UN Oral Intervention: Failures in humanitarian aid to Yemen

The following has been submitted in the format of an Oral Statement to the 45th session of the UN Human Right’s Council, and was prepared by Next Century Foundation Research Officer, Antoni Mikocki.

The world is concerned by the daily tragedy of the Republic of Yemen’s people. The reality of starvation, war, death, disease, and ecological catastrophe, even if ignored, is well known.

While aware of the need for peace-building – we would like to spotlight the issue of humanitarian aid.

The Next Century Foundation voices serious concern about the efficacy of efforts to provide Yemen’s people with humanitarian aid, especially with regard to:

  1. Delays in the delivery of aid, caused by unnecessary restrictions in the process, especially during unloading and distribution of cargo;
  2. The use of humanitarian aid for political ends or for profit, by factions which seize control of the aid, and either monetize it or condition its distribution politically;
  3. Regional disparity of distribution of the humanitarian aid, made evident by the  lack of provision of effectively any aid to North Yemen, and the insufficient supply of aid to large parts of South Yemen.

With regard to the above, the Next Century Foundation urges warring factions to respect international humanitarian law, and ensure that the following conditions are met:

  1. Humanitarian aid must, without delay, be made available to the people of Yemen. To this end, the naval blockade of Yemen by the coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, must be lifted.
  2. The Houthi allied warring factions must provide effective guarantees that aid, if provided, does not again become unevenly distributed.
  3. Humanitarian aid should be provided to North Yemen, and reach the interior of the Southern territories of the country.

The Next Century Foundation appeals to the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and The Houthi movement (Ansar Allah) that they both cooperate with the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen in an effort to enact these (or similar) conditions.

Things are not always what they seem – Polish elections analysed

Andrzej Duda, recently re-elected as the Polish president, led what many will regard as a dirty campaign. He tried to build political capital by stigmatising the LGBTQ community, further polarised Poland’s already-divided society, and promised legislation in line with the  axioms of the Church, all while enjoying the undivided support of the state-owned media. But this is not why he won.

To understand the political success of President Andrzej Duda, or the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in general, we have to forego the simplified media narrative of the battle between the enlightened pro-European liberals on the one side and the anti-establishment poor on the other. Even those Western media outlets left of the centre which saw the populist movements in the West as giving voice to those left-behind, do not try to interpret developments in the East of Europe in quite the same way. It’s a mistake to do so: while nowhere in the West the populist-authoritarians managed to actually gain power, in no other place in Europe the left-behind are as far behind as they are in its Eastern part.

To make sense of recent events in Poland it is necessary to analyse not only the past few years, but also the period when modern Poland was being born. The transition following the fall of communism had a tremendous influence on later decades. In 1989, for the new Polish government, turning to a free market was a necessary step of becoming a part of ‘the free West’; its plan was to radically free-marketize the economy. And so one of the most visible results of the transition was the rise in social inequalities.

While Polish GDP rose steadily throughout the 2000s up to 2015, welfare levels did not. The state resigned from an active role in almost all spheres of life; little to no support was offered to persons from low-income families, unemployed or otherwise vulnerable citizens. For example, even today around half a million pensioners – many of whom have worked their whole adult lives – receive a monthly pension of less than £200 sterling. Twenty-five years after the 1989 transition period, the same type of thinking about economics persisted – subsequent governments kept on pushing the agenda of individualism and complete economic autonomy in a free-market environment. Those who succeeded in 1989 were doing well; the others patiently waited for the promised period of general welfare which the years of austerity and economic growth were supposed to bring about.

However, the state institutions necessary for the establishment of prosperity and of civil society were neglected or privatised. Twenty-five years after the reforms of 1989, citizens, especially outside of large cities, felt that their electoral choices did not reflect on the political reality – regardless of the narrative of growth and the promises of the liberal politicians, the state institutions were slow and ineffective. The majority therefore felt unrepresented and had no sense of any political agency.

In 2015 Duda, an MEP of the conservative Law and Justice party, unexpectedly won the presidential election for the first time. Up to 2015 the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was a party supported mainly by two groups: those most disadvantaged by the 1989 reforms, mainly inhabitants of the East and South of Poland, and those with strong catholic values (these two communities often overlapped). However, in 2015 PiS attracted new voters – those who had previously supported the liberal parties. The reasons behind that shift are clear; PiS was the first mainstream party in Poland post-1989 which offered the voters social policies whose aim was to directly improve the living standards of large groups of the citizenry.

