth McLeod which you can see via links from the website or from my Facebook page.)

Colombia has been a country at war for several decades. What began as a left-wing guerrilla movement slowly transformed into a drugs-fuelled insurgency, during which right-wing para-military groups and the army both contributed to a death toll over the past 20 years alone of more than 70,000.

Colombia is still one of the world’s largest producers of cocaine. Just this week, the police announced that they had seized 29 million US dollars and 17 million euros in banknotes from a house in the capital, Bogota. The money is thought to have been paid by Mexican drugs cartels for cocaine from Colombia to be shipped on to the US and Europe – it gives you some idea of the scale of the trade.

The authorities here say they are now winning the war. A decade ago, people would have said I was mad to come to Medellin, former stronghold of the notorious drugs king Pablo Escobar, and reputed at that time to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Today, it’s very different. You can stroll along the streets perfectly safely, although there are still some poorer neighbourhoods where you’re advised not to venture – and last year, the murder rate here did rise rapidly again.

So, what changed? First came Plan Colombia, a US initiative that pumped billions of dollars into strengthening the Colombian army and police and tried – mostly in vain – to eradicate the coca plantations.

Then, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot dead by police, and slowly, the authorities regained control in areas where for years they had been absent.

When I met Brigadier General Alberto José Mejía Ferrero, commander of the 4th Brigade of the Colombian army, he told me security is paramount in any counter-insurgency strategy.

Without security, he says, nothing makes sense. Without security, you can’t deal with poverty, or build roads or schools, or do any of the other things that make a State worth living in. It’s a lesson that he says governments elsewhere would do well to learn – in countries like Mexico, spiralling ever deeper into Colombia-style drugs-related violence, and even in Afghanistan, where classic counter-insurgency strategy bears a close resemblance to what has been tried here in Colombia.

So much so that Afghan army officers are now being trained in Colombia so that they can learn from this country’s experience. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said on a recent visit: “There’s a great deal to be learned from the success that has been seen here in Colombia.”

But there is a darker picture too. The cultivation of coca, which is used as the basis for cocaine, has barely diminished at all. New, smaller trafficking networks have been established to take the place of the once powerful cartels.

As for the army’s “successes”, well, Gloria Arboleda has a very different story to tell. Her husband disappeared one day in 2007 after going out to work as a day-labourer with a friend. He never returned, and eventually Gloria learned that he had been shot by the army as an alleged “guerrilla”. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me: “They took away the father of my children. I think of what happened every single day.”

There are more than 1,300 cases of so-called “extra-judicial killings” being investigated in Colombia, and human rights groups complain that little action is ever taken against military abuses. General Mejía of the 4th Brigade says on the contrary – there are hundreds of cases of army personnel serving jail terms after being convicted of unjustified killings.

But of course there’s more to winning a war against drugs cartels, guerrillas and para-militaries than just sending in the army. A former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, took me to Santo Domingo, one of Medellin’s poorest neighbourhoods – it used to be regarded as one of the most dangerous parts of the city – to show me what he did to start rebuilding a functioning community.

He showed me a modernistic school he built for local children – and an architectural award-winning library and cultural centre to be used by local people.

“It’s no good just killing the men with the guns if they are immediately replaced with others,” he says. “You have to ask yourself why young people choose to go through a door that leads only to violence and death – and you have to provide them with another door, one that leads to education and opportunity. It’s the only way to weaken the gangs and strengthen the State.”

Security, a strengthened State, and a rebuilt civil infrastructure. A useful lesson for Mexico – or Afghanistan? Colombian officials say Yes, without a doubt. But others are not so sure. The critics say there is still a culture of impunity in which too many crimes go unpunished; there is still widespread corruption; and coca is still being grown in huge quantities.

Colombia today is certainly a much better place than it was a decade ago. But its war has not yet been won.

Friday 1 October 2010

1 October 2010

I’m beginning to ask myself if perhaps Ed Miliband isn’t a very nice man.

I confess he’s always been perfectly charming when I’ve interviewed him – and he does have a reputation among his colleagues of being a lot easier to get on with than his brother David. (“A real human being” is what some of them call him.)

But, m’lud, the prosecution case is as follows:

Political fratricide: he stood for the party leadership knowing that if he won, he would destroy his older brother’s political ambitions. (Declaration of interest: I am an older brother.)

Ruthlessness: he disavowed large chunks of his colleagues’ work in government, including that of Gordon Brown, the man in whose orbit he circled for so many years. (Naïve about the markets? Wrong to claim he could end boom and bust? Over-influenced by focus groups? Ouch, and ouch again.)

More ruthlessness: he was rude about the Blair/Mandelson love of wealthy men (Silvio Berlusconi, Cliff Richard, Oleg Deripaska) – I quote from his speech on Tuesday: “We came to look like a new establishment in the company we kept …” Oh yes, and he has already summarily sacked the Labour chief whip, Nick Brown.

The case for the defence, m’lud, is this:

Ed Miliband knows that to most voters, he was, until last weekend, almost completely unknown. He also knows that to many of his own party members, he’s the wrong Miliband.

So he needs to demonstrate who he is, what he believes, and that he has the political courage to be a party leader.

Anyway, all this stuff about “fratricide”: would David have faced the same charge if he’d won? If not, why not? What law of politics says older brothers always have to have what they want? Does primogeniture feature in the Labour party constitution?

And members of the jury, I ask you to look at the findings of the latest YouGov opinion poll for The Sun: after less than a week since he was elected, half of the people asked said they already thought Ed Miliband would do well as Labour leader.

Seventy-one per cent said he was right to say that Labour had made mistakes in government; 56 per cent agreed with him on Iraq; 65 per cent agreed with what he said about not supporting “irresponsible strikes”; and clear majorities backed him on a higher bank levy, higher taxes for the well-off, and a higher minimum wage.

But Mr Miliband has already made himself plenty of enemies at the top of his own party. Many of his former ministerial colleagues must have been inwardly seething as he ripped in to their legacy. What did Alan Johnson or Jack Straw think, for example, when he spoke of how Labour had sometimes “seemed casual” about civil liberties?

And what did Gordon Brown think when he claimed to lead a new generation “not bound by the fear or the ghosts of the past”? (Unlike whom, do you think? The Blairs and the Browns, maybe, who entered parliament in the 1980s and lived through a decade of opposition?)

