Frozen Assets, Frozen Relations? Key unpublished background on the Russia / UK issue

A few months ago, Boris Johnson visited Moscow to talk about UK relations with Russia – he was the first UK Foreign Secretary to do so in five years. It was an understatement then, when Johnson conceded that Britain’s relationship with Russia was “not on a good footing” and vowed to improve relations.

The poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in a leafy cathedral town in England on the 4th of March has however dashed any hopes of closer relations between the two countries. In fact it has threatened to entirely freeze an already cold relationship.

Indeed earlier this week, Johnson himself changed tact, calling Russia a “malign and disruptive force” and accusing the Kremlin of launching cyber-attacks against Britain, labelling them an “act of war.”

Prime Minister Theresa May was even more damning in her condemnation of Russia in light of the poisoning. Speaking in the House of Commons, May publicly accused Russia of attempted murder both because of its record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and also because the nerve agent purportedly used on Skripal was, and could only be produced in Russia. There are, May concluded “only two plausible explanations for what happened;” either Russia directly orchestrated an attack on a citizen on foreign soil or it simply lost control of the nerve agent, allowing it to get into the hands of others.

May ended with an ultimatum to Russia: you have 24 hours to provide credible evidence that the attack was not state-sponsored or face the consequences of an act that essentially amounts to military aggression. Comparing it to the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another double agent, May promised much more extensive measures than the sanctions put in place after his death.

Key points from a source the name of which the NCF has agreed to withhold at present:

  1. It is very doubtful that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed – if they were potentially usable as weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added.
  2. “Novichok” compounds are easy to synthesize at bench scale in a modern lab – how else could Porton Down have developed a test for them? Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability. Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability.

Background – again from the NCF source (name withheld)

  1. The only source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s. Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5 “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”. Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.
  2. Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides. Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.
  3. Mirzayanov claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize: One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides.
  4. An authoritative review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds: In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.
  5. OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board did not take Mirzayanov’s story seriously enough to rate these compounds and their precursors as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention: The Scientific Advisory Board emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the Scientific Advisory Board makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The Scientific Advisory Board states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries. These labs would have made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity. We can reasonably assume that if they had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, they would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals.
  6. The Prime Minister stated that: There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others. Of course there is a third possible explanation for the detection of such a compound.  As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound, with the objective of generating a trail of evidence that would point to Russia. Porton Down, for instance, must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.

Our own NCF Team adds:

The pushback from Russia was unsurprising; the country’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied the attack and demanded access to samples of the nerve agent used to poison Skripal. Aria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman further accused both the British government and the media of using the incident to fuel anti-Russian sentiment in the UK. The Chairman of the Accounts Chamber of Russia Sergei Stepashin also posited that it was the British security services that were behind the attack who were trying to undermine the upcoming Russian presidential elections: “It seems obvious to me that this might be the primitive work of English security services” he said “tell me who needs this traitor in Russia?”

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin remained untroubled about any potential blowback. Indeed in a recent visit to the National Grain Centre in Russia, when asked by a BBC journalist whether Russia was behind the poisoning of Skripal, he simply smirked and replied “we’re busy here with agriculture […]get to the bottom of things there, first. Then we’ll talk about this.”

The incident poses an interesting challenge for the direction of British foreign policy in an uncertain pre-Brexit climate and a US ally that is now ambivalent towards Russia’s political manoeuvrings.

There are for instance clear differences between European interests and British interests; both Germany and France are moving towards closer engagement and dialogue with Russia and it increasingly looks like Britain will have to act unilaterally to effectively sever diplomatic ties with Russia. Across the pond, Trump has been unusually subdued in his condemnation; “As soon as we get the facts straight” he said, “if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

So will May stick to her promise of more extensive measures? Or will there simply be more expelled diplomats, more sanctions and more frozen assets? The answer is not immediately clear.

What is clear however is that Britain is in a precarious position in condemning extra-judicial killings, or in this case, attempted killings. The use of drone strikes to kill not just foreign citizens but also British-born citizens on foreign soil, if not by Britain then extensively by Britain’s friend the USA, allows Putin to act with impunity. After all, how can the UK condemn Russia for attacks on individuals when the Anglo-American alliance carries out its own attacks on foreign soil?

There is little doubt that if Russia is behind the attack, then it should be punished for attempting to carry out an assassination on foreign soil. But perhaps Mrs May should heed the advice of Mr Lavrov in complying with its own international obligations first, “before putting forward ultimatums.” Is it really wise for Britain to isolate itself further by severing all ties with Russia in the absence of any credible and incriminating evidence?