Their approach was certainly not a comprehensive one – they chose the easy way of direct monetary transfers instead of the reform of the old institutions and the establishment of new ones. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction, in a country struck by poverty, with widespread corruption, almost non-existent public housing, where oncological patients died before they could see the doctor, and where the rate of most life-satisfaction inducing factors was steadily sinking for 25 years. When PiS gained majority of seats in the parliament, the current democratic decline started – with the gradual overtaking of the state-media by the party, further politicization of the rule of law and disregard of the rules set by the Polish constitution. The constitutional laws (which also theoretically bound the Polish state to look after the well-being of the citizens) were too abstract when contrasted with unquestionable improvements in their lives that the Poles saw: between 2014 and 2019 the number of children living in extreme poverty fell by 50% – from 715 to 312 thousand, while the minimum wage was raised from 40% to 50% of the medium wage. Crucially, PiS rejected the neoliberal focus on the individual agency, and – both economically and culturally – accentuated the importance of the national community instead. There was no coming back.

After five years of Duda’s presidency, his opponent in the runoff voting was Rafał Trzaskowski, a prominent member of the Civic Platform (PO), the centre-right liberal party which – after nearly 10 years of being in power – lost the elections in 2015. Understandably, Trzaskowski’s candidature was interpreted by the majority as one positing a revival of the old order. While the difference between the number of votes each candidate received (around 500,000) was not huge, I doubt there was anything Trzaskowski could have possibly done to win the election. For the majority of Poles, Duda was the only viable option. Do not get me wrong – I am not saying that it was a fair game: the dismantling of the public character of the state-media as well as Duda’s use of hate-speech changed the character of the presidential campaign. But – if we look at the broader picture – the reasons behind Duda’s victory lay elsewhere. He symbolised the transition in the understanding of the duties of the Polish state towards its citizens and a shift of the identity of the citizenry from a collection of individuals into a national community.

Fortunately for the Polish democrats, the vision of Poland offered by Duda and PiS is flawed in both these areas. In the first sphere – because PiS’s attempts at welfare politics lack the institutional framework necessary for systemic prosperity. In the second – due to the limited nature of the sense of community offered by PiS. A national identity built on the idea of exclusion – not only of the minorities, but also of the other half of the society that does not accept its values – is, by definition, weaker than one formed with inclusivity in mind. Another factor slowly disempowering PiS are the demographics of its voters: in the recent elections Trzaskowski won in all age groups younger than 50; the scale of support for Duda grew together with the voters’ age. Gradually, to attract younger Poles, PiS will have to take on either a more liberal – or even more nationalist – approach.

While the support for PiS is likely to fall over the years, it of course could be too late to save the Polish democracy at that stage. But free Poland is by no means lost: if the opposition manages to take the issue of welfare seriously, and to define an attractive model of statehood and national identity, it could win the elections and breathe new life into the Polish democracy.

Unfortunately, I doubt that it will happen anytime soon.

Why the Chief Rabbi was (almost) right

About two weeks before the 2019 parliamentary elections, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis wrote an article for The Times accusing the Labour Party of antisemitism. The allegations were twofold:

  • Firstly, the leadership failed to account for the antisemitic behaviour within the party.
  • Secondly, Mirvis wrote, Corbyn is personally ‘complicit in prejudice’.

Unlike some commentators, I do not question the right of religious leaders to intervene when the stakes are this high. ‘Challenging racism is not a matter of politics’ Mirvis said. It is also not a matter of beliefs –  those with authority should always call it out. 

There is no doubt that antisemitism is a problem in the Labour Party – as it is in wider society. However, we have little evidence for its systemacy; the only extensive report on Labour’s antisemitism, the Chakrabarti inquiry, mentioned an ‘occasionally toxic atmosphere’, but concluded that the Party ‘is not overrun by antisemitism’. Be that as it may, we should not dismiss the allegations of Corbyn’s antisemitism lightly. Although some of his words and actions could have been misinterpreted, or should perhaps be excused because of the context, the amount of serious evidence is too great to to ignore.

There is no denying that by attacking the leading opposition party, Mirvis endorsed the Conservative government. While 85% of British Jews think that Corbyn is antisemitic, the institution of a Chief Rabbi is not the same as that of a megaphone. The Tories’ obsession with ‘Cultural Marxism’ or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s denunciation of two Jewish MPs as ‘illuminati’ is as worrying as cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party. Not to mention other types of racism common among Conservatives, which certainly should concern Rabbi Mirvis. Even though we might have got so used to the old antisemitism of the far-right that we do not register it anymore – it is still there, almost three times more frequent than on the far-left. 

Regardless of how prevalent the anti-Jewish attitudes in Labour truly are, my stance is that Mirvis was right to call out the cases of antisemitism that he saw. But, by ignoring the other side of the equation, he not only overlooked the duty to ‘challenge racism in all forms’ that he mentions in his article, but also left the door open for more antisemitism to come, this time from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Photo of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis above by The Foreign and Commonwealth Office

 

Is everything about Netanyahu?

The assassination of General Qassim Soleimani may or may not have been a risky strategy on the part of the US President intended to boost his chances in forthcoming US elections; however, it certainly distracted Iraqis from the anger they were feeling against Tehran’s perceived culpability for encouraging the shooting of young Shiite demonstrators in Iraq. And it also helps Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu strengthen his position in Israel. 