I’ve been to a great many Labour party conferences over the years – and this week’s was definitely one of the strangest. It took a while for me to realise why: for the first time in more than 15 years, it wasn’t dominated by the TB/GBs. (TB = Tony Blair; GB = Gordon Brown)

That war is over. And David Miliband’s withdrawal from the front line means it won’t be continued by proxy. But Ed Miliband will now have to persuade his party that he can win elections (watch out for the local polls next May), and then the country that he has what it takes to be prime minister.

I’m going to be taking a break from domestic politics next week – Ritula will be in Birmingham with the Conservatives, while I’ll be overseas to report on … well, tune in next week to find out.

Friday 24 September 2010

24 September 2010

Imagine you’re in a small boat, heading towards what you know will be a fearsome storm. Your young captain assures you that it’ll all be fine, and that on the other side of the storm, the seas are calm, the sky is blue and the sun shines brightly.

Out in front is a much bigger boat – you’re following it because your captain is determined that it knows where it’s going as it ploughs through the heavy seas. “I’ve discussed it with their captain,” he tells you. “We’ve agreed on the course we’ve set and I’m committed to it.”

Now you know what it feels like to be a Liberal Democrat. Captain Clegg tells you to hold your nerve as the clouds gather – but how brave are you? When I spoke to Lib Dem delegates at their party conference in Liverpool this week, it wasn’t fear that I saw in their eyes, but I’m not sure it was bravery either.

For now, most of them are prepared to trust Captain Clegg. He’s convinced them, for now, that he knows what he’s doing. But how fierce will the storm be when the public spending cuts begin to bite? And will their supporters on the quayside still be there, waving their flags and cheering, when the good ship Lib Dem limps into port?

(I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this metaphor going, but bear with me for one more paragraph.) And what about the big Labour ship, which hasn’t left port for months? Once one of the Captains Miliband takes control, will it head off in an entirely different direction – or at least at a much slower speed – avoiding the storm and making it back home long before you do, and in much better shape?

End of metaphor. In fact, I found the Lib Dems in Liverpool to be in pretty good heart. They like being in government at a national level, even though many of them already have experience of being in office either at a local level or in Scotland. Lib Dem ministers making policy announcements from the conference platform are an exciting novelty in a party that hasn’t had a taste of national power for 65 years.

And yet. They look at the opinion polls and they fear what’s coming. In local elections (and Scottish and Welsh elections) next May, perhaps in the midst of strikes by public sector workers furious about job cuts, will the Lib Dems lose hundreds of council seats? Will they even lose the referendum on a new voting system, that glittering prize which Nick Clegg won in return for signing up with the Tories?

And will they then ask themselves what they’re getting out of this coalition deal? Yes, they can tell voters that they have played a part in government at a national level, but what if that government becomes deeply unpopular, and Labour basks in the sunshine of opposition under a new and energetic leader?

Here’s what top Lib Dems say in response. First, we can already show that we have done good things in government (tax concessions for the low paid; an end to ID cards and DNA data base records; a bank levy; a Freedom Bill); second, remember that the spending cuts will be phased in over five years, so it won’t be as if a mammoth sword of Damocles comes smashing down immediately after George Osborne’s spending announcement next month.

And third, in the handful of local council by-elections they have contested since they entered the coalition, they haven’t been slaughtered.

But are they at risk of losing their identity? Could Nick Clegg’s speech to the party conference on Monday have been delivered by David Cameron, as some delegates grumbled? A lot of it probably could have been, although not the line when he said that he still thinks that the war in Iraq was illegal.

So what do the Lib Dems want? Nick Clegg is telling them that in government they can make a real difference. (“I still believe in our commitments to the developing world. The difference is I get to make those commitments at a UN summit and make them happen. I still campaign for political reform. The difference is I’m now legislating for it as well.”)

That’s the nice bit. The nasty bit is what voters might think if the Osborne Plan for reviving the UK economy doesn’t work. Before the election, Nick Clegg said he didn’t believe that the spending cuts the Conservatives were planning would be justified. “Do I think that these big, big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not.”

The big question over the coming months is whether voters decide he was right then – or is right now.

Friday 17 September 2010

17 September 2010

If you’re a typical Brit, you’re probably not much bothered about the visit to our shores this weekend of the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, aka Pope Benedict XVI.

About two-thirds of Britons are neither for his visit nor against it, according to a recent opinion poll, which, given the history of these islands, you may find somewhat surprising.

But there again, maybe not. We are, by and large, a secular nation these days – fewer than half of us go to church and our national leaders are careful to keep religion out of day-to-day politics. (Tony Blair’s former consigliere, Alastair Campbell, who once famously remarked “We don’t do God”, wrote interestingly yesterday of being a “pro-faith atheist”.)

And yet. Even if you remember only a few scraps from your school history lessons, you’ll recall that the role of Rome in our national life has often been the major issue of the day. You could even argue that Britain’s post-Reformation identity is built overwhelmingly on the notion that we are not subject to religious diktats from Rome.

On the other hand, there are about a billion Catholics in the world. About five million live in the UK, although only about one million go to church regularly. (That’s about the same number as in the Church of England.)

Back in the days when I was a reporter based in Rome, I had to cover Papal pronouncements on a regular basis. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to decide whether they were genuinely news-worthy. The rough rule of thumb, I was advised, was this: if the Pope had said the opposite, would the world have been surprised? If the answer was Yes, then probably the latest pronouncement wasn’t earth-shattering.

For example, suppose the Pope says it’s important to abide by Church teaching. Would we have been surprised if he’d said it wasn’t important? Yes, we would, which means that what he actually said probably wasn’t all that interesting.

Yesterday, in Edinburgh, Pope Benedict spoke out against what he called “aggressive forms of secularism”. In his homily during the open-air Mass that he celebrated later in Glasgow, he talked of the “dictatorship of relativism”, a favourite theme of his.

It’s not for me to pass judgment on what he said –– but I can say, I think, that these remarks needn’t necessarily be taken as shocking or provocative. After all, if you believe that you have been chosen by God to lead his flock and spread the Christian message, you are bound to be concerned by the secularism you see all around you.

All Popes have their critics, both within and outside the Catholic church. This pope in particular had no shortage of them even before he was elected to the pontificate. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was known in some circles as “God’s rottweiler”, because of his previous job as the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy. His reputation, you could say, preceded him.

