Friday 24 February 2017

Our last hope: inter-stellar migration

Somewhere on one of the newly-discovered planets orbiting the star known as Trappist-1, there are life forms that have worked out how to live sensibly. (Please note: this is not fake news. It is conjecture. Bear with me ...)

Just imagine: these life forms conserve as much as they destroy.

They protect the environment on which they depend for their survival.

And they have drawn up a system of rules that protect the most vulnerable and respect universally accepted rights. They call this rules system the Pan-Galactic Convention of Universal Life Rights.

Their leaders always tell the truth and are chosen by mass assemblies of all life forms on the planet. Political debate is conducted in accordance with legally-defined parameters: all statements made must be capable of scientific proof, and any insults aimed at those holding differing views render the insulting individual ineligible for public office.

There's just one problem: I don't know where to buy a ticket to go and live there. (I'm assuming they have immigration rules that allow all well-intentioned aliens to settle on their planet. After all, why wouldn't they?)

These planets are, in astronomical terms, our next door neighbours, a mere 39 light years away, which translates -- I think -- into just 234,000,000,000,000 miles (I've rounded up to the nearest trillion). If I jumped on a rocket tomorrow, I could be there in, oh, something like 700,000 years. So, at least, I'm assured by the BBC's estimable science editor David Shukman.

The star around which the planets orbit is known as an ultra-cool dwarf, which means they are bathed in life-giving warmth and the light of a perpetual sunset. Three of them are in the so-called 'Goldilocks zone', neither too hot nor too cold, where liquid water, and therefore life, could exist.

I think planets 1e, 1f, and 1g all sound quite delightful, but if I were allowed to choose, I'd head for 1f, on the basis that I always try to avoid extremes. And if I indulge my inner fantasist, it is because the planet on which we currently exist is in such a God-awful mess that hopping on an inter-stellar bus to relocate a couple of hundred trillion miles down the road seems a supremely sensible course of action.

To take just one, miserable example: according to the United Nations, more than 20 million people on our planet -- specifically in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen -- are now facing famine or risk of famine over the coming six months. If you're one of my most faithful readers, this won't come as a surprise to you.

After all, last November, I reported from north-east Nigeria: 'The UN has warned that up to 75,000 children could die within the next 12 months unless more help arrives urgently ... As many as 14 million people could soon be in need of help.'

And nearly three years ago, I reported from South Sudan: 'It is happening again. Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, 30 years after the famine in Ethiopia, Africa's twin scourges are back. This time it is a single country facing a double disaster. South Sudan, the world's newest nation, not yet three years old, is on the brink of catastrophe.'

Other reporters, responding to ever more desperate appeals from relief agencies, also sounded the alarm. We might as well have been reporting from one of those newly-discovered planets. Conferences were convened and pledges were made, but some of them, like the UK government's promise this week of £100 million of 'new support' for South Sudan, were simply repeats of earlier pledges. Playing with numbers while people die. Nice.

For much of my adult life, life on Planet Earth has appeared to be getting steadily more agreeable. The shadow of nuclear armageddon in the 1950s and 60s slowly gave way to arms reduction agreements in the 1970s and 80s, and then the Cold War ended in 1989, democracy took hold all across Europe, and we seemed destined for a future of stability and freedom.

But then came the wars in the Balkans, the genocide in Rwanda, the 9/11 attacks and everything that followed. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, and Britain trying to find a way to extricate itself from the European Union, we face a future of deep uncertainty and great danger.

So will you join me on my rocket trip to the constellation Aquarius? Or should we stay put and hope the current political spasm will pass?

After all, UKIP didn't win the Stoke by-election, so maybe that spasm has already passed. On the other hand, Labour lost in Copeland, so its long slide into oblivion continues.

Conclusion? I'm on my way to the inter-stellar ticket office. See you there.

Friday 17 February 2017

A President unhinged, a world endangered

All foreign leaders who meet the US President these days have to ask themselves just one, deeply worrying question: does this man have a clue what he's talking about?

