Is Labour’s new code of conduct a gateway to antisemitism?

The ongoing row over the Labour Party’s new guidelines on antisemitism has understandably drawn a lot of attention in the last few weeks. It turned particularly heated when Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge directly called out Jeremy Corbyn as an “antisemite and a racist” in the House of Commons on 17th July, subsequently facing praise and criticism in equal measure. She since has been threatened with an investigation into “abusive conduct” and potentially disciplinary action by the Labour party, should she demonstrate similar behaviour in the future. It has also emerged that Peter Willsman, a member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) had been recorded at a meeting the same day, passing off reports of antisemitism as little more than “duff information without any evidence at all”, peddled by Jewish “Trump fanatics”. This all comes after Labour’s national executive committee ratified a decision to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in its own code of conduct, but to omit 4 of its 11 accepted examples of contemporary antisemitism. 

The IHRA definition has been accepted by 31 countries, and 130 councils across the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary; having been accepted as a working definition by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia in 2005, and by the UK government in 2016. Labour’s NEC however, deems it unnecessary to include the full text of the code in its own party rules; despite opposition by over 60 Rabbis and a vote on Monday 23rd July by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), to accept the IHRA definition, with all its working examples, in full. But what do these omissions actually mean? And what does Labour’s own code of conduct mean for a party already controversially embroiled in a trail of antisemitic scandals?

What’s missing in Labour’s code of conduct?

The Labour Party has accepted, unaltered, the full IHRA definition of antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”

However, in its examples of conduct “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, the NEC has included only 7 of the original 11, intentionally leaving out the following 4:

1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

This first example does seem to clearly construct a perception of Jewish citizens collectively, of acting purely in the interests of their own group to the detriment of others, and so not only denies Jewish people a sense of agency and independence from the worldwide Jewish community, which is itself derogatory, but accuses them of working against other groups because of their own innate loyalty. This of course is dangerous because it might cause individuals to be treated with suspicion, or even cause them to be targeted as a member of a ‘duplicitous’ group of people. Labour instead chooses to describe this as “wrong” in Article 14, rather than explicitly antisemitic.

It is clear that the working examples included in the IHRA code are intended to prevent a slide towards treating Jews, as a collective, as second-class citizens in their own countries. This would suggest that any act which makes generalising claims about Jewish people as a whole, is damaging. And that is exactly why this first is important, especially when such a claim might foster distrust of a collective group.

2. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour).”

This second example is to deny Jewish people autonomy and a right to their own security. By claiming the State of Israel to be inherently racist in its existence, an individual questions the legitimacy of the state – this in theory might deny the right of the Jewish community to a state at all. If an individual wished to criticise the particular acts of particular people who helped established the state of Israel, they may freely do so. If one wishes to criticise the acts of the current, or a former, Israeli government, they may also do so. But to label an Israeli state as an inherently racist endeavour is to view its very existence as wrong, based on an illegitimacy at its core. This would then be to deny the right of Jewish people to their Israeli state.

It does seem somewhat moot in the sense that, regardless of the circumstances of Israel’s creation, it now is unquestionably a state and has been for 70 years. Thus, one cannot exactly question the legitimacy of the state itself today anyway. Nevertheless, denying its original legitimacy is akin to claiming that Jewish people do not have a right to self-determination, which was a key principle underlying the state’s creation in 1948.

In fact, rather than including the example in the list, the NEC code of conduct does actually make very clear in its Article 12, in reference to Article 1(2) of the UN Charter that “the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as any other people”. It does not make reference to the “racist endeavour” example, however demonstrates clearly that to deny this right to Jewish people does constitute antisemitism. It does acknowledge also that “discussion of the circumstances of the foundation of Israeli state […] forms part of modern political discourse”. This therefore allows members to discuss freely those circumstances as they happened without challenging the current right of Jewish people to self-determination or the legitimacy of the current state of Israel.

3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

The inclusion of the third example also makes sense, as to hold Israel to higher standards than any other democratic nation would be to single out Israel in particular. It would certainly not be wrong to expect the state of Israel to behave at the same high standards of international cooperation and/or human rights as other democratic states, or even to place pressure on them to do so, but to demand more from the state without justification would be itself discriminatory. Rather than include the example in its list of examples, Labour’s code labels such conduct as “wrong” in Article 14, as it would be to hold “Muslims or Muslim organisations to a higher standard than others”.

4. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

A comparison of contemporary Israeli policy with that of the Nazis seems particularly troubling. If a critic wishes to condemn the hypothetical acts of an Israel whose policies might involve targeting or subjugating minorities, or totalitarianism, the critic may make that claim without using Nazism as a comparison – there are other comparisons to be drawn from history which are not so loaded with a particular historic and emotional weight for the Jewish people. The full code does not prevent criticism. It only excludes that comparison. And that seems reasonable given the weight of that chapter of Jewish, and world, history and the possibility of this being used with antisemitic intent.

This has been particularly relevant since Jeremy Corbyn made a statement earlier this week, apologising for having appeared at a Holocaust Memorial Day event in 2010, at which the keynote speaker, Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, drew a comparison between Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Nazi Germany. Mr Corbyn acknowledged that he had shared a platform with people “whose views I completely reject”; and apologised for any “concerns and anxiety” that it might have caused. 

It might be argued, however, that to prevent a critic from using a selected example of policy or action deployed under Nazi totality as a comparison, may insulate contemporary Israel from the full extent of scrutiny that any other state should be subject to. It is not impossible to imagine a hypothetical scenario where a selected policy under the Israeli government might leave some feeling systematically subjugated, targeted or discriminated against. We don’t refrain from drawing similar comparisons with Germany in the 1930s and 40s when other states implement dangerous or prejudicial policy – in this sense, Israel alone might be seen as being immune from that comparison. On the other hand, such acts could very easily still be condemned with the very same force by a member of the Labour Party, without drawing a direct comparison between the two cases. This merely acknowledges the specific sensitivity of the historic metaphor and instead places the onus on critics of Israel to be more creative with their criticism.

What’s been added to Labour’s code?

Labour’s code of conduct does in fact elaborate on one of the other examples in IHRA guidelines, pertaining to the use of symbols or images associated with classic antisemitism, to include the use of derogatory terms and stereotypical and/or negative physical depictions of Jewish people. This is undoubtedly positive in providing specific and unmistakeable examples of antisemitic language and has sadly been overlooked in many criticisms of Labour’s new code.