And then came the terrible deluge of sex abuse allegations made against paedophile priests in many different countries. The Vatican’s response was less than sure-footed, and I suspect that a substantial part of the anger that’s being directed by some critics at the Pope during this visit stems directly from the horror of the stories that have emerged.

Take Richard Dawkins, for example (and if anyone qualifies for the title of aggressive atheist, then surely he does). He described the Pope as “a leering old villain in a frock” and the church he leads as a “profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution.”

Would he have chosen to write in similar terms about the Chief Rabbi and Judaism? Or the imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and Islam? The Guardian columnist Michael White quoted a friend the other day as having once remarked that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the Left". That may be stretching things a bit, but there does seem to be a visceral hatred of Catholicism in some quarters that you don’t find aimed at other religions.

Perhaps part of the explanation is that we live in a sceptical age, and Catholicism, more than most, is a religion of certainties. Non-Catholics – and especially non-believers – tend to find religious certainty difficult to deal with.

That’s not to say that there aren’t different theological strands in Catholicism, just as there are in all other major religions. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a Pope – especially this Pope – preaches a traditional Catholic message.

Friday 10 September 2010

10 September 2010

I think this might be a good moment to remind you of the words of the First Amendment to the US constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …”

From which it follows: one, that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has a constitutional right to build his Islamic cultural centre close to the site of the September 11th attacks in New York; and two, that Pastor Terry Jones of the 50-strong Dove World Outreach Center church in Gainsville, Florida, has an identical constitutional right to express his opposition to what he calls “extreme Islam” by burning copies of the Koran.

By the time you read this, it may have become clearer what these two men’s precise intentions now are. (At the time of writing, Mr Jones has “suspended” his Koran-burning plans; Imam Rauf is denying that he’s agreed to move the site of his proposed cultural centre.)

You will remember, I suspect, the furore five years ago when a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims were deeply offended by what they took to be a gratuitous insult aimed at a religion which forbids the creation of images of the Prophet. Violent protests in many Muslim countries led to scores of deaths.

Those of you with longer memories may remember an earlier furore, in February 1989, when angry Muslims in Bradford burned copies of the novel The Satanic Verses. The author, Salman Rushdie, became the subject of a fatwa issued by the then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and had to spend several years living undercover.

I was a newspaper reporter at the time, and wrote that the Satanic Verses row “encompassed a myriad of complexities: Two great religions, Islam and Christianity; secularism versus religious orthodoxy; artistic freedom versus state power; pluralism and tolerance versus doctrinal certainty.”

The issues today are much the same, but this, I would remind you, was more than a decade before the attacks of 9/11; it is as well to remember that these tensions long pre-date that fateful September day in 2001.

According to an opinion poll published yesterday in the Washington Post, two-thirds of Americans object to the proposed Islamic cultural centre close to where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand. And 49 percent say they have a generally unfavourable opinion of Islam – that’s the highest number since immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Many Americans fear Islam. Nearly one in five wrongly believe that their President and commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, is a Muslim. Terry Jones’s church in Florida says its mission is “to expose Islam for what it is … a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to masquerade as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society.”

His plans to burn the Koran succeeded in uniting an extraordinarily disparate range of critics, ranging from the Pope to President Obama, General David Petraeus, and the US defence secretary Robert Gates, who phoned him personally last night to ask him to call off his protest.

Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, wrote on her Facebook page: “Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.”

Which brings us back neatly to the issue of rights and responsibilities. I remember that at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy, a number of people said Yes, of course the newspaper had the right to publish them, but surely it also had a responsibility not to.

And now, some people are saying the same about building an Islamic cultural centre close to Ground Zero -- or organising a Koran-burning protest.

So what do you think? Do we sometimes have a responsibility not to insist on our rights, if there is a risk of causing deep offence or provoking a violent response? Or is it an essential part of living in a free society that we do have a right to say and do things, even if they cause offence?

Friday 3 September 2010

3 September 2010

I’ve got an idea – let’s ignore the Middle East diplomatic gavotte that wheezed back into life in Washington yesterday (don’t worry, I’ll tell you if anything interesting emerges), and let’s concentrate instead on what might be going on in North Korea.

Here’s why: some time next week, the biggest meeting of the ruling North Korean Workers Party in more than 40 years is likely to take place – thousands of party representatives will gather in Pyongyang and, just maybe, approve the naming of the country’s next leader.

The expectation is that the name to emerge will be Kim Jong Un, the 30-ish son of the current leader Kim Jong Il, who is said to be in frail health after reportedly suffering a stroke two years ago.

At about the same time, the South Korean leader, Lee Myung-bak, will be on an official visit to Russia to meet President Medvedev. And you can guess what will be high on their agenda: the suspected torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, last March, and the killing of 46 of its crew (you may remember that I wrote about it here last May).

The Korean peninsula remains one of the most dangerous potential flash-points on the planet. North Korea, to the horror of its neighbours, now has a rudimentary nuclear weapons programme; and its rigidly authoritarian and secretive regime has kept its people in poverty and isolation for more than half a century. A change of leadership is bound to add to regional nervousness.

And there are still serious questions to be asked about the mysterious explosion that sank the Cheonan. An international investigation team, made up mainly of South Koreans, but including experts from the US, Britain, Australia and Sweden, concluded that the corvette had been holed “as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea.

“The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine,” its report says. “There is no other plausible explanation.”

Pretty unambiguous, you might think. But another investigation was carried out by a Russian team – and although its findings haven’t been made public, a detailed report of its conclusions published in a South Korean newspaper leaves no doubt that the Russians came to a very different conclusion.

Their report suggests that the Cheonan had run aground while sailing in shallow water and that its propeller got caught up in a fishing net and triggered an underwater mine. According to the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, it says: “Prior to the sinking, the Cheonan came into contact with the ocean floor on the right side, and there is a very strong likelihood that the propeller wings were damaged as a net became entangled with the right propeller and shaft.”

The international investigation team reported that they’d also found a torpedo fragment on the seabed with what they took to be North Korean markings. But there is disagreement about how conclusive that evidence is – some analysts suggest the torpedo fragment could have been lying in the water for quite some time.

And then, last week, into this combustible mix stepped former US president Jimmy Carter, on what turned out to be a successful mission to obtain the release of a US citizen, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who was serving an eight-year prison sentence in North Korea for having entered the country illegally.

