Systemic corruption does not deserve our tacit consent

The 19th century British politician, Lord Acton, averred that ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Over the last 150 or so years, this axiom on the link between power and corruption has proven time and again to be a highly perceptive comment on the darker side of human nature. From Nixon to Castro to Mugabe, there are countless instances of world leaders who subordinated the well-being of their people to the fulfilment their own self-interest. And while corruption is a widespread phenomenon, ranging from public service to private enterprise, from an individual to an international scale, it is at its most indefensible when committed by those acting in an official capacity for personal gain. Fostering a lack of accountability, transparency and good faith in government, corruption represents one of the single biggest threats to the well-being of a country.

When corruption is systemic, and corrupt practices are rewarded with wealth, power and impunity, then people are drawn into public service for the wrong reasons. Indeed, if there is a culture of impunity, then corruption represents a low-risk, high-reward means of advancing both you career standing and your personal fortune.

The numbers bear witness to the predominance of corruption throughout the world. Some sixty countries in the world are plagued by systemic corruption.  China and India, countries with populations of over a billion, are constantly battling systemic corruption.

Corruption is so inexcusable that it ought to be addressed head-on with comprehensive reform. And governments recognise that. And that is far less likely to be forthcoming if the common man and woman think that the personal motives of ruling officials are being prioritised over their own wellbeing. Which explains why it is very common for countries to task specialised anti-corruption committees with addressing the issue. However, when the problem is so entrenched and all-pervasive, these committees often merely act as a smokescreen. Take the example of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, who admitted having run a state-sponsored doping program for Russian athletes. Or Mishan Al-Jabourri, the head of the Iraqi anti-corruption committee, who brazenly admitted in February of last year that ‘everybody is corrupt, from the top to the bottom, including me’. It is disheartening that those tasked with rooting out corruption are engaged in the very same malpractices. Further, it shows that governments are often content with merely being seen to address corruption, rather than doing so in practice.

So what can realistically be done? It is plainly clear that this is a deeply rooted and highly complex problem, a problem whose exact character varies from country to country, but whose defining traits are universal. Effective reforms are reliant on political will. It is imperative that key political actors display credible intent to attack corruption at a systemic level. Those very same people who have acquired power and money in an imperfect system must be willing to use their influence to foster a new, meritocratic culture from the top down. On the other hand, there is the risk that the powerful in society, those with an incentive to maintain the status quo, will mobilise powerful forces to protect their own vested interests. Indeed, countless reformers with the most honourable intentions have failed out of an inability to neutralise resistance. Investigative bodies must be entirely independent and free from interference by the government or the judiciary system.

Corruption is something about which we cannot afford, in good conscience, to be defeatist. Corruption runs contrary to all that is humanly decent. It undermines democracy, it precludes meritocracy and it allows the few to steal from the many. Any attempt to fight corruption, however imperfect, is better than none.

Plastic Waste – an Issue that Demands our Attention

After news broke of an archipelago of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean with a composite area roughly the size of France, social media webpage LadBible teamed up with the Plastic Oceans Foundation in an appeal to have this mass of waste officially recognised as the world’s 196th nation-state. This proposed nation, ‘The Trash Isles’, has had its own flag, passport, stamps and currency devised, while former US Vice-President  Al Gore has applied for citizenship.

Indeed, what may appear a rather flippant approach to a serious problem is in fact underpinned by an urge to give this hugely worrying issue as much coverage as possible. While it’s an unmistakably humorous notion that a floating mass of plastic could ever be granted the status of a nation, the campaign draws people’s attention to an issue that is wreaking havoc on marine and avian ecosystems. The issue was given further exposure on the most recent episode of the hugely popular Blue Planet II, as emotive images of sea-life suffering the consequences of human negligence were enough to stir outrage, compassion and, hopefully, redoubled activism.

The numbers are astounding: according to National Geographic, 91% of plastic remains unrecycled; most plastic thrown away is from single usage; a staggering eight million tonnes of plastic waste makes its way into our oceans every year; there is forecasted to be a greater mass of plastic than of fish in the world’s oceans by 2050. The list goes on. Since plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, most of it still exists on the planet in some form. Further, the task of cleaning our oceans of already-existing plastic is made extremely difficult by the fact that, rather than degrade, plastic simply breaks down into much smaller pieces, spread over a far greater surface area. This massively complicates the task of removing waste from the oceans, whilst the debris is making its way into the organisms of sea life with increasing regularity, having an often-devastating effect on marine ecosystems.