Or, to put it another way: Does he have the mental capacity to do the job he was elected to do?

I have witnessed a lot of press conferences during my 45-plus years as a reporter, but never, ever, have I witnessed anything to compare with President Trump's performance yesterday.

The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, summed it up perfectly: 'President Donald Trump defended as highly effective his tenure so far in the White House, which has been marked by legal fights, West Wing power struggles, confrontations with US allies, the withdrawal of one of his cabinet nominees and the firing of his national security adviser after he misled administration officials about his contacts with Russia.'

(Within hours, the man he had picked as his new national security adviser was reported to have turned the job down, apparently having described the prospect of joining an administration that Mr Trump insists is a finely-tuned machine as a 'shit sandwich'.)

This is the man who was reported last summer to have asked a foreign policy expert not once but three times: 'If we have them [nuclear weapons], why can't we use them?'

The man who was reported last week to have phoned his now ex-national security adviser at three o'clock in the morning to ask if a strong dollar or a weak dollar was better for the US economy.

The man who was reported this week -- again by the Wall Street Journal -- to be regarded with such deep suspicion by his own intelligence services that they have decided not to pass on everything they know because they don't trust him. 

And the man who, with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to him, answered a reporter's question about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks since his inauguration with the words: 'Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honoured by the victory that we had — 316 electoral college votes ... As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren. I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening. And you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. OK? Thank you.'

A day later, he was asked the same question again, and after calling the question unfair and insulting, these were his exact words: 'Here's the story, folks. Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism. The least racist person ... I hate the charge. I find it repulsive. I hate even the question.'

There is nothing new about suggesting that Donald Trump might not have the ideal temperament to be the head of state of the most powerful nation on the planet. What is new is the growing sense that he might not have the mental capacity. In the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, the highly respected commentator Elizabeth Drew writes: 'Trump’s possible mental deficiencies are ... a troubling question: serious medical professionals suspect he has narcissistic personality disorder, and also oncoming dementia, judging from his limited vocabulary. (If one compares his earlier appearances on YouTube, for example a 1988 interview with Larry King, it appears that Trump used to speak more fluently and coherently than he does now, especially in some of his recent rambling presentations.)'

The fact that Mr Trump is determined to wage war on the media -- except those that are uncritical of him -- is not the most serious of his many shortcomings. What must, surely, be far more worrying to every sentient being in Washington and around the world is that he appears to have only the most tenuous grip on reality.

He insists that he won the biggest election victory since Ronald Reagan, and when he is told to his face that he didn't, he sulks like a schoolchild: 'Well, I was given that information.'

I was in good company as my jaw hit the floor as I watched him in full flow at his press conference, reduced at one point to insisting (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that he was not 'ranting and raving'. The veteran Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, who just happens to be Winston Churchill's grandson, commented on Twitter: 'The President in full rant tonight. It seems he's acting heedless of grown up advice ... God knows what will happen with the big stuff.'

Which, of course, is why this is all so serious. In Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang, calculations are being made: how can we test this most unpredictable and unhinged of US presidents? Long-range missiles are being test fired, a Russian spy ship is spotted 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut, and in the Black Sea, Russian fighter jets are photographed buzzing a US warship.

At his joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister, President Trump off-handedly ripped up one of the US's most hallowed foreign policy principles: that the only solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is to create an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.

These were his exact words: 'I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.' In other words, 'one-state, two-state, what do I care?'

It so happens that I agree with the president that the so-called two-state solution is no longer feasible. As I wrote in my recently-published memoir, after fifty years of illegal Israeli settlement-building on occupied Palestinian territory 'any attempt to create an independent Palestinian state would end up looking not so much like a patchwork quilt as like a succession of ink blots left behind by a careless colonial conqueror.'

But I wish I felt that Mr Trump had any idea what he was talking about. And I wish I didn't have a deep nagging fear that his reckless insouciance may well lead the Palestinians to conclude that the man in the White House needs to be taught a lesson about the reality of the conflict.