It followed a similar mission a year ago by former President Bill Clinton to obtain the release of two imprisoned US journalists – and led to an elegantly-barbed Twitter post from the US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley: “Americans should heed our travel warning and avoid North Korea. We only have a handful of former Presidents.”

Talks about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme are stalemated again. After the sinking of the Cheonan, a new, tougher sanctions package was imposed on Pyongyang. But was the Carter mission a sign that both Washington and the North Koreans are putting out feelers? The former US ambassador Donald Gregg suggested last week that there may be “an emerging realisation within the Obama administration that its current stance toward the North, featuring sanctions and hostility, is having little positive impact, and that a return to some form of dialogue with Pyongyang needs to be considered.”

You may think the Korean peninsula is a long way away and needn’t much concern us. But at least when you see next week’s headlines, you’ll know a bit more of the background.

Friday 13 August 2010

13 August 2010

Did you see that someone has apparently just paid £140 million for a flat in London? The identity of the buyer isn’t known, but somehow I suspect it isn’t one of the 40 American billionaires who promised the other day to give away at last half of their fortunes.

Mind you, if you’re a multi-billionaire, £140 million isn’t such a huge amount to pay for a nice penthouse apartment with a decent view.

The problem with these numbers is that the words “million” and “billion” are so similar. They disguise the fact that for, say, Bill Gates (total wealth estimated at $53 billion), buying that London pied-à-terre would represent an outlay of less than half of one per cent of his total fortune.

(Someone in the BBC newsroom wrote in a headline a couple of days ago that a Whitehall department was planning to cut two billion pounds from its nine million pound budget. It’s an easy mistake to make …)

So let’s talk numbers. How does someone amass so much money that they can afford to give away tens of billions and still have more than the rest of us can even dream of?

I’ve done a rough analysis of those 40 “philanthro-capitalists”. Sixteen of them are bankers, investors or financiers – in other words, they have made their money from money. Five of them (including Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Irwin Jacobs of the wireless technology company Qualcomm, and Jeff Skoll of eBay) got rich from computing and information technology. There’s a sprinkling of property tycoons and a handful of media barons (Michael Bloomberg and Ted Turner, for example).

In most cases, their wealth stems largely from the value of the shares they own – or owned – in the companies they have created. They haven’t stolen it from anyone; you could argue that they have created the wealth by their own ingenuity and acumen – and our pensions probably depend at least in part on the aggregate value of the shares in their companies.

Even so, some commentators feel uneasy about the fact that it is possible for these billionaires to become so unimaginably wealthy. Writing in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki wrote: “Between 2002 and 2007 … the bottom ninety-nine per cent of incomes grew 1.3 per cent a year in real terms -- while the incomes of the top one per cent grew ten per cent a year. That one per cent accounted for two-thirds of all income growth in those years.”

And Peter Wilby in The Guardian expressed concern that very rich people could now be having a hugely disproportionate impact on which good causes are adequately funded and which are not. “If the rich really wish to create a better world, they can sign another pledge: to pay their taxes on time and in full; to stop lobbying against taxation and regulation; to avoid creating monopolies; to give their employees better wages, pensions, job protection and working conditions …”

I suspect most people would argue that billionaires who are generous are far better than ungenerous ones. The instinct to share one’s good fortune is surely preferable to miserliness. (After all, all the major religions emphasise the importance of charitable giving.)

The American dream tradition depends on a belief that anyone, no matter how humble or disadvantaged their origins, can aspire to wealth and happiness. The question that’s being asked – and I take no position on this – is whether at some point too much wealth becomes somehow undesirable rather than desirable.

Is the distribution of wealth as important to the well-being of a society as its accumulation? What’s preferable: to allow a handful of very rich people to decide what should be done with that wealth, or for them to pay more in taxes to government, so that governments can make the decisions about redistribution, poverty alleviation, medical research and so on?

As always, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Friday 6 August 2010

6 August 2010

Once upon a time, not such a long time ago, Asif Ali Zardari was known to his fellow-countrymen as Mr 10 per cent.

He was in jail, facing corruption charges, relating to allegations that he had skimmed huge commission payments off government contracts while his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister.

Then, in December 2007, she was assassinated. Within a year, he had been elected President. Last night, as Pakistan faced what the UN is now calling a “major catastrophe” – the devastating floods that are laying waste to huge swathes of the country – he was dining at Chequers with David Cameron.

Over the past three years, I have written on this blog more often about Pakistan than almost any other country.

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, I wrote: “Pakistan now becomes the most dangerous of all current global flash-points. It is a nuclear power; and it harbours jihadists who in the past have played a major role in the disintegration of neighbouring Afghanistan and have offered finance, training and organisational infrastructure to bombers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.”

Less than two years later, after another spate of violence, I wrote: “Pakistan is in a permanent state of crisis. It is used to weak government, rampant corruption and insecurity. I've lost count of the number of times I've read - or even written - that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of collapse.”

This week, The Economist writes: “Pakistan is lurching from crisis to crisis, with an anaemic economy, religious extremism and an uncertain political dispensation.”

How’s this for a litany of disaster? Pakistan’s worst ever air crash, 152 people killed. The worst floods for 80 years, at least 1,600 people killed, four million people affected. Three days of violence in Karachi, the country’s business centre and largest city, at least 80 dead.

That’s just in the past nine days. Oh, and did I mention the Taliban insurgency along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan? The 12,000-plus people who were killed in political or sectarian violence last year alone?

And as if all that wasn’t enough, along comes David Cameron and chooses – in India, Pakistan’s giant neighbour and rival – to accuse it of “looking two ways” on terrorism.

Regional analysts have been arguing for quite a while now that Pakistan may well turn out to be a much bigger international security threat than Afghanistan. (We hear so much more about Afghanistan becuse that’s where US and British soldiers are dying. This week New Zealand suffered its first fatality there.)

When suspected jihadi terrorists are arrested in the UK, they’re far more likely to have links to Pakistan than to Afghanistan. Even Osama bin Laden, if he’s still alive, is more likely to be in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. At our counter-terrorism conference at Chatham House last month, Pakistan was the word on nearly everyone’s lips.

But bear this in mind: to the Pashtuns who live along the Afghan-Pakistani border, there is no border. The Durand Line, drawn up by the British colonial diplomat Henry Mortimer Durand in the 1890s, slices through the Pashtun tribal area – and it exists more in the imagination of cartographers than on the ground.