References

Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/105521/Report17.pdf

OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013
https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/CSP/RC-3/en/rc3wp01_e_.pdf

Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry
http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/chapter/bk9781849739696-00001/978-1-84973-969-6

We Need Big Ideas on Big Data

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on 5th March 2018, the special report on privacy: 

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation recognises the value of technological progress. Across the world, the rapid advancement of technology has brought humanity closer together. From the role of social media during the Arab Spring protests, to the economic advancements bringing opportunity to many in the Silicon Savannah of Nairobi, the positive effects of technology are vast, far-reaching and apparent. It has strengthened the processes of democratic participation and exposed the corners of the world in which these processes don’t exist.

Yet, despite the progress made, we now face a new challenge. Privacy is a precious civil liberty. Our entire lives are uploaded to the internet. The same technology that allows us to access our bank accounts, message our loved ones and order goods from around the world leaves a digital imprint that has been used by corporations to target and profile customers; big data has now become part and parcel of modern life.

If knowledge is power, then our digital footprint which tracks our every movement, our every detail, our every desire is a crucial source of power. The companies which have created the innovative technology we use must adhere to principles of social responsibility. Collecting copious amounts of information on individuals without their knowledge is a grievous violation of individual rights.

It is therefore imperative that governments around the world act to protect the privacy of their citizens, but this must be coupled with firm action to tackle the criminal nexus which utilises technology for their own sinister ends. Reasonable measures to maintain security are essential when it comes to securing privacy.

Governments must work with technological giants to implement meaningful regulations which help protect privacy. Governments must understand that while technology has the capacity to promote the human spirit and create a truly inclusive world, it must not be used to enable the sacrifice of civil liberties that so many have fought for around the world.

There are global conversations regarding the future of technology in motion as we speak, but assertive action must be taken by both government and corporations to help promote the rights of citizens. We call on the UN to exert its influence to deal effectively with guaranteeing citizens the right to enjoy these new services and technologies, without sacrificing their identity in an ocean of digital data.

Corporate Responsibility in a World Without Barriers

Transnational corporations wield considerable power. In an increasingly globalized world, transnational corporations are powerhouses of economic growth and innovation both in the developed and developing world.  But this power has often gone unchecked, either by rent-seeking states or by corrupt international bodies that allow corporations to exploit the land, labour and natural resources of developing countries and have turned a blind eye to blatant violations of international law and in many cases, to the abuse of human rights.

Although there has been much discussion in the UN itself on how to regulate transnational corporations since the 1970s, the pace and scope of globalization has intensified, and with it the need for greater regulation.  There are now transnational corporations that are more powerful than the developing nations in which they operate and while they have generated economic development there, they have also sometimes generated dire social consequences. There are countless examples of transnational corporations exploiting cheap labour, draining water resources, dumping toxins and in some cases, even accusations of assassinations. This behaviour has often been conducted with impunity.

We believe that the UN plays a vital role in setting the standards for human rights recognition and compliance and has a duty of care to those affected by corporate abuse.

The inter-governmental working group has made significant headway in this sense and we commend its move away from voluntary rule-setting to a more legally binding instrument that safeguards human rights. We particularly commend its focus on justice for victims of corporate human rights abuses and the emphasis placed on corporate social responsibility in resolution 26/9 on the elaboration of an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations.

However we feel that the adoption of the resolution does not have sufficient support in the highly developed home states of transnational corporations where their power is often concentrated.

Increasingly transnational corporations are becoming stateless, allowing them to conduct illicit activities with no accountability or transparency.  We believe the governments of the world must hold transnational corporations to account and ensure that the highest ethical standards are applied to their behaviour. We urge them to withhold contracts from those corporations that do not adopt proper policies in regard to their social responsibility and from those corporations that fail to examine and counter bad practice such as bribery and corporate capture within their own ranks.

Often corporations will adopt social responsibility policies as a simple marketing ploy rather than out of any sense of genuine morality.   We, therefore, call on the UN to hold these organizations to account. But more importantly, we urge corporations to adopt a business culture that fosters the values of tolerance, inclusivity and above all responsibility.  It is only in this way, that we can ensure human rights are extended to citizens everywhere and are abused nowhere. We believe that globalization should be a positive force that benefits the many, not an elite few.