It is a depressing thought that a great deal of this damage is irreversible. But that should make us no less motivated to drastically improve the ways in which we use and dispose of plastic. A concerted collective global effort must be undertaken to mitigate against the damage in which we humans are the complicit party. The effects of pollution are not notional, they are very real.

Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

Bjorn Ihler on Extremism

‘He committed an evil act, but he is not an evil man’.
 
You would be hard-pressed to find many people in agreement with the above assessment of Anders Breivik. Breivik, the far-right Norwegian terrorist, left an indelible mark on Norwegian and European society on the 22 June 2011. First detonating a car bomb in central Oslo, before proceeding to fatally shoot 69 participants at a Norwegian Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the island of Utoya, Breivik’s heinous acts took the lives of so many, and irreparably damaged those of so many more. Further, Anders Breivik has since shown a defiant lack of remorse and repentance for his crimes, boastfully asserting he had rightfully acted in accordance with his ideology. All of which could reasonably lead us to believe that the ‘Norway Attacks’ were not merely an evil act, but an evil act committed by an inherently evil man.
 
Which brings us to the opening quotation. Not only was it actually said, but it was said by a survivor of the unspeakably barbaric acts of Breivik on Utoya. Bjorn Ihler, then a 21 year old member of the Norwegian Labour Party, was enjoying his time at the summer camp; flirting with girls, engaging in outdoorsy activities, while deepening his affiliation with his political party. And then Breivik happened.
 
As the people on the island looked across the water to Oslo and saw smoke rising from one of the city’s many buildings, they did not suspect that the building was a governmental office, and that this was the result of an act of terrorism by a man heading their way. As word filtered through that the threat was drawing near, there was a sense of confusion, but none of these wide eyed children and students was really able to compute the severity of the situation. Ihler recounts that, on seeing Breivik come out of the woods with gun in hand, he took him to be a member of the police, coming to provide safety and protection. But then Anders Breivik opened fire. Ihler saw friends drop dead at his feet, as the crazed gunman went on a killing spree. After finding a makeshift place to hide, an overhanging shrub on the water, Bjorn Ihler saw Breivik coming towards him, and made for the water. Breivik saw him, took aim, and shot at him, from about 4 metres away. In the chaos of the moment, Ihler though he had been hit, and stayed submerged. And, clearly, Anders Breivik though he had hit him as well, for as Ihler resurfaced, the gunman had turned his back on him and walked away.
 
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Bjorn Ihler must feel a burning hatred towards Breivik, the mass murderer who has dared to complain about the abuses of his own human rights. Yet he talks about him with a real sense of compassion: rather than a violent sociopath, he is a ‘complicated human being’; rather than a man who justly felt the wrath of public opinion, he is a man who has been ‘unfairly dehumanised’ by society. Ihler wants to understand what it was in society that made Breivik so impressionable, and so easily radicalised by such an extreme ideology. Having experienced first-hand the effects of such radicalisation, Ihler has made it his mission to try and engage with people on the fringes of society, listen to those to whom society turns a deaf ear, and to try to engage with them and treat them as fellow human beings. For the most important thing is that something like the events of 22 July 2011 never has to happen again. He uses social media as a way of tracking vulnerable and potentially dangerous people, searching for traces left behind in radical rants on personal profiles and on online groups, as well as working with communities whose socioeconomic situation leaves its members more vulnerable to radicalisation. He speaks to them, hears and listens to their vision of what life is like, and tries to enter into a dialogue with them.
 
When asked about the societal and political reaction to Anders Breivik’s attacks in the six years since, Ihler makes a point of addressing the political dimension. Indeed, he tells us that he is no longer a member of the Labour party, and has in fact moved away from politics. This is principally down to what he considers to have been a slightly underhand politicisation of the attacks by Norwegian Labour. Ihler criticises what he sees as the party’s ready willingness to hold the victims up as martyrs of the Labour party, thus bestowing a political quality onto a distinctly human tragedy. For the events of 22 July 2011 should be felt and mourned on a human level, not be caught up in political spin. To best position itself to guard against such threats as Breivik, society ‘must come together not as politicians, or even as Norwegians, but as people’.
 
