The Need for an Oasis of Peace

The following statement has just come in from Neve Shalom, the integrated school for both Jews and Arabs. The sentiments expressed are those we all share:

It is now a week since the Israeli elections. As many of you will have seen, despite the momentum gained by Benny Gantz and his Blue and White alliance, Prime Minister Netanyahu emerged as the candidate able to form a functioning coalition government.

Regardless of the results, we regret that issues of civic equality and the need for innovative and courageous approaches to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not form a greater part of the election debate, nor of the campaigns of the two front-running parties.

As Israel moves forward, we urge all parties in the newly-formed Knesset to press for a re-engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We also call on them to promote legislation ensuring the full equality and protection of rights of all citizens of Israel, in keeping with the promise of the country’s Declaration of Independence.

Regardless of one’s party-political persuasion, it is clear that the need for cooperative, peace-building projects between Jews and Palestinians is now more urgent than ever. Given the apparent absence of such dialogue at the governmental level, the onus is placed on grass-roots organisations to lead the way.

The youth of Sudan, the Shabab, step up to the mark

This came in today from one of our friends in Sudan: This is a post written by Opheera McDoom, she is the principle of Legacy School in Khartoum where my girls go, and a former Reuters reporter, depicting the revolution in Sudan.

Just to give those of you outside the country an idea of the atmosphere on the ground -Sudan now: Governing without a government. As you walk into the area of Khartoum now completely controlled by the young ‘revolutionaries’ down town, you see the difference.

Street outside: full of rubbish with plastic bags strewn across the roads. Street inside: clean of rubbish – bags to put your garbage placed strategically around and young men with long hair and skinny jeans roaming around, picking up trash and encouraging others to help.

Overnight as the crowds thin out, they wash the roads in teams. People arranging prayer areas and ensuring privacy to do so. Volunteers organising checkpoints every few metres to ensure no one gets through with weapons. Women search women and men search men. “We apologise for the search brothers and sisters. This is for your own safety and your brother’s safety” is the refrain repeated to anyone moving through.

A pharmacy run by young volunteer pharmacists to dispense medication to those who need it. Medicine provided by companies and individuals for free. Two blood donation trucks to ensure those injured in the protests obtain the blood they need.

People collecting cash contributions and bags of money left at the side of the road for anyone to take if they need money to get home. Shifts organised – the ‘day revolutionaries’ go home at night after the ‘night revolutionaries’ arrive to take over. Tents set up and run by volunteers to arrange cash, water and food donations.

Traditional Sudanese hospitality not forgotten – anyone visiting MUST drink tea or water. No cars allowed in unless you’re bringing donations – water, drinks, food. No exceptions or ‘mujamala’ even for foreign diplomats – the U.S. Charge D’Affaires was stopped outside when he came to visit.

Street children being fed and looked after – included in this new society. Group parties on every corner singing nationalist Sudanese songs and performing traditional dances.

Security? Taken care of. Makeshift blockades of bricks and borrowed razor wire block the roads to stop any attacks at night after a few failed but violent attempts to forcibly disperse the sit-in. Missing the football? Supporters sent a huge screen to watch the last big Barcelona match.

The roads in Sudan are normally chaotic and, during a black out, the traffic police (if they appear), can hinder more than they help. But the roads leading to the army HQ have been taken over by the people who are happily directing huge volumes of traffic and hundreds of parked cars

Children are given flags and biscuits, carried on shoulders so they can see above the throngs of people. Birthday parties, weddings – you name it, it’s happening right there in the street. Christian Sudanese Coptics holding fabric shades over the heads of their Muslim brothers while they pray under the hot sun.

Without any ‘leaders’ whatsoever, these young Sudanese managed to effectively run this sit-in, this mini ‘state’ within the capital, and do so politely, without infighting, ego or provocation. Instead humour, cooperation, unity and solidarity are the order of the day. The Sudanese people have a long and proud history of peaceful change.

Stay proud.

Pōwehi, the embellished dark source of unending creation

This comes in from Hawaiian NCF friend and member Stafford Clarry:

For a moment, let’s step off our very troubled Earth and journey to a place 55 million light-years away! Through wonderful international cooperation, that’s where astrophysical scientists confirmed and pictured for the first time the existence of a black hole. This is a stupendous, amazing extraordinary achievement.

