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?