Labour Party guidelines also include the phrase, “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, in the preamble to the examples. This is intended to imbue the examples with a greater degree of force in judging cases of antisemitism, than treating cases as “potential” acts of antisemitism. However, it does seem odd that the Labour Party would be willing to use that phrase, and then not include the 4 remaining examples. If the NEC had concerns about the ability of party members to exercise free speech in those cases whose context did not constitute antisemitism per se, the use of the word “likely”, rather than “certainly” may still accommodate for such specific cases to be judged in their own context. The original IHRA code of conduct provides for such cases when it describes antisemitic examples which “could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to [x]”. This suggests that there may be more examples of antisemitism not included in their own code, and that each should be judged in the context of their particular use, before the label of antisemitism is given. It would seem that the benefit of increased force that comes from using “likely” rather than “could”, is not great enough to outweigh the negative signal that the omissions send to many, including Jewish people, who feel the code has missed the mark.

What the code of conduct means for Labour

I don’t believe that a failure to accept the full definition automatically renders Labour or its leader antisemitic. However, an unwillingness to do so does signal to Jewish people that some of those acts deemed unacceptable as antisemitic by the widely accepted IHRA definition, might not be subject to the same scrutiny, or the same label, by the Labour party. This obviously must be a cause for great concern among those experiencing, or at risk from, such acts; and particularly those who have felt targeted by members of the Labour Party in the past and who are unable to gain recompense under the new rules. This is a critical juncture for the Party, at a time when over 200 cases of alleged antisemitic conduct are under investigation, involving roughly 75 members. This is a time when the Labour Party should be making very public moves to address these past offences and to take a firm line against abuse and systemic prejudice in party ranks. It is clearly a time when the party should be making gestures to ensure all its members feel welcome and to make clear its opposition to antisemitism of all kinds, taking into the consideration the views of the target group itself.

The importance of the examples is undeniable. They offer a clear standard by which one may be held to account. And when these cases are spelled out explicitly, as they are in the IHRA code, it creates a space within which any critic of the current State of Israel and its policies might freely exercise their right to free speech, condemning the policies of a modern state, as per that individual’s right to freely criticise any other state. At the very least, an acceptance of the full code removes many grey areas, and merely requires critics to temper their language to a lexicon acceptable and inoffensive to a certain group. This still allows the content of their criticism – provided it is not discriminatory or anti-Semitic inherently – to be conveyed clearly and forcefully.

It is perhaps true that Labour’s code goes further than the IHRA code in providing examples of unacceptable language and stereotypes targeted towards Jewish people. It may also be the case that the use of the word “likely” rather than “could” carries a greater degree of force. The concerns of Israel’s critics may also be valid, if they fear a state being able to avoid the full extent of scrutiny otherwise levied without question against other states. However, the Labour Party would not be denying contextual discretion in judging each case of supposed antisemitism, by including the other 4 working examples. These are all included in one way or other in its code already. Instead, it would lay out clearer guidelines by which certain acts may be judged; and signal a willingness to treat acts of that nature with the same level of scrutiny as other cases in the other examples. It would also be a very small concession to make, to ensure Jewish members of the party, or those subject to abuse and/or discrimination by members of the Party in the past, are made to feel safe and welcome. Most importantly for Labour, it would communicate a willingness to listen to the concerns of a minority, to acknowledge their right to stand up publicly against any abuse they feel they have been subjected to; and to entrench this at the core of their party code.

NCF update: Libya’s lurch from one crisis to another

Since the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has remained in a persistent state of crisis. Western politicians and media have largely failed to understand developments during this period and the nature of the divisions in the country are now such that external observers have repeatedly lost track of who is in charge of what, and this confusion shows no sign of abating. The Next Century Foundation wishes to provide some much needed clarity regarding the current situation in Libya.

POLITICAL FORCES

The entrenched divisions in Libya are reflected by its myriad political factions, who each claim to have authority over the region. The international community has done little to diffuse these tensions by supporting whichever faction best suits their vested interests rather than prioritising the interests of the Libyan people. Currently, there are four main political factions in Libya:

  1. The Government of National Accord (GNA) – The GNA was established in 2015 in UN-backed negotiations to try and impose a stable authority in the region. It is the only internationally recognised government in Libya and is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Unfortunately, however, the GNA has failed to exercise any kind of authority extending beyond its very limited domain in western Libya, where it operates from Tripoli. Many argue that the GNA is a corrupt institution, accusing its leaders of earning exceptionally high salaries while doing little to resolve the country’s problems.
  2. The High Council of State – The High Council of State was formerly the General National Congress in Tripoli, formed in Libya’s first democratic elections in 2012. After its members refused to dissolve the congress in 2015 (and lose their salaries) a deal was struck during the UN negotiations to re-establish the congress as the ‘High Council of State’, an advisory body to the GNA. The reality, however, is that they have long since diminished as an influential political force. It is headed by Khaled al-Mishri, who replaced Abdarrahman Swehli in April 2018. He is a leading figure in the Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya).
  3. The Tobruk Parliament – also known as the House of Representatives, it was established after controversial national elections with a turnout of around 18% in 2014. It is based in Tobruk, a port city in the east of Libya. Its chairman is Aguila Saleh Issa who regards his Tobruk-based government (headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thenni) to be the only legitimate government in Libya. It is also important to note that the Tobruk parliament has endorsed the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar.
  4. General Haftar – General Khalifa Haftar controls almost the entire east of Libya. With a personal militia force at his disposal (which he calls the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA)) and backing from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and France, Haftar has taken command of key strategic centres like Tobruk, Benghazi and most recently Derna. The capture of Derna on 28th June was an important step in consolidating Haftar’s position, as it remained the last sizeable bastion of opposition to him in the east. Prior to Haftar’s takeover, since October 2014 Derna had been led by the Shura council of Mujahadeen, a coalition of Islamist militias. On May 7th, General Haftar announced the “Zero Hour” for the “liberation of Derna” and his forces began ramping up their military offensive.

Other, arguably more influential, centres of power in Libya are its financial institutions. Saddiq Kabir, for example, is head of the Central Bank and responsible for paying the salaries of many Libyans. Mustafa Sanalla is head of the National Oil Corporation and Abdullmaged Breish is head of the Libyan Investment Authority.

It should also be noted that General Haftar recently attempted to oust Saddiq Kabir from his position as governor of the Central Bank but was unsuccessful. He accuses Libya’s Central Bank of funneling money to extremist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood.

INTERNATIONAL INVOLVEMENT

The external interference in Libya from countries near and far has done little to encourage a quicker resolution to the conflict. This is particularly evident in the way General Haftar’s support comes more from abroad than at home. Egypt, for example, has been supplying his forces with training and various weapons, even carrying out direct air raids in Derna against Haftar’s opponents. At the same time, the UAE are operating their largest foreign military base in Al Khadim, 100 kilometres east of Benghazi. In much the way Iran have entrenched a military presence in Syria aimed at lasting into the future, the UAE have identified the chaos in Libya as too good an opportunity to miss for extending their regional influence.