Regardless of Trump’s eloquent claim that Iran “was looking to blow up our [US] embassy”, there is no evidence to prove that was the case. Nor was the killing of Soleimani motivated by the need to retaliate for events directly preceding the strike – the demonstrations at the US embassy in Baghdad and the death of Iraq born American contractor Nawres Hamid in a rocket attack on 27 December 2019. Information shared with the Next Century Foundation makes it clear that the assassination was actually planned prior to 24th December.

Whether or not the US had any long-term interest in killing Soleimani, the Quds Force leader was certainly previously targeted for assassination by Israel’s forces at least once, in 2015. Prior to that Soleimani barely escaped an Israeli air-strike while in Lebanon in 2006. In any case Netanyahu considered him responsible for many of the actions of Iranian proxies taken against Israel in recent years. As leader of the Quds Force (the Iranian military presence outside Iran) Soleimani was said to be in charge of the missile strikes on Israel fired from Iranian positions in Syria in 2018. Even more importantly, Soleimani had enormous influence over Hezbollah (whose salaries are subsidised by Tehran) and was a powerful figure in Beirut. He is now publicly mourned by many Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon.

Netanyahu was one of a small number of Mid East political leaders informed in advance by the US about the plan for Soleimani’s assassination. Claims that Israel provided intelligence necessary to carry out the strike are less credible, and if they did so they have much to answer for since the US had such flawed intelligence that it knew nothing of the presence of key Iraq Militia Leader Mohandis in the kill zone. In any case, Israel had one of its arch-enemies effortlessly eliminated. Had Soleimani been assassinated by Israeli forces, it would have been dangerous for Israel, with direct retaliation from Hezbollah likely to take place. While Israel, as an American ally, might theoretically be targeted by Iran in revenge, the risk involved is now much lower. 

Even though, Iran has “concluded” its retaliation, the airstrikes on American bases in Iraq hardly seem to be an adequate response. Regardless of which, it is still possible that elements in Iraq have not finished their retaliation for the killing of Mohandis. But any such retaliation will be directed against the USA and will not target Israel.

There are those in Hezbollah who  – given the current economic and political crisis in Lebanon – would like the distraction of being engaged in a conflict with Israel or even a full-scale war. After all, in 2008 after the punishingly harsh (for both countries) 2006 Israel / Lebanon war, Hezbollah had just 2,000 rockets left – whereas currently Hezbollah has amassed a stockpile of some 40,000 missiles. However the humiliation Iran suffered in the international arena after mistakenly downing a Ukrainian civilian airplane, means that de-escalation is more likely to follow. 

All the recent developments shift the focus in Israel away from the indictments filed against Netanyahu. The assassination of Soleimani seems to be a confirmation that the PM was effective in forming an even more robust alliance with the US. A growing military threat at the hands of Tehran only strengthens the position of Netanyahu before the upcoming election. 

Trump’s assassination of Soleimani did not make the Middle East a safer place, but at least it allowed Bibi to change the topic of the public debate from an unfortunate one – his corruption charges – to what the PM deals with best: a potential war. 

 

Netanyahu as a symbol – personality politics in Israel

The message of Netanyahu’s critics is clear: because of the indictments filed against him, he should step down as prime minister – his failure to do so is a betrayal of public trust and Israeli democracy. However, the current situation is not that of an unpopular politician avoiding elections, and using his position and lack of clear procedures in order to stay in power. While a majority of Israelis (52% according to a recent poll by Channel 13) do believe that he should resign from office, it does not affect Likud’s polling results. Netanyahu, instead of being shown a red card, continues to call the shots in Israel. This is made possible not by his cynicism and relaxed morals, but by means of the stable support offered by his electorate.

Despite the political deadlock and the indictments being announced, most Israelis declare they would vote in the upcoming elections for the same candidate they did in the previous one. While it is true that the majority of voters favour a national unity government, most of them want to see Netanyahu in it. Polls show that Likud would even gain one or two more seats in the Knesset than the current number – however, only if it is still led by Netanyahu himself. Even though the most natural response of the party to the latest developments would be a change of leadership, this would lead to a complete electoral defeat of Likud. Channel 12 News survey from 26 November says Likud would win only 26 seats if led by Netanyahu’s competitor Gideon Sa’ar. Netanyahu, and not the policies he proposes, is what attracts voters to his party.

With his continuous support for the creation of new settlements in the West Bank, introduction of the Nation-State Law, and the electoral promise to annex the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu holds a symbolic significance for Israeli nationalists. Paradoxically, the ultra-nationalist, conflict-loving politician indicted for serious offences serves to represent the promise of stability. Even though the two-state solution is still most popular with Israelis, support for a continuation of the present situation as a permanent solution is growing, and suffices to produce ongoing deadlock both in the political arena and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu has managed to shift the political scene so much that he is now standing in its centre. A vote for Netanyahu is a vote for the preservation of status-quo – this status-quo, however, is of a uniquely Israeli type: it is constantly moving to the right, both in a metaphorical, and in a geographical sense.