(One light-year is the distance light travels in a year. How far is that? Light travels at approximately 300,000 kilometers/186,000 miles per second. How many seconds in a year? Or try 1,080,000,000 kilometers/671,000,000 miles per hour. How many hours in a year? Try doing the math.)

This recently shared first picture of a black hole was developed in super secrecy by scientists using a supercomputer that processed data collected two years ago from a network of eight astronomical facilities (radio telescopes) located on four of seven continents.

One of these places is Hawaii with two of the astronomical facilities that collected data to picture the black hole. The Hawaii radio telescopes are on top of Maunakea mountain where thirteen telescopes are located, including the second (twin) and fifth biggest telescopes in the world, which were not involved in picturing the black hole; they are optical, not radio, telescopes.

Maunakea is the tallest mountain in the world (from its base on the ocean floor – 10,000 meters/33,000 feet), the summit is 4,200 meters/13,800 feet above sea level. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the air at the top of Maunakea is usually very clean and clear, with virtually no artificial light to disturb astronomical observations.

Many centuries ago – long before contact with the Western world – Native Hawaiians determined the origin of creation to be a place of unfathomable intense darkness. They called it “pō”. This first pictured black hole has been given a Hawaiian name, Pōwehi, which means “embellished dark source of unending creation”.

The summit of Maunakea is less than a two-hour drive from my Hawaii home in Hilo. On New Year’s Day, we usually go to the top of Maunakea before sunrise to greet the first light of the new year.

Knife Crime in Birmingham

Knife crime is the most critical issue to face modern Britain (despite the UK media’s obsession with parliament’s embarrassing shenanigans on Brexit). The following has been written for us by Birmingham based Maariyah Rashid:

Birmingham has seen three teenage boys being stabbed to death in the space of a few days, which is in line with a general increase in knife crime in recent years (Labhart, 2019). The moral panic of knife crime has been spreading in British media in recent times with the discussion centred around race, police cuts and a sense there is an unprecedented amount of knife violence. These narratives for the most part have missed a more nuanced discussion regarding knife crime: rather knife crime sits in a broader discussion of systemic inequality and disadvantage in the UK.

The killings of Hazrat Umar, Abdullah Muhammed and Sidali Mohammed all took place in areas of Birmingham which are densely populated with people from minority backgrounds. This is not a coincidence. These killings demonstrate an intersection of race, class and inequality. Therefore, to really understand the ‘why’ of these deaths a discussion cannot happen in disjuncture with the context surrounding the lives of these young men. Thus, we cannot discuss violence and social inequality in isolation, as they work simultaneously to disempower people and communities.

Contrary to popular belief the social indicators of violence have remained the same across time. The social indicators remain – poverty, lack of education and lack of youth services to name a few. There are lived consequences of systemic inequality and disadvantage such as the average household earnings of a Bangladeshi family is £238 per week, compared to a national average of £393: household wealth of a Bangladeshi family is around £15,000 compared to £200,000 of White British households. That half of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, and over two-thirds of their children, live below the poverty line; BME students are overrepresented in Higher Education (46%) but remain concentrated in post-1992 universities with only 8% at Russell Group institutions (compared with 24% of white students) (Alexander, 2014). Research shows pupils excluded from school at 12 are four times more likely compared to other children to be jailed as adults (Crawley and Hirschfield, 2018). The term ‘school to jail pipeline’ has emerged, explaining the link between schools failing children and expelling them to these expelled children ending in prison. Thus, the criminal justice system is systematically punishing poverty and socially marginalised vulnerable individuals.

The government’s response to knife crime illustrates the gap between real issues on the ground and research versus government policy. Sajid Javed’s new policies include, an extension of stop and search powers and calls on social media companies to do more to rid the web of violent gang content (Cueller and Markowitz, 2015). Firstly, extending stop and search power is often thrown about as a serious solution but this policy aims to further criminalise a social issue. Furthermore, this policy has been proven to be racially biased with stop and search eight times more likely to target black people (Dodd 2017). By extending these powers the government is punishing rather than rehabilitating people and it disproportionately affects ethnic minorities building further distrust and disenfranchisement.