France, on the other hand, has been hosting conferences in Paris aimed at fostering dialogue between General Haftar and al-Sarraj, all the while providing General Haftar with extensive military support during his endeavours in Derna and beyond. It would not be overly cynical to suggest that France’s main concern regarding Haftar’s quest for leadership is the financial benefits it could accrue through Libya’s oil. With such a multitude of foreign actors behind one man, Libyans have good reason to fear that they will be the ones benefitting least in any eventual political settlement.

The complexity in the east is mirrored by the chaos along the southern border. Since 2011, the constant state of flux in Libya has made it very easy for neighbouring countries like Chad and Sudan to infiltrate the 1500-kilometre-long border as and when they like. There is no longer any effective government presence in the south, only ongoing struggles for authority and control amongst local militia forces. Since 2014, the presence of Chadian rebel group FACT in the southern Fezzan region has only increased: they have been reported to have taken temporary control of key areas in the city of Sabha for example. Counterbalancing this is the similarly sizable Sudanese presence in the south. Fighters from JEM, a Sudanese opposition group, have been fighting alongside Haftar’s forces. The various forces pulling against each other in the south highlight the difficulty that any central Libyan government will have in regaining full control of the area in the future.

POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS

On May 29th, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a summit in Paris with representatives from Libya’s four political factions: al-Sarraj, Haftar, Saleh and al-Mishri. Each representative endorsed a motion to hold elections in Libya on 10th December, when the mandates of the High Council of State and the Tobruk Parliament will run out. It was also agreed that by 16th September a constitutional basis and electoral laws would be established.

Whether these elections (if held at all) will be fruitful, however, is another matter. In May of this year twelve people were killed in “an ISIS attack” on the headquarters of the Electoral Commission. Nor is it likely that there will be agreement on a draft constitution any time soon. A constitution is vital for providing a consensus around the rules and legal framework that would govern the elections. Particularly in Libya, elections in the absence of a constitution would be more likely to exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. However, despite the relative consensus over the necessity for a constitution, there is still division over its content. Some Libyans want a referendum on the current draft constitution while others want a completely new text. There are also reports that the constitutional committee was abandoned after it became apparent that its leader had dual Libyan-American nationality. Whatever happens, once an agreement has been arrived at it is essential for the international community to support the decision of the Libyan people, 1 million of whom are registered to vote in December’s elections should they take place.

On 14th June a coalition of armed forces seized the largest oil terminals in Libya’s eastern oil crescent, resulting in many civilian causalities and damage to infrastructure. General Haftar has since accused the Central Bank of channeling money to the militia leader responsible for blockading the oil terminals. Although General Haftar’s LNA was successful in recapturing the facilities on the 25th June, he announced that management of the facilities would be transferred not to the internationally recognised National Oil Corporation, but to a different NOC in the east. In retaliation, the official NOC imposed a force majeure on the oil terminals; 850,000 barrels a day were blocked from exportation and Libya lost over an estimated 900 million dollars. On the 11th July Haftar was made to hand back control of Libya’s oil ports to Sanalla’s NOC following a letter from US President Donald Trump that threatened legal action over Haftar’s crippling of Libya’s oil production. Although this relieved the immediate crisis, it brought to the fore underlying frustrations in Libya over the distribution of wealth and the plundering of resources. These concerns need to be addressed in order for political reconciliation to progress. The situation also highlighted the need to protect the country’s wealth so that – despite the political turmoil – public services will continue to function.

WAY FORWARD?

Although the upcoming elections are heralded as a positive step forward by many, it is difficult to see how they will bring about any fruitful change while the country is so fragmented. If there is no constitution then corruption and political violence will only flourish. Divisions in Libya will also remain entrenched while international powers continue to exploit the region and prevent self-determination of the Libyan people. There is little point in diplomats congratulating themselves on rhetorical commitments to elections and ongoing dialogue, for there will be very little to congratulate until Libya reemerges as a functioning state.

Indeed, the situation in Libya remains desperate. The al-Sarraj government has had three years to create some stability with a view to peace, and has yielded no results. Lawlessness in Tripoli is rife and the government turns a blind eye to foreign aircraft landing on Libyan territory at will. There has been a scarcity of bread, fuel, and electricity in the capital for years now, the Central Bank is regularly late in paying the salaries of much of the Libyan population, and the drafting of the new constitution has suffered numerous setbacks.

Compounding the humanitarian crisis are the large numbers of refugees being trafficked through Western Libya from Chad, Niger, and Sudan. The position of the GNA in western Libya is also weakened by the growing threats of militias who control other nearby cities such as Misrata and Zintan. Exasperated by the lack of constructive change under al-Sarraj’s government, they plan to march on Tripoli to incite change in the capital.

All of these failures are pointing in the direction of a change, a fresh approach in the governing of Libya. Whether the international community has enough credit to install a new government in place of al-Sarraj is doubtful considering their underwhelming track record. Nor can we be certain that the international community has the will to implement such wide-sweeping reform in what is now an even more divided Libya. The best hope for a Libyan government to reassert its sovereignty over the whole country is to find ways of making compromises which generate goodwill amongst the key domestic actors. General Haftar agreeing to allow four oil export ports to reopen is an example of this. At the same time, the kind of decentralised style of government which was so prominent in Libya following its independence must be the foundation from which oil rents can be fairly redistributed to help address dire living standards. Gradually, local authorities could coordinate with each other on the security front and move towards a unified national force. By no means is it an easy task, but it may represent an encouraging starting point on the way to rebuilding what is a terribly torn country.

#Libya #UN

By Ardi Janjeva and Isobel Thompson

FGM in the UK: how to prevent this tragedy

Although it has been over three decades since FGM was made illegal in the UK, UNICEF estimates that it is currently a reality for 137,000 British girls and women and a further 144,000 are currently at risk of FGM in England and Wales. Despite these staggering figures, only two FGM cases have ever been brought to court in the UK and both have resulted in acquittals.

One of the great difficulties is that police often struggle to obtain enough proof to secure a conviction. Although FGM is certainly being carried out in the UK, most cases are carried out abroad over the summer holidays before the child is brought back to school. Even when it does occur in this country, many of the affected communities are socially isolated and children feel a duty to protect their complicit family members. Many cases also exist where a person has undergone FGM before taking up residency in the UK.

Since being first made illegal in 1985 (in the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act) the law has been amended multiple times to safeguard potential victims of FGM and also to introduce mandatory reporting of FGM in under-18s. Despite this legislation, many are angry that there have been no prosecutions related to FGM in the UK, whereas in France there have been more than a hundred convictions over the past few decades.