On the Afghan side, the Afghan Taliban fight to remove foreign troops from their land and avoid domination by Tajiks (who make up more than half of the Afghan National Army) and other non-Pashtuns. On the Pakistani side, the Pakistani Taliban fight to preserve their rule over the border areas and keep the central government weak.

When President Zardari insists that Pakistan is fighting terrorism with all its might, he’s thinking of the Pakistani, not the Afghan, Taliban. And when David Cameron says he’s not doing enough, he’s thinking of the other lot.

It’s a mess – and it’s dangerous.

Friday 30 July 2010

30 July 2010

Do you think David Cameron might be a secret revolutionary? I know he calls himself a Conservative (albeit a “liberal Conservative”), but I’m beginning to wonder whether beneath that fresh-scrubbed exterior, there beats a truly revolutionary heart.

Consider the following evidence: he’s put together a government coalition unlike anything Britain has seen for more than half a century. He’s proposing the biggest cuts in government spending in modern British political history. He’s proposing major changes to the way English schools are run; an overhaul of the way the National Health Service is organised in England; reform of the way the police are organised; and changes to the way we elect members of the Westminster parliament that would almost certainly change the shape of UK politics for generations to come.

Overseas, he’s told President Obama he wants a different kind of relationship with Washington; he’s started wooing Turkey and India – and upset Israel and Pakistan in the process.

There’s more, but that’s probably enough for now. (This morning, there’s news that Iain Duncan Smith wants to tear up the benefits system and start again.) My mind starts spinning just thinking about it all. Is this what voters expected when they went to the polls last May?

And one more question: how much of it will actually happen? Because, let us not forget, he needs parliamentary approval for each and every one of his proposals – and there are already rumblings of discontent.

The Labour opposition are planning to vote against his idea of a referendum next May on voting reform. (Which is deliciously paradoxical, you might think, given that before the election, Labour were the only party to come out in favour of the system that Mr Cameron and his Lib Dem colleagues are now proposing.) A few dozen of his own MPs are threatening to join them.

Tory backbenchers aren’t wildly enthusiastic about his NHS reforms, nor about his scrapping of the schools building programme if it means that school improvements in their own constituencies now won’t happen. And there’s a nasty row brewing over defence cuts as well. Stand by for a scaled-back Trident nuclear weapons programme and squeals of anger from the defence lobby.

The Lib Dems are finding it hard to swallow the proposed increase in value added tax rates, nor do they like all Mr Cameron’s talk of capping immigration from outside the EU. (Business leaders don’t seem to like it much either – they’re worrying about where they’re going to get all their IT people from.) Conservative backbenchers are equally dubious about increasing capital gains tax, which would hit owners of second homes, most of whom probably vote Tory.

So how many MPs actually share the Cameroonian revolutionary vision? Is he leading his troops bravely into battle, shaking up a country that needs an injection of new vigour after 13 years of Labour rule? Or as he turns around and looks behind him, will he find sullen foot soldiers, reluctant to budge, unconvinced that these are battles they want to fight?

I have to admit that there are times when I feel I need a mirror to make sense of it all, because everything is beginning to look back-to-front.

Is Labour really accusing the Tories of being soft on immigration as they loosen the restrictions on foreign students? Soft on terrorism because they’ve scrapped the stop-and-search provisions of the Terrorism Act? Soft on crime because Ken Clarke is wondering whether short prison sentences are a good idea and Theresa May is about to get rid of ASBOs?

So is there a danger than Mr Cameron is trying to do too much too quickly? We know that he doesn’t want his government to acquire a reputation as a slasher of government spending and little else. We also know that he believes governments need to act quickly if they hope to make real changes.

But here’s the thing. Has he bothered to explain to his own party what he’s doing? Has he considered that they may not be as impressed with his ambitious agenda as his Lib Dem deputy, Nick Clegg? And what does he intend to do when one or more of his reform proposals gets bogged down in the House of Commons?

History teaches us that revolutions often turn in on themselves. Sometimes they devour themselves with ugly consequences. If over the next few months there’s growing unrest among public sector workers as thousands of jobs are cut – and if the economy splutters to a stand-still, or tips back into recession – how much appetite for revolution will Mr Cameron’s followers still have?

He has set himself a mighty task – and if he does pull it off, it’s just possible that he may earn himself a place in the history books as a more radical prime minister even than Margaret Thatcher. But there’s still a long way to go …

Friday 23 July 2010

23 July 2010

I can’t help feeling that sometimes international lawyers are their own worst enemies. (Unless, of course, you wish to follow the perhaps apocryphal example of the Labour party politician Ernest Bevin, who on being told that Herbert Morrison was his own worst enemy, is said to have retorted: “Not while I'm alive, he ain't.”)

The judges who sit on the International Court of Justice in The Hague have just given us the benefit of their opinion on the legality or otherwise of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008.

You need to read those words very carefully. They have given their opinion on the legality of the declaration. Not the legality of the secession, or the legality of the self-declared independent state of Kosovo. What the judges were concerned with was the declaration, not the act.

You may wonder how useful that is. Not our problem, say the judges. We were asked for our opinion on a declaration – which is true, since the UN General Assembly, at Serbia’s request, did ask specifically for just that – so that is what we have given.

Is Kosovo a legally constituted state? No answer. Was its secession from a legally constituted UN member state (ie Serbia) in accordance with international law? Again, no answer.

There are two fundamental principles in international law: one is that all legally constituted states are entitled in law to have their territorial integrity protected, in other words, no one can come along and bite a chunk out of the country without its consent.

The second is that all peoples have the right to self-determination, to decide of their own free will how, and by whom, they wish to be governed.

Sometimes, as in Serbia/Kosovo, these principles come into conflict. On the one hand, Serbia is entitled to its territorial integrity; on the other, the people of Kosovo are entitled to self-determination.

But if you were hoping that the International Court of Justice might help find a formula to reconcile these two principles, you will have been sorely disappointed.

First, it ducked on territorial integrity. Yes, it says, “this principle … is an important part of the international legal order and is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.” But what the Charter says (Article 2, paragraph 4) is that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.”

Therefore, says the Court, “the scope of the principle of territorial integrity is confined to the sphere of relations between States.”