To successfully tackle this issue there needs to be a shift in understanding of the root causes of the problem and therefore, what a durable solution might look like. This is not an alien concept or a radical one, it is a very real solution that Scotland has employed. Glasgow was one of the most violent cities but they took the decision to treat knife crime as a public health issue – rather than simply a police matter. (Younge and Barr, 2017). This has led to decreased crime rates and a better understanding of root causes of crime. It is abundantly clear we cannot continue to tinker around the edges of the system and introduce superficial policies. Social reform is necessary to change the way community functions to see real change

More Concerns about Nigeria’s recent elections

Our intern Abubakar Ado Jibrin in Nigeria writes of the latest developments in his country as follows:

Democracies differ. The recent election in Nigeria gave the incumbent “Muhammadu Buhari” a second tenure, with a duration of four years. The election was full of uncertainty and a brilliantly conducted malpractice that is difficult to examine, but some sources have argued that those international observers that were present, including those affiliated to the British government, had not closely examined the real happenings in southern Nigeria during the presidential election exercise.

Military personnel disrupted the election in southern part and in the south western region, in Lagos in particular the home town of the vice president Yemi Osibanjo and the home town of ruling party top elite, such as Ahmed Bola Tinubu. Political thugs were seen carrying election boxes in the street and these factors have put a question mark with regard to organizing a free and fair transition which could only be obtain through a well manage and organised election exercise.

Also in Lagos, in areas that are believed to be Igbo majority, thugs were burning ballot papers to block the Igbo natives (where the running mate of PDP presidential candidate is from).

The election was so full of imbalance and unfair status that the PDP filed a case to the election tribunal to set the result aside, and the tribunal has called for scrutiny of the election result from the Independent electoral body data base so as to obtain the actual scores made by the two contestants.

In my opinion, the high level of illiteracy was a major factor in contributing to a lack of discernment as to who will best make Nigeria what she should be, no longer a paper giant in Africa but a realistic and visible rising economy.

The non participation of Next Century Foundation and other NGOs as election observers, has meant that there were vast areas uncovered which became election malpractice areas. This has resulted in the rebirth of a questionable government and we don’t know when our voice will be heard for free and fair elections. Elections should pave ways for transition and transition brings about social change for the betterment of the populace.

‘East of Suez’ – Theresa May re-opens Harold Wilson’s imperial closure


A special guest blog by Dr. Neil Partrick  www.neilpartrick

Fifty years ago the British Government was struggling with austerity at home and exploring an uncertain international future. Nostalgia for what remained of Britain’s imperialism was not part of the ‘world power’ role that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson ambiguously advocated when first elected in 1964. He wanted Britain to join the European Economic Community but prioritised the US relationship. Although he refused to send British troops to Vietnam, Wilson was targeted by the left, angry that he had not severed US-UK relations over the war.

Harold Wilson

This combination of financial and political factors made cancelling UK military commitments ‘East of Suez’ a seemingly easy option despite Washington’s blandishments for the UK to maintain its old imperial placement. Arab allies were not happy either. Feeling the decision would make them potentially vulnerable to Iran’s imperial ambitions, they begged and covertly offered…

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On building bridges and new geopolitical friendships – Why closer ties with Iran should not to be discounted

By Catherine Shakdam. The views expressed are those of the author.

If ever the world needed a foe upon which to cast its ills …

Iran has been labelled a villain and a foe without so much as an opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of those its revolution most offended.

And while many may still despair over Iran’s attachment to religious rule – its refusal to abide by our western political ethos: that any real democratic improvement requires a clear separation of the State and Church, Iran could prove a more reliable partner in the region, than those allies we are currently forced to put on notice.

However determined our western capitals, Washington in the lead, have been to absolve Saudi Arabia from the sins it recently committed, few more shocking  than the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it is evident that a Rubicon has been crossed, and thus pause is needed in our evaluation of geopolitics, and those dynamics we held as evident.