The eradication of FGM is made all the more difficult by the domestic nature of the practice – many rightly argue that sending a child’s parents to prison is unlikely to be in the child’s best interests. Education, therefore, is the key to changing the societal attitudes that underpin and perpetuate this crime. FGM is not sanctioned by any religion, there are no health benefits, and the psychological and physical damage from the procedure are long-lasting, not to mention the numerous human rights violations it entails. More time and money must be invested in the prevention of this hugely damaging and out-dated procedure so that FGM is no longer a reality for thousands of vulnerable young girls both in Britain and across the globe today.

#FGM

UN High Court Rules in Qatar-UAE Case

A year since the blockade against Qatar, the Gulf nation has for the first time taken the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) over what it described as human right violations.

The boycott, which has been in effect since June 2017, is led by Saudi Arabia with the support of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – all previous partners of Qatar in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – and Egypt.

In June, Qatar’s government put forward a case, seeking reparations by arguing that the UAE enacted a series of measures that discriminate against Qataris. The measures include expelling Qataris from the UAE, prohibiting them from entering or passing through the UAE, ordering UAE nationals to leave Qatar, and closing UAE airspace and seaports to Qatar.

Qatar’s government argues that these actions were in violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) – including discrimination on the basis of nationality. A tactical move by Qatar as the UAE and Qatar are the only Gulf signatories to the convention.

In response, the UAE offered a defence to Qatar’s case, citing similar allegations that were leveled against Qatar when the diplomatic row broke out last year. The UAE’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Saeed Al-Nuwais, has dismissed Qatar’s discrimination case as baseless and rejected all allegations.

However, on Monday, the ICJ ruled in favour of Qatar. The vote, albeit a narrow one with eight judges in favour and seven against, ruled that the measures put in place by the UAE amounted to racial discrimination and must immediately reunite Qatari families affected by the blockade and allow Qatari students to continue their education in the UAE. The ICJ’s decision, whilst provisional is nonetheless binding and a further proceeding is expected to be scheduled at a future date.

Despite the difficulties, Qatar overcame the economic impacts of the blockade – maintaining healthy growth. The blockading countries were already under economic hardship as a result of low oil prices, and have themselves suffered from cutting economic trade with Qatar. Energy-rich Qatar tapped into its massive wealth reserves to absorb the initial impact on its economy and secured alternatives means of trade for food supplies and maritime routes and ports.

This is a small victory for Qatar, who still remains isolated and estranged from neighbouring countries. A political solution to the Gulf crisis seems further far afield, as neither Qatar nor the blockading nations have shown any signs of backing down.

Mrs June Jacobs CBE

Mrs June Jacobs CBE, Trustee of the Next Century Foundation and former President of the International Council of Jewish Women, has died suddenly following a stroke. She was much loved.

June was one of the founding members of the Next Century Foundation. Many core members of the Next Century Foundation, such as the late Duke of Devonshire, who hosted our first and at that time secret, international conference at his Chatsworth home, were on board because June brought them on board. She was trusted. In those early days it was illegal for Israel’s politicians to meet senior members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. One of the key functions of the NCF at that stage was to bring together senior PLO members like PLO fund boss the late Jaweed al Ghussein, with senior Israelis, men who even now must remain nameless. And June was often the unheralded facilitator of such meetings.

June had many talents. She was a superb chairwoman for one thing, merciless as the best chairs often are. With an iron fist in a velvet glove she would brook no misbehaviour, and treated king and commoner alike.

Perhaps more importantly June was  a great networker and a great campaigner for women’s rights. These two aspects to her character we place side by side because of her work at the United Nations, where she encountered and supported fellow activists. In which context the NCF is particularly grateful to June. She brought onboard human rights workers across the world, one of the greatest of whom, our anchorwoman in Kirkuk, the great Surood Kirkuky, who often risked her life to support NCF missions to that poor benighted city, only did so because she trusted us because she trusted her friend Mrs June Jacobs whom she loved and respected.

That was the best of June, her enviable capacity to make and keep countless friends across the world, and her great compassion. And June was the embodiment of that word: Compassion. Like the greatest of those with a Jewish heritage, she cared deeply for others. She cared most particularly for the Palestinians. This perhaps because she regarded them as particularly vulnerable and the Jewish people, having reclaimed their ancestral homeland, as having a particular responsibility for the wellbeing of their cousins. In which context her compassion was boundless. She had more close Palestinian friends than any Jewish woman since the beginning of time.

There are not words enough to write of June Jacobs. Her constant love and care was a phenomenon. She never came to a meeting empty-handed, sometimes bringing a bottle of wine but more often bringing her own home baked cheesecake – arguably amongst the best in the world. June was a great woman who embodied the best of what it is to be Jewish. The world is a better place because she lived. The Next century Foundation is, in large part, the organisation it is because of her. She will be sorely missed. May God grant her the place among the angels she so richly deserves.

William Morris, NCF Secretary General

Photo of June at the International Media Awards 2017 copyright Matthew Tomkinson 2017

In Memoriam

For Mrs June Jacobs CBE, 1930 to 2018:

Come Summer,
Wrap her up,
In goodness.
Soft balm’ed breeze,
Careen her home,
Whilst still alone,
She trails dependents,
Like a fisherman,
Trails a net,
Behind her.
Save these her fishes,
She protects,
As duty would decree,
Or destiny,
Or perhaps mere providence,
In evidence of which she holds,
Tomorrow in her hand.
And finding death she walks beyond the grave,
Still trailing those that need her care.
As others did in their time,
She does now,
And stands upon their shoulders in so doing.
So too for all of those who care,
And dare,
To stand defiant ‘gainst decree-ed fate,
And cut a path that’s theirs, however late,
A swathe scythed naked from the Summer grass,
For Autumn’s coming and comes in too fast.

photo: © Jackie Richards 2018

Who would be a better Prime Minister for the Middle East?

In these turbulent times for British politics, one can be forgiven for some mild hypothesising over potential successors to Prime Minister Theresa May, whose premiership is likely to be short-lived once the Brexit process is over. Many on the right are already championing Jacob Rees-Mogg as the next Conservative Party leader, a man as true to his socially conservative values as he is to severing all ties with the European Union. Or perhaps Boris Johnson will finally have his way after years of seeking the role and positioning himself as an alternative to May’s ‘soft’ Brexit approach. Nor should we underestimate the potential for Jeremy Corbyn, who represents the opposition to nearly a decade of Conservative government austerity, to win the next General Election.

But what would each of these different politicians mean for Britain’s relations with the Middle East? Might there be other – less well-known – MPs whose track record suggests that they would be a better Prime Minister for the region?