Now, I’m no lawyer – never have been, never will be – but what I understand this to mean is that if, for example, Albania had annexed Kosovo by force, that would have infringed Serbia’s territorial integrity. But a unilateral secession does not come into the same category.

(What the Court thinks about NATO’s intervention, without UN approval, in 1999 remains unclear – I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult to argue that it was the “use of force against the territorial integrity” of Serbia, although admittedly it was never overt NATO policy to dismember Serbia.)

So what about self-determination? Again, the Court ducked. According to the helpful press release in which it summarises its findings: “Turning to the arguments put forward … concerning the right of self-determination … the Court considers that the debates on these points ‘concern the right to separate from a State … That issue is beyond the scope of the question posed by the General Assembly …’ The Court concludes that ‘general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declarations of independence.’”

So, let’s put all the legal niceties to one side. What does it add up to in the real world? First, whatever the legalese small print might say, this is a big political win for Kosovo, and a big defeat for Serbia, who, after all, asked the Court for its opinion in the first place. It will encourage other secessionist movements – in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Somaliland, even northern Cyprus – and it will probably encourage more countries to recognise Kosovo as an independent state. (So far, only 69 countries do, including the United States and 22 of the 27 members of the European Union.)

It will complicate Serbia’s attempts to join the EU; it will encourage those Serbs who believe the world is irredeemably prejudiced against them; and, at least in the short term, it will probably increase local tensions, especially in the north of Kosovo, where Serbs are still the majority.

And it will do nothing to bring an agreement on Kosovo’s status any closer. But when all’s said and done, you may think that’s a job for politicians, not judges.

That’s certainly the view from Washington – a US official was quoted yesterday as saying: “We do not believe that declarations of independence are legal acts whose legality is affirmed or denied by this international court. They are political facts that have to be established through political realities.”

What do you think?

Friday 16 July 2010

16 July 2010

You may have seen the survey this week that suggested that more than three-quarters of British Jews support a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

They’re in good company. So too, if we take them at their word, do the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, US president Barack Obama, and just about every other major world leader you care to name.

And let’s not forget the 52 per cent of Jewish Israelis who are also in favour, according to one recent poll, and the 49 per cent of Palestinians.

In which case, you may ask, what’s the problem? Well, where do I start? There may be new sweet mood music drifting out from the recent chin-wag in Washington between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama; there may be the ritual expressions of willingness to negotiate, but the truth, I fear, is that it all adds up to very little.

If I sound pessimistic, I’m in good company too. According to the same poll quoted above, carried out jointly by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, two-thirds of Israelis and Palestinians say the chances for an independent Palestinian state within the next five years are low, if not non-existent.

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post suggested, not entirely seriously, that a more promising idea would be to press for a five-state solution. You could have Hamastan in Gaza, which is already ruled by Hamas; Fatahland in the West Bank, where the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority is in charge; Palestine in those parts of Israel where Arab Israelis are in the majority (and don’t forget that they make up one-fifth of Israel’s total population); Haredia for Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews (known in Hebrew as Haredim); and Israel for secular or non-Orthodox Jews and any Palestinians who would rather live in Israel.

It’s an absurd notion, of course. But in the absurdity, perhaps there may be a grain of truth; because by exaggerating, it may help to illustrate the true scale of the problem. Definitions? Borders? Viable economies? Maybe that’s why there are increasing numbers of people, on both sides of the divide, who are beginning to question whether the notion of a two-state solution may not be almost as absurd.

According to a recent report from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, Israel now controls more than 42 per cent of the occupied West Bank. That includes not only the 200 or so settlements, regarded as illegal under international law, but also the roads that run between them, the army check-points, and the land sealed off by the Israeli military as vital to Israel’s security needs.

And when a year ago, Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed, for the first time, the notion of an independent Palestinian state, he added such a long list of caveats – it would have to be demilitarised; it would have to cede control of its air space to Israel; and it would have to recognise Israel as an explicitly Jewish state – that the Palestinians lost no time in dismissing his remarks as meaningless.

Here’s something else for you to consider – according to the veteran Israeli journalist and commentator Danny Rubinstein: “One can sense a great change among Palestinians – a new lack of trust in the possibility of a Palestinian state. In Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron, people are talking and writing about this. It is interesting that the shift is taking place at the very time when the whole world is united in pressing Israel to help the Palestinians create a state of their own.”

This is what he wrote in the left-wing American journal Dissent: “In international diplomacy there is a pervasive idea that it is possible and necessary to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that will exist side by side with Israel. Many Israelis and Palestinians want this and believe in it. But the forces working against this possibility are many and powerful ... On the Palestinian side … a new situation has emerged. National unity has dissolved, the national movement has atrophied and declined, and the idea has become acceptable that if there won’t be two states for two peoples, it is better that there be one state.”

Fine, you may say, let there be one state. But there’s just one problem. That state could no longer be explicitly Jewish – and for the vast majority of Jewish Israelis, whether secular or religious, that will always be a step too far.

Friday 9 July 2010

9 July 2010

Do you remember the chilling message issued by the IRA back in 1984, after they’d narrowly failed to blow up the entire British cabinet in the Grand Hotel in Brighton?

This is what they said: “Today we were unlucky -- but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

I was reminded of it this week, as I chaired a conference at the London think-tank Chatham House to consider counter-terrorism strategy five years after the London suicide bombings which killed 52 people. The conference was organised jointly by The World Tonight, the journal International Affairs, and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Luck, said one of the participants, is not a good counter-terrorism strategy. (Under the rules of a Chatham House conference, participants may not be publicly identified – but what they say can be reported without attribution.)

Luck? Well, consider this: in the five years since 7 July, 2005, there has been no successful terrorist attack on British soil. Indeed, since 11 September, 2001, there has been no successful terrorist attack on US soil. (Unless you count the killing of 13 people on the US army base at Fort Hood, Texas, last November, allegedly by an army pyschiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan.)

But it’s not for want of trying. Remember Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square, New York, in May? Remember Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is alleged to have tried to blow himself up on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last Christmas Day? And on the same day as our conference in London, US prosecutors in Brooklyn charged an alleged senior al-Qaeda operative, Adnan el-Shukrijumah, in connection with an alleged plot to bomb three New York subway lines.