Iran needs not be perfect to resume its place within the international community, especially since by virtue of its geography and its political gravitational pull it has become a regional superpower. Iran is old, older than most countries in the region and its core stability could prove welcome respite in a region plagued by tribalism, ethnocentrism, sectarianism, and religious radicalism.

More to the point, Iran has proven too capable of withstanding both political adversity and crippling economic sanctions for any of us to still believe that more of the same would crack the proverbial nut.

And if an enemy cannot be made to kneel, we may as well consider making him a friend for his strength may add to our own, and ours to his,  instead of reducing both of our reach.

If Iran may feel a world away in that it still appears our appointed nemesis on the basis of its brash rhetoric and resistance to our calls for normalisation, it would be a disservice to our ambitions to imagine the Islamic Republic much different than we are in its aspiration to maintain sovereignty, its hunger for territorial integrity, and its determination to achieve socio-economic advancement through education and technological ingenuity.

There is most definitely a bridge waiting to be built.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “There was never a bad peace or a good war.”

Maybe we ought to distance ourselves from the belief that world politics is a zero-sum game, in which the rise of any one power necessarily takes away from our own. We should learn to recognise opportunities for mutual growth in those areas in which we see eye to eye.

The trick lies in our ability to expand our circle so that we end up including ‘them’ into what we previously considered to be exclusively ‘us’, and in the process gain an ally with vested interests in our future successes.

Education and most particularly what education has meant for Iran’s social fabric, could prove a tentatively alluring sector should we wish to move Iran away from the tumult of hardcore politics, and in doing so build a bridge towards peace.

For all the ills our western capitals have burdened Iran’s Islamic Republic with, it has outperformed most of its contemporaries in the field of education.

After the 1979 Revolution education was included in the high priority list of the government, focusing on programs like adult literacy, the construction of new schools, and expansion of public colleges and other higher education institutes. As of result Iran’s literacy rate reached 94.6% by 2001 across all age groups.

As of September 2015, 93% of the Iranian adult population is  literate, without any gender discrepancy or disparity. Iran sits firmly in the liberal seat as far as access to education goes.

By 2007, Iran had a student to workforce population ratio of 10.2%, one of the highest ratios in the world.

In a recent interview with Ardeshir Zahedi, made available to NCF before its publication, the former Iranian diplomat points to Iran’s educational prowess to demonstrate how decidedly proactive Iran has been towards not only equality of opportunity, but access to the workplace as far as gender equality is concerned.

He notes: “Today Iran is different than it was 40 years ago …

Today 4o million [Iranians] (out of a total 83 million population) have studied in universities and they are the leaders of the future … two third of which are women … I’m proud to say this, this is my country.”

A former man of the Shah, Mr Zahedi cannot be accused of favouritism to Iran’s Islamic Republic.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Iran is not at war with its female population; it does not operate on the belief that women should play a passive role in society.

And while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted his nation’s many failures and mishaps as far as  human rights and freedom in general are concerned, the republic sits on strong foundations.

In 40 years women have managed not only to reach out to the highest degree of education but they have driven the narrative in the workplace, affirming themselves in leading positions across all sectors of industry, and diplomacy.

Surely we must recognise that for a system of governance to favour education above all else, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and faith, there must ground for reconciliation, or at least dialogue.

If we consider, as Christopher Hitchens so frequently, and one might add most eloquently argued, that social advancement rests on the liberation and empowerment of women, Iran is on par with our worldview. It would stand to reason therefore to facilitate such process by means of inclusion and exchange so that other areas of cooperation may be identified.

If Iran sits much at odds with our western capitals, the education sector represents too much of an opportunity to break new ground to be ignored. Friendships are built around common interests and values. In a speech in September 2018 the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stressed that Britain needed to strengthen its support for a rules-based international order, saying there will be a price to pay for countries that do not share the UK’s values and frequently cross geopolitical red lines.

A case could be made here for a strong common denominator, especially in view of Iran’s shared red line, that represented by its abhorrence for ISIS’s brand of Islamic radicalism.