Jeremy Corbyn once stated that opposing violence and war has been ‘the whole purpose of his life’. He is also one of the few politicians who has been right to link British military interventions abroad with terrorist attacks in the UK. This is something other UK politicians ought to come to terms with in order to have a well-considered foreign policy. Bombing cities in order to rid them of terrorism is more likely to exacerbate resentment of the West than to create a peaceful environment.

His anti-interventionism is certainly a refreshing trait after the campaigns of the 21st century so far, which have seen the destruction of so many cities and lives in the Middle East – most recently Raqqa and Mosul where over 80% of their civilian infrastructure was destroyed in a western coalition campaign to rid them of ISIS.

Corbyn was also one of the handful of MPs who voted against the attack on Libya, another disastrous campaign which has led to Libya becoming a failed state with four dysfunctional ruling factions. He has also called for an independent enquiry into the UK’s arms exports policy to Saudi Arabia after a UN panel ruled in 2016 that the Saudi led bombing of Yemen was against international humanitarian law. Taking responsibility for British actions abroad and a commitment to fair distribution of aid would certainly make Britain more of a credible arbiter in the Middle East, making it easier to hold other countries to high standards without being undermined by accusations of hypocrisy.

However, Corbyn’s cooler approach to Sunni Arab nations would mark a significant departure from the Conservative government’s long-standing approach to the region. Although his humanitarian considerations are respectable, some worry that, under Corbyn, trade relations would suffer with Gulf States. Traditionally, our relations with GCC countries have been seen as vital to British economic and security interests, and a withdrawal of our friendship could open opportunity for other countries, such as Russia, to cement their ties with these powerful states.

Whatever their views, the Labour party has certainly been clear on its position regarding the Middle East, attaining a level of transparency that the Conservative party has failed to live up to. While the last Labour election manifesto in 2017 clearly laid out the party’s position on the region, the Tory manifesto made no mention of the Middle East whatsoever.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has stressed his ambition to develop free trade deals with the Middle East after Brexit. While such deals could do much to foster relations with GCC countries – no bad thing – increased sales of armaments can only draw the UK further into regional conflicts, such as its indirect involvement in Yemen by providing Saudi Arabia with weapons. He has also voted in favour of air strikes to attack supposed chemical weapons facilities in Douma and defended Theresa May’s decision to do so with no parliamentary vote on the matter. Again, this sort of impulsive behaviour is problematic. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has not yet even been able to confirm that chemical weapons were used in the attack in April, let alone been able to discern who was responsible.

Indeed, if anything is to be learnt from the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is to exercise restraint and caution before embarking on any kind of military intervention. Moreover, his objective to reduce Britain’s foreign aid budget – describing it as ‘fundamentally wasteful’ – is at odds with his support for air strikes, which inevitably destroy civilian communities and infrastructure. It is a mistake to assume that Western air strikes in the name of combatting terrorism will be wholeheartedly welcomed by civilians if there is no aid set aside for reconstruction after the damage has been caused.

However, it should be noted that Rees-Mogg hasn’t always been supportive of intervention in Syria. He has been cynical of the UK’s support for Syrian rebels, arguing that this has done nothing but facilitate the rise of terrorism, prolong the conflict and the mass displacement of people. While his opinions in this regard do demonstrate some genuine insight, it is a shame that this hasn’t informed his overall attitude towards Middle Eastern foreign policy.

Boris Johnson – with his notorious penchant for buffoonery – has shown himself to be largely ineffectual during his time as Foreign Secretary, with Britain’s voice gradually dwindling in the Gulf region. His sparse achievements were largely offset by his tasteless jokes – about dead bodies in Libya, for example – which could prove even more damaging if he were to be Prime Minister.

As we can assume Corbyn is here to stay, who else from the Conservative party might come forward as a potential successor to May, and what can we predict about their positions on the Middle East?

Rory Stewart (former Minister of State for International Development in Asia and the Middle East and Minister of State for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) has shown great capability and lucidity when it comes to Middle Eastern affairs. He certainly has the experience; after leaving the Foreign Service where he served as the coalition Deputy-Governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq in 2003, he walked for 21 months across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, staying in 500 village houses on the journey. Even Stewart, however, has expressed concerning opinions about the ‘need’ to kill British volunteers fighting for ISIS without bringing them back for a proper trial.

Tobias Ellwood, on the other hand, who has also served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, Africa and Counter Terrorism, has voiced his support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, with little else to say regarding the indiscriminate bombing of Yemeni civilians.

Striking a balance between humanitarian, security and diplomatic concerns is always going to be difficult. Three particular areas of concern seem to be a lack of coherent understanding among politicians about the situation in the Middle East, and an unwillingness to recognise the plight of civilians. Another is the tendency to make knee-jerk responses when it comes to military intervention without following proper procedure – such as after the supposed chemical weapons attack in April.

As instability persists in the Middle East, it is more important than ever for Britain’s future Prime Minister to act with clarity and compassion to ensure diplomatic solutions that provide stability and peace for civilians. Some politicians certainly have more strengths than others, but on balance perhaps Jeremy Corbyn would prove most beneficial for the region with his emphasis on caution, and construction.

 

Syrian reconstruction – the West is caught between a rock and a hard place

Bashar Al-Assad’s government has this week continued hammering settlements in South Western Quneitra and Deraa Governorates, most notably in Nawa, where at least 14 have died and over 100 have been injured in air raids, part of an offensive intended to remove the last remnants of rebel strongholds in South Western Syria. This comes just days after government forces seized al-Haara Hill, a strategic post overlooking the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; and after Syrian rebels in Quneitra reached an agreement which, according to UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), “provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons and the return of government institutions in the area”. Focus has also been on Idlib Province in the North West, where 6,000-7,000 pro-government civilians have just been evacuated by bus from the besieged, Shia-majority towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, following a deal reached between Damascus and anti-government rebels, in return for the release of many detained in state prisons.

This week’s activity demonstrates two things: that while government forces make significant advances in the South West, the Syrian conflict is very much still in full-swing; and that such conflict continues to cause untold destruction across the country. As conflict rages on, many question how Syria will begin to reconstruct in the wake of a war with a price tag far in excess of $250 billion, the figure estimated by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, back in November. The true cost of the war is expected to be much higher. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) also initially estimated, early in the conflict, that it would take 30 years for Syria’s economy to recover to its pre-2011 level – this would now likely take far longer. The challenge facing the Syrian government, and the international community is therefore monumental. The question is, who will foot the bill?