Ihler’s views on Breivik make him a somewhat controversial figure back in his homeland. In a wounded country desperate either to forget or to publicly vilify a man who committed such a barbaric act on his own people, Ihler’s desire to opt for a policy of reconciliation does not sit well with many. With a sense of humour apparent throughout the talk, Ihler jokes that he has been branded a ‘freedom of expression fundamentalist’ in Norway. He even states his pride that Breivik took the Norwegian state to court over his enforced isolation in prison, complaining about an abuse of his human rights, and won. No wonder that Ihler comes in for criticism back home: there will be many, not just those directly affected by his acts, who consider Anders Breivik’s complaints about human rights abuses to be the absolute height of hypocrisy. But, as Ihler points out, it is this willingness on the part of the Norwegian state to treat everyone as a human being with equal rights, in spite of what they may have done, that allows Norway to boast the lowest recidivism rate in the world: whereas 70-80% of released convicts in America end up back in prison within five years, in Norway the figure is down at just 20%. He may be divisive in his conciliatory approach to even the most remorseless criminals, but what can’t be denied is that Bjorn Ihler is an immensely courageous individual, with vast resources of human empathy, who has devoted himself to changing the world for the better.

Understanding Terrorism: A Survivor’s View

understanding terrorism

On 1 November, Initiatives of change UK welcomes Bjorn Ihler to speak on the theme of understanding terrorism. A survivor of the horrific July 2011 attack by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik on the Norwegian island of Itoya, in which Breivik murdered 77 people, Ihler survived the massacre by feigning death. Since then Ihler, now 26, has dedicated his life to understanding extremism, and what it is that drives people to commit acts of terrorism. Ihler endeavours to find positive responses to extremism, and to support those driven to commit barbarous acts by hopelessness, rage and societal alienation.

While all acts of terrorism should be wholeheartedly condemned, we must strive for a greater understanding of the societal conditions that lead people to extremism, so that they may be guarded against. Ihler’s commendable work serves as an example to everybody, and his interview will offer a fascinating, oft-neglected perspective on the roots of terrorism.

For information on timings and location, click here

For free tickets, RSVP to london.reception@iofc.org, or call 0207 7798 6000

 

Balfour Declaration Centenary

This year marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, a statement issued by the British government toward the end of the First World War. The Balfour Declaration promised to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, whilst also respecting the civil and religious rights of the Palestinian people. No word, however, was given on the political rights of Palestinian Arabs. Furthermore, the word ‘national home’, as opposed to ‘state’, was deliberately ambiguous, with no precedent in international law. These ambiguities begat confusion and have led to the Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the most insoluble conflicts of the last century.

For the Jewish people, the Balfour Declaration was a watershed moment that paved the way for the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, whose value was highlighted after the tumult of the Holocaust. After mass genocide at the hands of Nazi Germany, Jews had a place to go to, a place to call home after such great geographic and emotional dislocation. And as we enter the centenary year, the achievements of the Declaration have rightly been extolled in certain corners, with Theresa May stating that Britain will mark its anniversary with ‘pride’. However, we should not forget, nor take satisfaction from Britain’s inability to fulfil only one half of the bargain. Five-a-half million Palestinians have been exiled from their own homeland as a result of a problem placed on their own front door by the British government, and a bitter struggle has ensued.

With such a complex and sensitive issue, the perspective of both sides must be acknowledged and engaged with. There is a danger that the Arab world, most crucially Palestinian Arabs, will see the way that Brits, Christians, Jews and other members of the international community celebrate the centenary without any professed sense of regret. We must show them that we condemn the areas in which the Balfour Declaration has failed, and empathise with the concomitant suffering of Palestinian Arabs.

The centenary year of the Balfour Declaration represents a fitting time for reflection, both on its achievements and its failures. And on Tuesday 31 October, the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster will host an exciting, important event. ‘Britain’s Broken Promise: Time For A New Approach’ will seek to lead Britons to a more nuanced perspective on this historic declaration.

Buy Tickets for the Balfour event here