Catherine Shakdam is a contributor to NCF and a researcher at Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies


From Our Man in Nigeria

Our new intern Abubakar Ado Jibrin in Nigeria writes of the latest developments in his country as follows:

As we were just about entering zero hour, it was announced on both printed and non printed media outlets that yesterday’s 16th presidential and upper and lower Senate house has been postponed until next Saturday.

This was decision was aired after a joint stakeholders meeting held by the chairman of the independent electoral body at Abuja.

The president was interviewed by a white foreign journalist with regards to what has led to the postponement of the election.

The president lamented that election sensitive materials where delayed from reaching the polling station; he argued that the excuse was not worthy of the postponement.

But from the other perspective we heard from the pro Atiku, that it was clear that if the election had been held yesterday, the chances of the incumbent being the one to loose in the the race were obvious.

That they just held to an unworthy claim of not distributing electoral material in due time.

Having said which, it is important to point out that some decisions are taken without the consent of the president, possibly to promote the self centred interest of elites in the ruling party.

It could said that the independent electoral body does not have the technical know how to organize an election in a terrain that is so divided along so many ideological lines.
Conclusively, the common Nigerian will now have less or no trust in the credibility of the independent electoral body.

As regards the issues in this now postponed election, the nature of Nigeria’s political terrain makes it difficult to give a clear direction with regards to the possible outcome of the election between incumbent retired general Muhammadu Buhari of the APC ruling party and Alhaji Stiku Abubakar of the PDP.

It is good to understand that Buhari’s regime is dysfunctional, since does little more than cut down the rate of insurgency in the North Eastern Nigeria border with Niger, Cameron and Chad.

But the regime has an immense record of allowing for general insecurity amidst Nigerians, which has generated tension and fear.

This condition has dragged Nigeria to almost the state of nature which was proposed by John Hobbs. Where there is no art, no letter no maritime, no law, man chasing man.
The issue is one of human kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery on highways, massive corruption within top government officials, partially those associate to the ruling regime, political thuggery and many more irregularities and incompetence by the APC ruling party.

On the other hand, Atiku who is contesting with the incumbent, has been accused of corrupt practices from 1999 to 2007 when he served as a vice president to Olusegun Obasanjo.

The one million dollars question is that this is a race between the devil and the deep blue sea.

This current regime depends on the ignorance of people, particularly Northern people where Buhari hails from, and the support of the south west where Osibanjo the vice president comes from.

Yemen: A Call for Peace

Every new day that comes, many in Yemen wake up to the distant hope that something in their homeland will change. Cholera, starvation, dehydration and violence continue to take lives as the political deadlock sees no sign of end. In order to break it, actors must adopt a greater sense of urgency and understand the needs of their adversaries. Then the appropriate concessions can be made that will lead to a win-win solution.

Since 2014, a brutal civil war has been raging in Yemen. Mass protests, as part of the 2011 Arab Spring, forced the long-standing president Saleh to concede power to his deputy Hadi. However, Hadi’s government was weak and proved incapable of dealing with a struggling economy, militant attacks, and widespread unpopularity. The historically oppressed Shia Houthi movement took this as their opportunity to gain control and seized large portions of the North and the capital Sana’a. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily backing the “internationally recognised” yet locally unpopular Hadi government. The coalition is supported by the US, the UK and France. Iran denies that it supports the Houthis, although it faces widespread claims that it is providing military and financial aid.

The war has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. As well as causing 60,000 violent deaths according to ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), 75% of the population need humanitarian support according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (UNOCHA). The UN also estimates that 8.4 million are at risk of starvation and Save the Children claims that 85,000 children have died of malnutrition since the war began. Cholera and dehydration also plague the country, as 16 million lack access to safe water and sanitation (UNOCHA).

December saw peace talks, where a ceasefire was agreed around the port city of Hodeida. However, the ceasefire was soon broken and although the talks were promising, a long-term peace plan seems far off. One thing which helped initiate the talks was an increase in urgency to solve the problem from the international community. Much more of this sentiment will be needed. Actors also need to adopt a system of shared responsibility where parties focus on satisfying the underlying needs of their enemies, rather than fighting their positions.