In this country, there was the failed attack on Glasgow airport and two London targets almost exactly three years ago; and just yesterday, three men were convicted in connection with the “airline bomb plot” of four years ago, when they are alleged to have planned multiple suicide bomb attacks on trans-Atlantic flights.

In Norway and Germany, also yesterday, three men were arrested, accused of being al-Qaeda members and of plotting more bomb attacks. One was of Uighur origin, one from Uzbekistan, and the third from Iraq.

So perhaps we should assume that the threat of more terrorist attacks is still with us. The question is whether the various counter-terrorism services involved in combatting the threat have learned from the atrocities of the past decade.

Yes, they have, was the verdict of the officials, analysts and academics who spoke at our conference. But probably they didn’t learn quickly enough, and they still have a tendency to learn only from their own experiences rather than looking at other people’s as well.

But how do you know if your counter-terrorism strategy is working? You don’t, is the simple answer. Absence of evidence (in other words, you can’t see anything dangerous going on) is not the same as evidence of absence (in other words, it’s not proof that nothing is going on.) Just because there have been no successful terrorist attacks in the UK for five years doesn’t mean that there might not be one tomorrow morning.

We spoke at the conference – of course – about the causes of terrorism. There was talk of alienation, a sense of grievance, anger at injustice, whether real or perceived, and a sense of exclusion from the mainstream. All of them can sometimes be factors, it was agreed, but none of them on their own is sufficient to explain why someone would turn to mass murder.

We considered whether you can counter the terrorist threat without breaking international human rights laws. Does there have to be a trade-off between security and freedom? No, said most of our participants, because without security, there can be no freedom. But no one was very keen on the use of “control orders” which can be tantamount to a particularly severe form of unending house arrest. “The least worst option”, one of our speakers called them.

As for “engaging” with communities from which a terrorist threat might emerge, when does “engaging” slip into “monitoring”? Can you tell local community leaders that you want their help, while at the same time you’re erecting secret cameras and recruiting informants?

Inevitably, we had a lot more questions than answers. And then, yesterday the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that she’s removing the right of police to stop and search people on the street under anti-terrorism legislation, unless they can show that there is a “reasonable suspicion” that someone may be a terrorist.

And the European Court of Human Rights halted the extradition to the US of the controversial Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri on terrorism charges, while it considers whether the lengthy jail sentence he would face there if convicted would contravene international human rights law. (He is currently in jail in the UK for soliciting to murder and racial hatred.)

If only there were easy answers. And if only I could think of something better to end with than the line often attributed, or mis-attributed, to Thomas Jefferson: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Friday 2 July 2010

2 July 2010

Repeat after me: “Nothing is as it seems.”

Why? Well, because whenever the air waves crackle with stories about spy rings and espionage plots, alarm bells start ringing in my head. Nothing is as it seems. Ever.

After all, spies – and those who recruit and run them – are meant to be experts at deception. They want you to believe things about them that aren’t true. In other words, they lie, not only about what they do, but also about what the other lot do.

I have no way of knowing whether the FBI’s allegations against the “Russian spy ring” that they claim to have wrapped up this week are true or false. The defendants will eventually have their day in court and we will, perhaps, learn a bit more. There again, we may not.

I understand that “retro” is often regarded as the height of cool. But the stories I’ve been reading this week make James Bond look like cutting-edge contemporary. Do 21st century spies really still swap identical bags as they brush past each other?

Listen to this account, courtesy of FBI agent Maria Ricci. The date: May 2004. The place: Forest Hills station, Pennsylvania. “[They] converged on a staircase, carrying all-but identical orange bags. Toward the middle of the stairs, as they passed one another, Metsos quickly handed Russian government offical his orange bag and the Russian government official quickly handed Metsos his orange bag … Metsos then continued ascending the stairs and Russian Government official continued descending the stairs.”

And if you were writing a spy thriller, would you dare come up with dialogue as clunky as this? FBI undercover agent to alleged Russian spy: “Excuse me, but haven’t we met in California last summer?” Alleged Russian spy to FBI agent: “No, I think it was the Hamptons.”

Yes, of course, it’s easy to mock. But please, let’s keep a sense of perspective here. For 10 years, so we’re told, the FBI tailed, tapped and monitored this cell of cunning sleeper agents. Did they, even once in all that time, catch them passing on valuable secrets that were vital to US national security? No, apparently, they didn’t.

So did they at least catch them trying to steal any secrets? Again, it seems, negative. Did they observe them trying to bribe or blackmail any US officials – or anyone else for that matter – in the hope of obtaining any secrets? Yet again, so it would seem, no, they didn’t.

After a decade-long surveillance operation, the FBI charge sheet amounts to no more than that these singularly ineffective alleged spies conspired to act as agents of a foreign government, and were guilty of money-laundering. If I were a Russian tax-payer, I’d be asking for my money back.

OK, now here’s the serious stuff. Yes, of course the Russians are spying on the US. And the US is spying on Russia. And each of them has spies trying to catch spies. That’s what they do.

But here’s what I want to know. Why did the FBI really decide to wrap up this operation now? The official explanation is that one of the alleged spies was about to leave the country. But why would that have been such a major disaster, given that – as far as we know – they had acquired no information more valuable than the mind-numbingly dull minutiae of suburban US life?

Why not, if the FBI were getting bored, just tap these alleged “illegals” on the shoulder, and whisper: “Hey, we know what you’re up to – get out, and don't come back.”

Maybe there’s something we’re not being told. Maybe this really is much more serious than it seems. On the other hand, maybe it really is no more than a 10-year farce.

I do know this, though -- there’d be a lot less about it in the papers if one of the alleged spies wasn’t an unusually good-looking young woman with a penchant for publishing pouting pictures of herself on the internet. After all, how could you possibly have a decent spy story without a flame-haired temptress?

So did you laugh out loud when you read about their capers? Or does it worry you that somewhere in the “wilderness of mirrors” that is the world of espionage, there still seem to be people who yearn for the days of the Cold War?

Friday 25 June 2010

25 June 2010

Just suppose President Obama hadn’t fired General Stanley McChrystal this week as his top commander in Afghanistan. What would have been the headlines from the warzone?

Perhaps that this month has seen the highest number of fatalities among foreign troops in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001?

Or that a report from the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that nine years on, “the overall security situation has not improved”?

(Just one line from the report: “The rise in incidents involving improvised explosive devices constitutes an alarming trend, with the first four months of 2010 recording a 94 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2009.”)