Syria’s Allies

It is clear that the cost of reconstruction is far beyond the capacity of President Assad’s government, and even beyond the reach of its two closest allies in the conflict, Russia and Iran. That is not to say that they are not eager to take part in the reconstruction. In fact, Russia was quick, back in early 2016, to sign infrastructure rebuilding contracts amounting to $1 billion; and this will likely only continue. Iran too has signed lucrative contracts to rebuild phone networks and the national power grid. The commercial branch of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already proved a valuable force in the reconstruction effort, having lent support throughout the conflict. They are well versed in the field of post-war reconstruction, and have built a significant reputation for rebuilding within Iran, following their devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s. In April, President Rouhani further renewed state-support for the Syrian government and its rebuilding efforts, stating that Iran “stands beside the country and people of Syria and will continue to aid it in defending against the forces of evil and returning security and stability throughout the Syrian Arab Republic”. Likewise, their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, would also seek a role in the rebuilding effort, having already offered their support to the Syrian Arab Army.

Russia and Iran are clearly keen to help, and by doing so may seek to increase their influence in the country. And this certainly fits with President Assad’s government’s intention to offer contracts to those few who have stood by Damascus throughout the conflict, and in return for continued political support. So reconstruction may present opportunities for mutual gain to both Syria and its allies. 

However support from Syria’s allies only goes so far; and what little support is given, will be allocated in line with the government’s own interests. This means selective rebuilding in areas loyal to President Assad through clientelist contractors, likely in return for short term profits. Investing in loyal areas also means investing in those areas relatively unscathed by government siege. This means significant rebuilding cannot occur in the areas most damaged, and therefore those most in need of recovery. This would lead to even deeper divisions within Syria, with wealth distributed between Damascus and those loyal to the government, and contrasted with a poorer, devastated periphery. This promises to merely exacerbate existing divisions.

China

China has maintained a slightly more impartial position in the Syrian conflict, though it maintains a cordial diplomatic relationship with Damascus. They also have clear vested interests in Syrian investment. They are likely keen to stem the flow of the some 4,000-5,000 radicalised Uighur Muslims passing between Xinjiang province and North Western Syria, where many have joined anti-government jihadist groups. Syria is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), their land and maritime project to foster international development and trade across Eurasia. China therefore has an obvious interest in rebuilding, particularly in areas of Northern Syria, with an eye on the next step of their grand development strategy. China, much like Iran and Russia, enjoys the ability to invest in Syrian reconstruction, due to its ongoing diplomatic relations with the Assad government; and because its investment is not conditional on any political reform, resisted by Damascus, but so strictly pursued by Western governments.

The United States

The US is unlikely to fund any long term reconstruction efforts inside Syria without some substantial political conditions. This by no means implies that the US is seeking to ignore the ongoing conflict altogether, however. By January 2018, USAID had provided nearly $7.7 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syrians and more than $875 million in “stabilization” and other non-humanitarian assistance (often distributed through rebel groups). This is alongside active support for opposition groups inside Syria, in its ongoing effort to eradicate the threat posed to its own national security by the Islamic State group. The Syrian government also continues to face tough US sanctions. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated emphatically in January that the United States would only encourage the normalisation of economic relations between Syria and other nations “once Assad is gone from power”. It therefore seems that a concerted US effort to rebuild parts of Syria, the damage in much of which the US itself is responsible for, through its arming of Syrian rebel groups and airstrikes on government facilities and IS strongholds like Raqqa – 80% of which has been destroyed – will not be made until real political change happens.

But this change does not seem to be coming any time soon, with Assad vowing to remain in power until at least 2021. Any election or any substantial political reform seems out of the question until this point, despite the UN Security Council’s support for free and fair elections to be held within 18 months of Resolution 2254 back in December 2015. And while the Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki last week might have shown a degree of willingness on the part of the US to engage Syria’s ally over the conflict, details of their discussion have so far been lacking. A 2017 RAND study suggests that the longer the US boycotts reconstruction, the stronger will be the Russian and Iranian positions in the country. This implies the US does have a geopolitical interest in supporting the rebuilding effort. America’s refusal to give aid direct to the government however, means that it may instead seek to leverage influence over the World Bank, IMF and UN to offer assistance at the local level, in return for a degree of local democratic reform. 

The EU

The EU likewise has proved unwilling to offer unconditional assistance.  The European Council’s Syria strategy document produced in March 2017 “reiterates” that Europe “will be ready to assist in the reconstruction of Syria only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition … is firmly under way.” Similar to the US, intervention by some European states has led some to question whether they have an obligation to help in the reconstruction, given their part in the destruction of some Daesh enclaves and support for anti-government rebels. 

They also have another clear motivation to engage in rebuilding; to help stem the flow of Syrian refugees towards Europe. The UNHCR had already counted roughly a million asylum applicants in Europe in mid-2017, and many others of the 5 million refugees outside Syria continue to add pressure on European governments. A comprehensive reconstruction program to rebuild homes, communities and industries back home in Syria would certainly help alleviate much of this pressure. Sadly, European governments are caught between offering support through the Assad government, or small-scale investment projects, themselves largely conditional on the will of the central government when taking place in government-held areas or working with government approved local partners.

In any case, the government does not have the luxury of rejecting bottom-up support from European governments – they are still far shy of their vast $250 billion target. A bottom-up approach would certainly be more complicated than directing assistance through the central government. However, a top-down approach would mean diverting funds solely to areas loyal to the government. Any government-led redevelopments in former opposition areas, like the Basateen al-Razi in Western Damascus – which boasts to be rehousing 60,000 residents – or Jouret al-Shayah in Homs, are viewed by some as a means of consolidating power through patronage among potential dissidents and of therefore controlling the local population.

The bottom line

The international community has two options. They can pursue reconstruction in isolation from a political solution; in a piecemeal way through small scale rebuilding initiatives in non-government-controlled areas (which are shrinking daily), while the government continues to award contracts to its allies to rebuild in less devastated, loyal areas. Or they can continue to withhold reconstruction until a political solution is reached. Once political reform, or even a change of government occurs, rebuilding may happen on physical, societal, economic and political levels. A joint statement by NRC, SAVE, CARE, Oxfam and IRC last year argued that in the absence of the “respect for human rights and protection of an independent civil society” that would come from a political solution, “a move towards reconstruction assistance risks doing more harm than good”. This may be true. The former of the two options would see reconstruction pursued slowly and inefficiently, at a time when over half of Syria’s hospitals, two-thirds of its schools and a quarter of all homes have been damaged or destroyed; while over half of Syria’s pre-war population is still in need of humanitarian assistance. It would also see the government and its allies consolidate their influence across the country. Meanwhile, Assad’s government continues to make progress and shows no sign of making the political concessions necessary for more substantial reconstruction to take place. What is certain is that Syria will take far longer than the 30 years initially predicted by the UNRWA for it to recover. Western governments have a huge responsibility on their hands, and a difficult decision to make.