Living in the Shadows of Disability

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on 6th of March 2018, the special report on disability:

Mr President.  The Next Century Foundation is committed to fighting for total inclusivity everywhere. Persons with disabilities are equal citizens entitled to equal rights and opportunities. We therefore call on all nations to promote public policies that are conducive to the alleviation of hardships for society’s most vulnerable.

In the Middle East and North Africa discrimination towards persons with disabilities continues to result in their wholesale exclusion from society. This discrimination goes beyond mere social stigma and includes physical barriers to access to transport and buildings and extends to a lack of access to vital health services, full employment and basic education.

In the Middle East, disabled persons are often forced to live in the shadows of a society that refuses to acknowledge them. In Egypt for instance, it is even difficult to accurately estimate the number of Egyptians living with disability because families often hide their disabled children. Cultural misconceptions also abound and disability is seen in some communities as a form of punishment inflicted by malevolent spirits.

Further, in war torn areas such as Syria, the physical devastation has not only forcibly displaced mentally and physically disabled persons but has also destroyed the very infrastructures that could alleviate their suffering.

While extensive discussion on such issues is helpful, direct action needs to be taken. We therefore call on the UN to exert its influence to encourage Arab states to establish national strategies to develop their institutional capacities to deal with the barriers that persons with disabilities face and to create a regional dialogue on how to tackle the social and cultural stigmas associated with disability. Following from this, there must be comprehensive policies and programs put in place that are both sensitive to the needs of disabled persons, but also appreciative of their independence and their place among ordinary citizens.

We believe that in the absence of an inclusive environment that involves disabled persons in every facet of social life, there cannot be genuine equality anywhere. To this end, we must recognize and acknowledge that disability is a societal problem, not an individual one. Thank you.

Plastic Planet: A Sustainable Future?

Oral intervention submitted by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on 2nd March 2018, the special report on the environment:

Mr President. The environment is now a human security concern.

The Next Century Foundation commends the commitment of the UN to combatting environmental degradation. However while good ecological practices are becoming more mainstream, the dangers posed by the increasing scale of global plastic pollution are grave. Plastic pollution is even prevalent at the South Pole.

According to the UN’s own figures, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050 unless people stop using single-use plastic items. Plastic waste entering the world’s seas and oceans is not only harmful to wildlife; it is also moving up the food chain and threatening human sustenance. Oceans and seas are crucial resources for human existence and their maintenance makes the Earth habitable.

Improper care of these resources could make humankind’s future unsustainable. Despite the vast number of pledges and promises made by nations to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans, a distinct lack of timetables and a lack of legally binding agreements has hampered any resolute and meaningful action.

We urge nations to consider front-line solutions; to adopt a legal commitment to the environment; to move towards a plastic-free world and perhaps most crucially to establish a realistic time frame for when this will be achieved.

We have all played a part in creating this problem, we must, therefore, work together to find the solutions. Thank-you.

 

Citizens of Nowhere: Maintaining Civil Liberties when faced with Terror

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on 1st March 2018, the special report on terrorism:

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation understands the tremendous pressure faced by nations that have to combat the nefarious forces of international terrorism but is concerned at the use of suspension of citizenship as a measure to counter extremism. While this pragmatic approach may have advantages in the short term, it is simply a band-aid that masks the underlying problem.

All persons of good conscience stress the importance of creating a society that everyone is a part of regardless of cultural, religious or historical heritage. Two nations that particularly foster and cherish the notions of tolerance and inclusivity are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Kingdom of Bahrain. Both aspire to build a world in which all citizens are equally valued and whose rights are equally upheld. Both nations have ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However both nations continue to use the suspension of citizenship as a tool. Citizenship is an inalienable right to which every individual is entitled, and the removal of citizenship should not be wielded as a punishment even when terrorism provokes national outrage. Indeed doing so may further galvanise individuals that are already on the fringes of society into extreme action.

We do not wish to underestimate the difficulty the UK faces with returning UK-born ISIS fighters, nor do we wish to underestimate the anger provoked by instances of bloodshed and sectarian violence in Bahrain. But by depriving individuals of their citizenship, these nations are forsaking civil liberties in the pursuit of security and setting a dangerous precedent. We appeal to both the UK and Bahrain to adopt other more considered measures when it comes to dealing with extremists in their midst.

It is only through the creation of a more tolerant global society that we can truly combat extremism. Thank you.