Or, as the New York Times reported, that criticism of the Afghanistan strategy is mounting on Capitol Hill, even among President Obama’s allies, and that public support for the war is crumbling?

The respected military analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in a sobering critique this week: “Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain.”

How many times have we been told that the key to success in Afghanistan is not military but political? Over and over again, we’ve read that bolstering the authority of the Afghan government is every bit as important as defeating the Taliban militarily.

As Fred Kaplan wrote on “Counter-insurgency wars, as has been said countless times, are fought by, with, through, and on behalf of the host country's national government. The idea is to provide security, so the government can bring its people basic services. If the government is incompetent, corrupt, or widely viewed by the people as illegitimate, then a counterinsurgency campaign — no matter how brilliantly planned or valiantly fought — is futile.”

Which means, I assume, that President Hamid Karzai holds the key. And who was the one senior US official who seemed to be able to get on with Mr Karzai? None other than the now departed General McChrystal.

So here’s where we are. General McChrystal has been fired, despite President Karzai’s public entreaties that he should be allowed to stay on. The US special envoy Richard Holbrooke stays on, despite President Karzai’s refusal to have any more dealings with him.

And President Karzai stays on too, despite the widespread belief that he rigged his election victory last year, and despite Washington’s impatience with his apparent inability to get a grip.

What’s more, the clock is ticking. In December, President Obama will be given a “strategic review” assessment of where things stand in Afghanistan. And, according to the current plan, in exactly 12 months from now, US troops will begin to withdraw.

The Canadians and the Dutch have already announced that their troops will be going home next year. The British prime minister David Cameron and his defence secretary Liam Fox have both been sounding less than convinced recently that Britain’s military contribution should continue for much longer.

After the death of the 300th British serviceman in Afghanistan earlier this week, Mr Cameron said: “We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place, and we should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there.”

That doesn’t mean that British troops are about to pull out. But it may be relevant that the new coalition UK government seems to feel much less of a need to cosy up to Washington than did its Labour predecessors (and, to be fair, I think the same could be said in the opposite direction of President Obama when compared to President Bush).

It may also be relevant that Pakistan is reported to view the enforced departure of General McChrystal as an opportunity to step into the gap he leaves behind. One report suggests that Islamabad is now presenting itself as a new “viable partner” for President Karzai, with its army chief General Kayani “personally offering to broker a deal with the Taliban leadership.”

The new US commander in Afghanistan is General David Petraeus, a man much admired for his perceived achievements in Iraq, and who virtually single-handed wrote the US military manual on how to conduct counter-insurgency operations.

So if anyone can win the war, it’s probably General Petraeus. Except, of course, that as his own doctrine acknowledges, counter-insurgency operations can’t be won militarily.

And that, I’m afraid, is where we came in.

Friday 18 June 2010

18 June 2010

How about taking a break from the World Cup for a moment and considering these three little words?

Truth. Justice. Peace.

I imagine you’re in favour of all three. But are they sometimes incompatible? The question arises in the wake of the Saville report into Bloody Sunday. (Quick update for those of you who’ve been on Mars this week: 30 January 1972, 13 people killed by British troops during a civil rights march in Londonderry – the worst incident of British security forces killing British citizens since the Peterloo massacre of 1819.)

The report was the result of an inquiry that lasted an astonishing 12 years, at an equally astonishing cost of £190 million. But did it arrive at the truth about what happened on that terrible day?

For the families of those who died, this was the key paragraph in the report: “None of the casualties shot by soldiers ... was armed with a firearm or (with the probable exception of one victim) a bomb of any description. None was posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire.”

Why is that paragraph so important? Well, compare it with what the Widgery report said, in the immediate aftermath of the killings: “When the vehicles and soldiers … appeared in Rossville Street they came under fire … There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first … There is a strong suspicion that some [of those killed and wounded] had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon …”

None of that, says Saville, is true. And 38 years later, the relatives of those who died were able to shout one word in triumph and vindication after his report was published: “Innocent.”

So let’s accept that, at last, we know the truth about what happened. What about justice? Is it justice that so much effort should go into investigating these particular deaths, when thousands of others have gone uninvestigated?

The journalist and military historian Sir Max Hastings wrote in the Daily Mail: “The long catalogue of Republican atrocities against the British and Irish peoples goes unexplored. Of all those who perished in the Troubles, just 10 per cent were killed by the security forces; 30 per cent by Protestant militants; 60 per cent by the IRA.”

And Lord Tebbit, who with his wife was a victim of the IRA bomb attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, wrote: “The victims of Brighton are no less important than those of Londonderry. They should not be treated as second-class victims.”

Many former IRA bombers are now free men. Indeed, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, was a senior IRA commander in Londonderry at the time of Bloody Sunday, and, according to the Saville report, “was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, and though it is possible that he fired this weapon, there is insufficient evidence to make any finding on this …”

So no, there will probably be no justice for the families of the other 3,600 people who were killed during the 30 years of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles”.

How about peace? The political commentator Danny Finkelstein wrote in The Times this week: “To stop the killing (in Northern Ireland), we sacrificed principles that should stand above everything. We sacrificed the rule of law and the principle of one law for everybody. We sacrificed justice and accountability to the courts. We bought peace but there is a bill to pay. And today we must pay it.”

So is this the lesson of Saville? That to get at the truth, and to bring peace, you sometimes need to sacrifice justice? Was that also the lesson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, another country where decades of political injustice and oppression were finally brought to an end?

What are the lessons for other countries – Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Brazil, Chile – countries where thousands more people long for both peace and justice after suffering the most appalling atrocities?

And what are the lessons for the International Criminal Court, investigating allegations of terrible crimes in Sudan and Kenya, but where bringing the guilty to trial may make peace less likely?

Guilt is rarely to be found only on one side, yet there is often a tendency at the end of bitter conflicts to prosecute only the losers. In the case of Northern Ireland, the Financial Times commentator John Lloyd reached this verdict: “There is no question that the IRA initiated most of the bloodshed; that the Unionist community had allowed discrimination to flourish for the half-century of Northern Ireland's existence; that the British government had, until the troubles flared in 1968, simply ignored the issue. There is no question, finally, that trained killers in British uniform ran amok.”

So, if you’ve arrived at the truth, and peace has returned, is justice sometimes an unaffordable luxury?