Last November, just a few days after his election victory, I wrote: 'The election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place ... What scares me most about [him] is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead ... For the next four years, the world will scarcely dare to breathe as we learn to live with a dangerous and unpredictable president in the White House.'

Four years? I'm not sure we can survive four years. Members of the US Congress now have a heavy responsibility resting on their shoulders; let's hope they understand where their duty lies.

Their duty to their country, and to the rest of the world. To rescue all of us before the 45th President of the United States of America has a chance to do any more harm.

Friday 10 February 2017

Will the law stretch from Srebrenica to Saydnaya?

Let us pretend that Brexit isn't happening. Let us also pretend that the name Trump means nothing to you. And then let us focus on a tiny shaft of sunlight that cuts through the global gloom and serves to remind us that wrongs need not always last for ever.

Eight former Bosnian Serb police officers went on trial in Belgrade this week, charged with taking part in the massacre of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. It was the worst atrocity committed in Europe since the end of the Second World War -- and now, more than 20 years later, at least some of those alleged to have been responsible are facing justice.

Whatever the eventual verdicts, they will not bring back the dead. Just as the Nuremberg trials in 1945 and 1946 did not bring back any of the six million victims of the Holocaust. But justice serves a purpose, even after two decades. For survivors, and for the relatives of those who died, it means being able to look at the killers and say to them: 'What you did will not go unpunished.'

The military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, Ratko Mladić, is currently awaiting a verdict at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Last year, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, Radovan Karadžić, was sentenced to 40 years in jail after being convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. They have both faced justice, just as those eight former police officers are facing justice now in Belgrade.

I wonder if anyone in Damascus has noticed. Are there perhaps a few senior military officers, police officers -- who knows, perhaps people even closer to Bashar al-Assad -- wondering if one day, they, too, might find themselves facing justice?

According to Amnesty International, in one of the most shocking reports it has ever published, as many as 13,000 people have been hanged in a Syrian military prison over a five-year period since the start of the anti-government protests in 2011. Saydnaya prison is less than twenty miles from Damascus, and Amnesty says it believes that the abuses committed there 'have been authorised at the very highest levels of the Syrian government.'

The details in the Amnesty report are horrific. I do not intend to repeat them here, but you can read the report for yourself by clicking here. How credible are the accounts? Amnesty says it interviewed thirty-one former prisoners, four former prison officials or guards, three former judges, three doctors, four lawyers, and twenty-two people whose family members were believed to be detained at Saydnaya. To me, that sounds credible enough.

So here's what I'm getting at. One day -- perhaps in twenty years' time, or perhaps much sooner than that -- some of the people responsible for the obscenities taking place at Saydnaya will stand trial. Just as senior Nazis did at Nuremberg, and senior Khmer Rouge officials did in Cambodia.

Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice. Their current protectors in Moscow and Tehran have their own interests to protect, and would quite happily throw Assad to the wolves if they considered it to be in their own national interests.

Dictatorships never last for ever. Slobodan Milošević and his henchmen discovered that, as did Pol Pot and his band of Khmer Rouge murderers, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and countless others. Some despots die a natural death (Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong-il), others are overthrown and face trial for their crimes.

And that's where the law comes in. It might seem a bit of a stretch to link Brexit and Trump with the atrocities of Srebrenica and Saydnaya -- but all are, or should be, challengeable in the law courts. Whether it's Gina Miller and her successful challenge to Theresa May's decision to bypass parliament on the way to triggering Article 50, or the US 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the case against Donald Trump's proposed immigration ban, or the Belgrade trial of the former Bosnian Serb police officers -- as long as there are independent courts and courageous lawyers, there is hope for the victims of untrammelled executive power. (Which is why, of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, governments attack them.)

A final thought -- even incorrigible liberals like me need to remind ourselves sometimes that however miserable we might feel about Brexit or Trump, we face nothing a fraction as terrifying as what the Muslims of Srebrenica faced in 1995, or what the people of Syria have been facing for the past six years.

It helps to keep a sense of proportion.