 

The Struggle for Suffrage: 100 Years On

100 years ago today, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, allowing some women in the UK the right to vote for the first time. It is bittersweet to celebrate the centenary of women’s right to vote in a year that has so far been dominated by conversations on gender pay gaps, sexual harassment and gender inequality more broadly. But perhaps it is also a timely reminder that despite the vast achievements of the suffragettes, there is still a lot that needs to be done.

Indeed what the last year has especially highlighted is that we still need feminism as much as we did 100 years ago. To identify as a feminist today has almost become taboo; honest and much needed conversations about the gap in women’s pay and attitudes towards sexual harassment are often interrupted with “well what about.” But discussing the gender pay gap in the BBC or sexual harassment endemic in some business cultures does not diminish the impact nor the importance of issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM) or the lack of basic female rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia. In fact it serves to highlight the continuing endurance of negatives attitudes towards women in all societies and the action needed to eradicate these pernicious beliefs.

The history of the suffragettes has become so sanitised that it is easy to forget that the suffragettes themselves faced a huge backlash for wanting to achieve political equality for women and that this backlash came not just from men but also from other women who felt that women lacked the capacity to understand politics and branded the suffragettes as “ugly spinsters.” Such attitudes are unthinkable today when we have female presidents, prime ministers and heads of state.

So this year, while we honour and remember the sacrifices made by the women who fought for the right to vote, we should also recognise and honour the women that are still fighting, not just in far flung places across the world, but also here at home. The fight for women’s rights anywhere does not diminish the fight everywhere else. Injustice anywhere is felt everywhere, no matter how small.   After all, how can we tell other people to clean up their backyards when we have weeds growing in our own?

Unsocial Media: How Twitter Diplomacy Is Undermining US-Pakistan Relations

Twitter diplomacy has become a defining feature of Donald Trump’s administration. In the past two months alone he has tweeted about Iran, North Korea, Israel and Palestine. More recently, he used his first tweet of 2018 to accuse Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and called past US presidents “fools” for handing over $33 billion in aid to the country over the past 15 years. In yet another example of the Trump administration turning tweets into policies, US officials then announced a decision to suspend $2 billion in military assistance to Pakistan until Islamabad took decisive action against terrorist groups that have found safe haven in the region. This has fueled anger and resentment in an already uneasy ally that is gradually pivoting towards China and has led to anti-US protests and flag burning in the streets of Karachi and Lahore.

Needless to say, this is perhaps one of the lowest points in the relationship between the two countries.

But US-Pakistan relations have always been uncomfortable. Although it was one of the first countries to establish ties with a newly formed Pakistani state, the US has always harbored mistrust and suspicion towards Pakistan’s military, particularly in view of its bitter relationship with India. It goes without saying then that Trump’s tweets were a cause of celebration in India.

The new policy feeds into the existing narrative in Pakistan that the US simply uses Pakistan for its own convenience and abandons it at will. History has proven this to be true. In the 1980s, Pakistan proved a pivotal ally against the Soviets in the Afghanistan war and was funded by the US to train the Mujahideen that fought Soviet forces. Once the war ended however, the US withdrew from the region. The Pakistan intelligence agency, the ISI, has long been regarded as funding terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Haqqani network and was itself likened to a terrorist group by US authorities in Wikileaks documents in 2011. In that same year, the Obama administration similarly withheld aid, accusing Islamabad of harbouring terrorist organizations; and subsequently conducted a raid on Pakistani soil where Osama Bin Laden had been hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, raising concerns about violations of Pakistani sovereignty.

Throughout all this however Pakistan has remained a key ally in the region and holds access to the main routes for US military aid and assistance to Afghanistan, without which the US military mission there could not be sustained. More importantly, Pakistan is a geopolitically significant country sharing borders with Iran and Afghanistan and acting as a bridge between the Middle East and Asia. So while Trump’s tweet is nothing new in terms of the direction of US foreign policy, it has provided Pakistanis with a fresh reason to be angry at the US.

So what is the future of US-Pakistan relations? The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been gaining significant traction in recent years and antagonism with the US could drive the two countries closer together. While the US has been a fair-weather friend to the region, Beijing has proven to be an all-weather friend to Islamabad. If the US wants to foster closer ties with Pakistan and maintain a strategic ally in Asia and the Middle East, twitter diplomacy will, as Trump’s twitter sagas have shown, do more damage than good. It is clear that now more than ever, good old-fashioned diplomacy matters.