Possible Actions Towards Peace

The Zaydii Shiite Houthi movement chose to rebel after years of living under a government which failed to grant them adequate representation. They see Saudi Arabia and Hadi as instigators of this repression. Therefore, Saudi could meet their needs by giving them sovereignty of the northern parts of Yemen in which they reside.

The Saudi’s see the Houthis as proxies for Iran, who they claim are trying to gain a foothold in the region. This is a major worry for Saudi Arabia, who share a border with the Houthi dominated northern Yemen.  In return for greater sovereignty, the Houthis could agree to cut ties with Iran.

This could work for both Saudi and the Houthis, but Iran would also need to gain. Iran seeks to reduce Saudi Arabia’s power position in their battle for influence in the Middle East and the current power balance in Yemen is in their favour. If the Houthi’s were to break ties, Iran may choose to increase support for the secessionist movement in the south, who they have already partially backed. Therefore, they would need something in return for “keeping out of Yemen”.

This could possibly come from the US and would range from releasing prisoners to relieving trade sanctions. Although the Trump administration might be unwilling to negotiate or concede to Iran, it may have no choice. The pressure on the administration to end its involvement in Yemen has greatly increased with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and a vote from the US Senate to end military support for Saudi in Yemen. The administration may be willing to make concessions, if they can gain support from the Houthis in their fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP). Cooperation with the US may be hard for the Houthis to fathom, as part of their slogan rings ‘Death to America’. However to reach such a solution, cooperation would be necessary.

These are some just possible pathways towards peace and many more need to be explored. This can only happen if parties adopt a greater political will toward finding a solution to the devastation that is ravaging Yemen.

Is Ukraine’s spiritual independence from Russia really a political win?

In Istanbul as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople handed a Tomos – a decree granting independence, or autocephaly – to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the spiritual authority Russia once held over its former Soviet neighbour was severed once and for all. This was a political blow just as much as a spiritual setback for the Russian Federation.

On 6thJanuary 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from Muscovite Patriarchal authority after being under its jurisdiction for over 400 years. ‘We have cut the last chain that connected us to Moscow and its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church’ proudly declared the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. On the contrary, however, President Putin predicted ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over the schism.

Why was the Russian president so furious about the church split?

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, autocephaly has long been a tour de force for nationalism in Eastern Europe – and Ukraine is no exception. An independent Ukrainian Church undermines President Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russian influence over its former Soviet territories. Ukraine’s national identity has long been associated with, and influenced by Russia.

From 1917 until the Second World War, the Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous republic within the USSR. In 1944, Stalin forcibly deported all of Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tartars, to Central Asia – ostensibly as punishment for their collaboration with the Germans. In turn, many Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to repopulate the Peninsula. As such, when in 1954 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea increased significantly. Characteristic of the arbitrary style of Soviet leadership, there was no vote to transfer control of Crimea to Ukraine; the decision was made solely (and in the eyes of many, illegally) by Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a majority of Ukrainians – over 90% –  voted in a referendum for independence from Russia. Initially it seemed as though Russia would respect the result – promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1995 in return for their Soviet era nuclear arsenal. Again, in 2000 Russia signed an EU deal to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of all former Soviet territories. However, Ukraine’s national identity was still closely tied with Russia. Many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea continued to feel an affinity with their former Soviet identity; the Russian language and church remained a core part of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.

In Ukraine’s Presidential elections in 2004, the election of Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich was widely alleged to be marred by corruption, voter fraud and intimidation. The protests that erupted in response to his incumbency, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, were successful in triggering a re-vote and a decisive victory for the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast with Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s political agenda was more liberal and notably favourable toward European integration.

By 2010, however, Yushchenko’s popularity had decreased and the Presidential election was once again – although this time legitimately – won by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

In 2013 Yanukovich rejected a political agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favour of forming a closer economic relationship with Russia. Small-scale protests in Kiev by pro-European Ukrainian citizens soon escalated into the ‘Euromaiden revolution’, which ultimately resulted in Yanukovich being ousted from power and a temporary government being installed in February 2014. This was the backdrop against which Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians and to ‘return Crimea to Russia’. Despite the ‘referendum at gunpoint’ in which Crimea voted to secede to Russian control, this outcome has not been recognised by the international community.