Algeria’s migrants march across the Sahara

Reports of Algeria’s expulsion of migrants into the Sahara desert have received widespread condemnation from officials around the world. Human rights groups have accused Algerian authorities of arbitrarily arresting and expelling migrants from Sub-Saharan African countries. The expulsions came as pressure mounted from the European Union for North African governments to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean and reaching the shores of Europe.

According to the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), since May 2017 more than 13,000 people, including women and children, have been rounded up and driven to the desert and pointed towards Niger or Mali.

Survivors who were interviewed by the Human Rights Watch gave accounts of being rounded up on the streets or at their places of work, before being crammed into trucks and driven to the desert. Some also accused the police of beatings and stealing their belongings.

In a report published by the Associated Press, it was found that Algeria forced migrants, by the hundreds every week to traverse the scorching and unforgiving desert where temperatures reached up to 48°C. They were given no food and no water, walking dozens of kilometers before being picked up by UN rescue teams. Survivors told the Associated Press of how their companions vanished in the desert. Migrants used their phones to film their ordeals, documenting their journey as they were being transported en masse in trucks and being marched across the blistering desert.

Algeria has denied all allegations of rights abuses. Journalists were invited to tour their detention centres, or perhaps more accurately described as overcrowded jails, citing it was proof of their humane treatment of migrants. However, journalists were not permitted to travel beyond the detention centers where migrants are held prior to being forcibly expelled, and therefore were unable to see what was transpiring after being ‘deported.’

Since the report by the Associated Press, expulsions seemed to have all but stopped – with the number of expelled migrants dropping significantly. But a recent report suggests that Algeria’s government has again resumed expelling migrants into the Sahara desert, leaving another 391 people to stumble their way through the harsh terrain.

The European refugee crisis admittedly marked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, which saw the largest influx of migrants into Europe since the Second World War. Yet, figures show that the largest refugee movements happen within Africa itself; with the region of Sub-Saharan Africa being home to 4.4 million refugees and a staggering further 19.5 million “people of concern”. One can hope that the coverage of Algeria’s expulsion of Sub-Saharan Africans highlights the plight of other migrants from not only North Africa but across the entire continent.

ISD’s YouthCAN Lab, Brussels – an optimistic hive of youth activism

Violent extremism and hate speech continue to be two of the most pernicious threats to life in Western Europe today, and are too often a reality for countless groups and individuals made to feel marginalised in their own homes and online. It not only perpetuates division and fear between groups, it also can isolate those most at risk of slipping further down the stream of extremism. That makes events like the Institute of Strategic Dialogue’s Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN) Lab in Brussels particularly important, and particularly promising. 

The workshop

Typically, these 2-day workshops bring together roughly 30 participants from around the world and from diverse backgrounds, drawing them together through a shared passion for civil activism and an ambition to enact real change in communities at home and abroad. The group I joined included Belgian Imams countering extremism daily in local prisons, and communities like Molenbeek in Western Brussels – home to at least three of the Paris 2015 attackers – alongside grassroots student activists and members of the global campaign #TurnToLove, the group whose poignant messages of peace and unity filled newspapers in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing. People of all faiths and none, from India to Slovenia, joined together to exchange personal stories of marginalisation, hate speech and even attempted recruitment, in an effort to learn, share and teach about what makes a compelling counter-narrative to those of hate, fear, insecurity and ignorance.

The lab itself, run by ISD and generously supported by the King Baudouin Foundation, encouraged a healthy mix of informal dialogue, panel discussions and lectures to teach us participants about successful online campaigns and grassroots projects making waves throughout Belgium. We were given insights by, among many others, Youcef Naimi of CEAPIRE, an Antwerp-based organisation offering training, prevention and support to counter radicalism in Muslim communities; and Ihsane Haouach who, through the Talented Youth Network (TYN) in Brussels, works directly with young people at the community level, to foster engagement and unity to overcome the pull towards extremism. We were also given training into campaign strategy and social media analytics; giving us the tools needed to create our very own campaigns.

The remainder of the lab was spent in groups, divided by sub categories like ‘youth’, ‘faith’ and ‘gender’, and set free to build our own campaigns, to then be presented at the end of the workshop to a panel of insiders. These sessions gave us the opportunity to interact with the others in our groups to share expertise and ideas; and gave us an insight into designing a campaign from the foundations up. This prompted us to think about targeting, message and monitoring of prospective campaigns and helped us form the bare bones of the projects.

A few criticisms

The issue though was that much of these skills seemed to be applicable to any online marketing campaign. Somewhat lacking was any in-depth context framing the practices of extremist groups themselves or indeed exposing attendees to some of the messages deployed by these groups. It would have been valuable to be given an insight into how these groups recruit members, communicate between themselves, and/or target and disseminate their information, as well as engage in online activity like ‘raids’, the use of ‘bots’, or campaign hijacking. Some access to comprehensive field research might have been useful, as would a specific session focused on research into our particular target groups and their demographics, motivations and so forth, rather than merely brainstorming sessions. I often felt that for us to be expected to create an effective, targeted campaign, each group should have had access to input from experts on those extremist groups themselves. Instead, it felt as though we were creating campaigns on behalf of the marginalised but which would only resonate with those already sympathetic to their struggle, without really knowing who we needed to convince or how we could go about doing so

The second key issue with the event was one of structure and (understandably) constrained time. Being only a 2-day event meant that it was difficult to both educate us about online campaigning and extremism; and build our campaigns from the foundations up. I felt that for either of these tasks to be done thoroughly, they would each require 2 days alone, or at the very least a whole day committed to creating the campaign. In reality, we spent a few 10-15 minute sessions thinking through conceptual ideas for the campaign, interspersed with lectures and presentations, then only 45 minutes to fully create a whole campaign message and strategy, and consider logistics. Perhaps this might have been enough for groups whose target audience was other ‘young people’ and their message about general political open-mindedness (which one of the campaigns sought to address); but for such a complex and pervasive issue as Islamophobia among lower-middle-class and working-class whites in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, such brevity simply made any thorough campaign design impossible. In this sense, the event did seem somewhat overly ambitious or its programme poorly balanced.

The campaigns

Nevertheless, the workshop produced several potential online social media campaigns, designed to break into echo chambers and provoke engagement by offering alternative narratives to those of mistrust and hatred, pedalled by extremist groups online. One campaign, titled #MyValues, sought to counter the fear among some white working-class Western European groups, of Islam, fuelled by a misperception of the religion as one of violence and hate. It imagined Muslim citizens integrated in their local communities, and engaged in acts of day-to-day compassion and unity; their good deeds all underpinned by values of kindness and respect, so familiar to their extremist opponents, yet themselves informed by Islamic scripture so feared by them. In stark contrast, another campaign tackled the conservative views of older generations, by inspiring young people online to “Make Our ‘Grannies’ Cool Again”, informing them about the threat of fake news and offering information to people’s less technologically savvy relations.