So what has been happening since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014?

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has asserted control of both sides of the Kerch strait, a highly strategic waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. On May 16th2018, the construction of a bridge over the strait was completed, joining Crimea and Russia. The bridge is too low to allow large merchant ships through the strait. This greatly restricts access from Ukraine’s eastern ports of Mariupiol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea (and in turn, the Mediterranean). Indeed, between May and August 2018, Russia detained over 140 merchant ships attempting to pass the strait, many of them Ukrainian.

kerch strait

On November 24th, three Ukrainian merchant vessels and 24 crew members approaching the strait were seized and detained by the Russian coast guard for supposedly breaching Russian territorial waters. The Ukrainian Government claimed that the vessels were travelling in shared waters, established under a bilateral treaty in 2003. Ultimately, however, there is very little that the Ukraine government can do on its own to stand up to Russia, having lost up to 80% of its own navy in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. The current Ukrainian President, Poroshenko’s declaration of regional martial law on the 28thNovember did little to stabilise the situation although may well help his public standing ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Therefore, with such little room for manoeuvre, Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly was clearly, and rightly, an attempt to stand up to Russia in the absence of more effective political channels. We should, however, expect significant push back from Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Russian patriarchate are technically owned by the Russian state and Putin has already warned that he is willing to fiercely defend ownership of church property.

It may well be decades until there is a resolution, but for now this is an important victory for Ukraine. It is also a moral victory for the idea of the Ukrainian nation taking its own course independently from Moscow that is likely to help Poroshenko in upcoming elections in March.

The International Response

As well as sending a Royal Navy Ship to the Black Sea, the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visited Odessa in December and made a point of meeting with families of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held in Moscow. Symbolic actions such as these are incredibly important. Not only do they set an example to the international community but also show Russia that Ukraine will not be left to fend for themselves against Russian aggression.

On 19thDecember the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the findings of its periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. It was disappointing, while unsurprising, to learn that Russia refused to allow the UN mission into Crimea where reports are emerging of rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment and suppression of freedom of speech and assembly. In eastern Ukraine casualties are still being incurred from shelling activity and there are no means for civilians to receive compensation for injury or death resulting from the conflict.

In addition to its condemnation of the Russian Federation, the report was clear that many casualties were attributable to Ukrainian government forces. It also highlighted a reluctance in Ukrainian law enforcement institutions to investigate the human rights violations by state actors.

After such a comprehensive, balanced report it was disappointing that the international community had nothing to say on the role of Ukrainian state actors in committing human rights violations. While we cannot allow Russia’s actions to go unchecked, all UN members must be held to similar standards so as not to undermine the legitimacy of our peace-keeping institutions and the very concept of universal human rights.

Sudan violence continues tonight – demonstrators dead

Reports are coming in from desperately concerned NCF members in Khartoum tonight. Demonstrators are besieged in Buri neighborhood at this moment. Seven have been shot dead thus far this evening. Demonstrators sought refuge in the houses of residents but armed militia has been going in after them. Many are being arrested and being tortured, including the mothers of some of the demonstrators.

NCF members in Khartoum are appealing for the intervention of the British Foreign Office whom they regard as having a historic responsibility. They are also begging the world’s press to take an interest in the catastrophe in Sudan.

The current demonstrations in the Sudan call for the downfall of the government headed by president Omar Al-Bashir. They have been going on for days now and the government response has been characterised by increasing violence against the peaceful demonstrators.

President Al-Bashir has not responded to the demands of the demonstrators calling those that oppose him, “mice”.

What is astonishing is the low level of interest being shown in the mainstream international media in the events in the Sudan. We do not understand it.

Detained Without Charges – Journalist languishes in an American jail

Catherine Shakdam contributes this on the Melanie Franklin issue:

Another journalist bites the dust, and this time not by the hands of a serial human rights abuser but the very country that, for generations, has sat a standard for freedom of expression and free speech: the United States of America.

On January 14, US-born journalist Melanie Franklin – better known under her Muslim name: Marzieh Hashemi, was arrested in St Louis’ Lambert airport as she prepared to board a plane. Within hours of her arrest Ms Hashemi was transferred to Washington DC where she has been detained without charge ever since, under almost absolute secrecy, and very limited contact to the outside world.
If not for widespread condemnation and pressure by social media, it is likely Ms Hashemi would have slipped through the cracks of America’s justice system – her civil and constitutional rights trampled over without any hope of recourse.

It was federal judge Beryl Howell, chief judge of the US District Court in Washington DC, who, last Friday, first broke silence over Ms Hashemi’s case by confirming that her detention had to do with a request by the FBI that she’d be made to testify before a grand jury, behind closed doors. No other details were offered as to why an innocent woman, a 59 years old grandmother and prominent journalist would be robbed of her freedom, cut off from her family and friends, and made to suffer the humiliation of the prison system.

A long-standing TV anchor for Press TV, Ms Hashemi, who also holds an Iranian passport, travelled to the US in late December to visit her terminally ill brother and to complete a documentary on Black Lives Matter she was working on. She now languishes in prison, shackled, her fate quite literally in the hands of her captors as no time-frame was offered insofar as what would qualify as an acceptable testimony.

While it is perfectly reasonable to ask any individual to collaborate with the authorities, it is difficult to rationalise the violence and contempt Ms Hashemi has faced. Beyond the restrictions put on her freedom of movement, the journalist, who is a devout Muslim, was forcibly made to remove her headscarf and presented only with pork-based food products at meal times.
If she has now been provided with proper clothing and food, following public outrage, one cannot help but wonder how many ‘others’ have had to contend with such breach of their human rights, and one must say dignity.

With the memory of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder still fresh in our mind it is virtually impossible not to recognise behind such development the rise of a dangerous trend against journalists, notwithstanding contumacy for the rule of law.
And so I must ask, is free speech being criminalised to serve very political purpose?

Ms Hashemi’s detention needs to be viewed within its broader context, and that is to say the independence of media, and of course officials’ willingness to play authoritarian games. America has long been engaged on that treacherous road that is media correctness – it is under President Trump’s administration however that such trend has turned into an accepted modus operandi.

A report by US Press Freedom Tracker in December 2018 attests to that. It reads: “The journalistic landscape in the United States is volatile, and 2018 has been a harrowing year for press freedom. The Tracker has documented more than 100 press freedom incidents since January, from murders and physical attacks to stops at the border and legal orders.”

Article 19 – a British-based organisation dedicated to the defense of free speech, warned against the many and grave violation journalists have had to face as a result of governments’ strongman policies and heavy-handed tactics to promote media’s compliance.

Executive Director Thomas Hughes said on the matter: “Our data shows that freedom of expression has been in decline for ten years and that this demise has accelerated significantly in the last three years … This is a global phenomenon with many violations happening in countries where freedom of expression has traditionally been protected.”

Ms Hashemi’s detention is symptomatic of America’s political and legal radicalisation. The US Freedom Tracker has documented a total of 27 subpoena or legal order cases against journalists – with 21 of those occurring in 2018.

It writes: “It’s likely that many subpoenas are not reported, and many legal orders for journalists’ records are conducted with high levels of secrecy. Therefore, the number of legal order and subpoena cases counted by the Tracker are likely to be a severe undercount, making a straight comparison of the data between years sometimes difficult.”

And: “2018 also saw the first publicly known seizure by the Trump administration of a journalist’s communications records, when the Department of Justice seized years of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ phone and email records as part of an investigation into her confidential sources. She was notified of this seizure after the fact, so she had no way to challenge the seizure in court.”

While it would be easy to fall within the trap of our own taught prejudices, and thus dismiss the injustice done on account Ms Hashemi sits an appointed ‘undesirable’ by virtue of her faith and choice of residence: Iran, notwithstanding her political views, one would argue against such moral relativism.

To fall silent before the strong-arming of our press equates to the rationalisation of authoritarianism, and by extent the death of all our democracies.

Self-preservation dictates that we all speak out in defense of Ms Hashemi, if not for her sake, for our own.

photo above by Fars News Agency, CC BY 4.0,