The campaigns themselves were imbued with a tremendous sense of hope; and the enthusiasm of the participants to foster real change online and in their own communities. What the ISD’s YouthCAN Lab demonstrated, was real willingness on the part of young global activists, to counter the most damaging messages of hate they see online daily. It also showed the promise of such fledgling projects, powerfully put forward by a dynamic group with real insights into social media and an understanding of grassroots, online extremism. I’d like to see future YouthCAN events more focused on certain categories of extremism. While the four campaigns were diverse and innovative in their own ways, a greater division of labour in two larger groups may have allowed more thorough research into targets, message and monitoring. This might replace four half-formed and un-costed potential campaigns with two comprehensive, research-driven and immediately implementable campaigns.

The YouthCAN lab in Brussels was undoubtedly a positive experience and certainly productive in bringing together diverse young activists and in giving them the most crucial tools to build their own grassroots and online campaigns. There were also clear ways in which the experience could have been improved. In truth, much of this simply came down to time; but much could also have been improved by dividing the event up in larger blocs, one focused on education, the other on implementation and campaign planning. This is, however, certainly not to overlook the success, importance and enjoyability of the workshop – and other events like it run by the ISD – or to deny the sense of hope derived from having so many enthusiastic and inventive young activists working together to counter the hate and extremism so sadly widespread in our communities and on the internet.

The Great Mosque of al-Nuri: a symbol of IS occupation

A deeply sad sight: The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was reduced to rubble during the Battle of Mosul in 2017. Here it is today, just a year after the liberation, photographed by NCF member and war artist, George Butler, who is currently in Mosul. The mosque had stood on this site for almost 850 years and its leaning, 45-metre tall minaret, al-Hadba’ (“the hunchback”) had been a famed landmark for many centuries.

It was more recently where Daesh’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood during Friday prayer on 4th July 2014 to declare the formation of a new “caliphate”, after Islamic State (IS) seized the city just weeks previously. Following its demolition in June 2017, Iraqi government forces claimed they had found evidence to suggest that the mosque may have been deliberately blown up by IS, a gesture described as their “declaration of defeat”, by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.

With Mosul having been wrested from IS control in July 2017, the Mosque is now a symbol for the destruction of the city and its rich heritage both during and in the aftermath of the Daesh occupation.

In April of this year, the United Arab Emirates pledged over $50 million to help rebuild the Mosque and other nearby sites, in conjunction with UNESCO, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and Iraq’s culture ministry. This will take at least five years, the initial project focused on clearing the rubble on site and surveying for future rebuilding.

In time, the al-Nuri Mosque may be restored to a semblance of its former magnificence. But for now, it seems a long way off.

Image by George Butler

Why does France support General Haftar in Libya?

On 29th May 2018, France convened an international meeting on Libya, bringing together representatives from its four divided political factions. This included Aguila Saleh (the Chair of the House of Representatives in Tobruk whose Prime Minister is Abdullah al-Theni), Khalid al-Mishri (the head of the High Council of State in Tripoli which was originally the old congress), Fayez al-Sarraj (the head of the internationally recognised Presidential Council) and General Khalifa Haftar.

General Haftar, commander of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), has taken control over much of eastern Libya. He has command of the strategic port city of Tobruk and Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi. In late June Haftar also took control of the city of Derna in a ground offensive by the LNA. This followed a two-year siege by Haftar’s forces and hundreds of civilian casualties.

The main division in Libya, therefore, is between the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West, headed by al-Sarraj, and Haftar’s forces in the East. Macron’s goal for the summit was to get all four Libyan sides to commit to an agreement under the auspices of the UN and to start arrangements for staging elections before the end of 2018. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no tangible results have come from this meeting. A similar meeting between al-Sarraj and Haftar in July 2017 also produced no positive outcome. It is becoming clear that these summits on Libya are heralded more as a diplomatic accomplishment for France rather than a genuine breakthrough in the conflict.

Despite encouraging open dialogue and peaceful conflict resolution, however, France has maintained its controversial support for General Haftar for the past three years instead of backing the GNA, which was implemented by a UN-led initiative in 2015. Almost immediately after Macron’s summit at the end of May it became apparent that France had provided General Haftar with reconnaissance aircraft to help his forces advance on Derna.

Why, then, is there such a discord between Macron’s rhetoric about peace and diplomacy on the one hand, and his provision of weaponry to a particular side of the conflict on the other?

During the summit in May, Macron was keen to promote a quick presidential election in Libya, supposedly as a means to centralise the government and reduce tensions in the region. Many are arguing, however, that elections cannot happen until there is a constitution which would provide a set of rules and a legal framework to govern the elections. Many Libyans are afraid that elections in the absence of a constitution will only catalyse conflict rather than resolve it. It is likely, therefore, that France’s ambitions for a quick election in Libya are part of a coordinated step with the UAE and Egypt (Haftar’s other international supporters) to facilitate the General’s takeover while the GNA is weak.

France ultimately sees Haftar as the ally who could best serve its interests in Libya, which is why they have supported the consolidation of his control in the east and are vying for his success in upcoming presidential elections. From a geopolitical standpoint, France wants to have a dominant international presence in Libya. Having had brief direct administrative rule from 1944-51 over Fezzan in southern Libya, it is keen to maintain a close presence in the region which is rich in reserves of oil, gas and minerals. This would also allow France to extend its influence over the nearby countries of Chad, Mali and Niger.

Macron is also keen to compromise Italy’s interests in Libya, and chose a strategic moment for the summit (announcing it only a week beforehand) at a time when Italy was occupied with its own changing government. Despite Rome’s attempts to maintain a presence in Libya and curb the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, its influence in Tripoli has waned of late. Italy’s ties with western Libya had previously been through the city of Misrata, which is now largely autonomous and ruled by militias opposed to the GNA. France and Italy are also leading foreign stakeholders in the Libya’s hydrocarbons sector and have competing business interests in the country’s oil revenue. Therefore, by supporting Haftar France not only provides the military general with legitimacy but also asserts itself as the leading international actor in Libya’s internal politics and stands to gain financially. Haftar also presents himself as the military strength of Libya against terrorism, an image that France is keen to propagate. He claimed that his recent offensive on Derna, for instance, was in order to relieve the city of ‘terrorists and those who carry weapons against the LNA’.

At a time when Libya needs unity and stability more than ever, international players like France need to prioritise the interests of Libyans above their own. Upcoming elections will be undermined if a constitution is not put in place to guarantee a safe transition to a centralised, democratically elected government. France needs to use its influence to smooth divisions in Libya, not exacerbate them.