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 Key unpublished background on the Russia / UK issue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

Don’t Forget Me

And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).

This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.

However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.

We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.

But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.

The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.

The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.

But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?

On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.

On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?

And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.

I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.

So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.

During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.

At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.

Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.

And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.

During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.

This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.

It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.

People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.

It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.

And speaking of smiles.

Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.

We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.

By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.

My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.

Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.

Ciao NCF, a presto!

Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra

#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf

 

Treatment of migrants in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The Next Century Foundation submitted the following a written statement to the Human Rights Council in accordance with its special consultative status at the United Nations. Thirty-sixth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Agenda item 6. Universal Periodic Review of the UK:

“It is the humanitarian duty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to offer migrants, who are often refugees from war-torn states, a fair chance to rebuild their lives. The Next Century Foundation notes the concerns expressed in the 2017 Universal Periodic Review. There are major shortcomings on the part of the British government.  Specifically:

  • The UK government is sometimes a poor listener, which can result in inefficient and ineffective dispersal of aid money. Increased communication with refugees, both in the camps to which they have been displaced in the first instance and subsequently in the UK, would inflate their esteem, morale and resolve. Most particularly with regard to those coming from war torn states, the international community in general and the UK in particular could empower local communities in the region to take control of their own destiny by giving them a voice in regard to the dispersal of international aid.
  • An effort should be made to recruit and employ teachers, doctors and nurses or others appropriately qualified who are themselves refugees within the camps wherever possible; and government aid funds should be diverted to this purpose in preference to bringing in Western teachers, doctors and nurses and others to perform these roles. This both lifts morale and provides economic support to key refugees.
  • Within the UK, there are initiatives such as Herts Welcomes Syrian Families, Refugee Action, and the Refugee Council, whose support of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme has positively affected thousands of migrants. However, the “temporary protection” which this programme permits is inadequate. Under this programme, migrants are offered the chance to study or work for a limited five year period only. We urge that this time period be extended or that they are offered fast track citizenship after five years.
  • Trained migrant professionals are often not permitted to work in the UK whilst seeking asylum. Asylum seekers should be permitted to work in the United Kingdom whilst seeking indefinite leave to remain, should they wish to do so. The asylum seekers allowance is only £36.95 a week, which is evidently very small, especially when compared to the job-seekers allowance of £73.10. It makes life incredibly tenuous and is utterly unfair, given that they are then unable to work legally and become a burden on the taxpayer. However, whilst it is extremely important that refugees and asylum seekers should have the opportunity to work in the UK, it is also important to bear in mind that safeguards need to be put in place to see that they are not exploited by employers and that they are paid a fair wage for the job that they are doing. This is of importance in preventing bad feeling and resentment on the part of indigenous workers (the “immigrants” should not be perceived as a threat to the jobs and terms/conditions of employment of UK citizens).
  • To be granted university places, all migrants whose status has yet to be determined must have lived half of their lives in the UK in order to apply as if they were native citizens. This denial of university education to the majority of young migrants whose status has yet to be determined prevents migrants from rebuilding their lives, and retaining their dignity.
  • The Lawyers’ Refugee Initiative advocates the use of humanitarian visas, or “humanitarian passports” – that is to say visas for the specific purpose of seeking asylum on arrival – issued in the country of departure or intended embarkation. We urge that this procedure be used extensively by the United Kingdom.
  • In order to speed up the processing of asylum applications and reduce legal costs and emotional strain for all involved, we recommend that the Home Office only appeal decisions in exceptional circumstances, and rarely if the case has been under consideration for more than five years. It should be a statutory duty that all appeals by the Home Office take place within one year and be grounded on strict criteria. The actual asylum application process should be based on criteria that are generous to genuine refugee claims with a mechanism for withdrawing status on conviction of a crime – and fast track citizenship after five years.

We should regard refugees, whatever their circumstance, with compassion and mercy. Compassion and Mercy are moral virtues which elevate humanity and therefore our obligation to refugees transcends any obligation we may have to accept economic migrants and / or the free movement of labour and should not be confused with any such obligation – and the UK is not yet doing enough”.

Note: The Next Century Foundation acknowledges the help of Initiatives of Change, an organisation that co-hosted the migration conference that contributed to the preparation of this submission.

There is Always Hope

Wars wreak havoc, death and seriously disrupt the socio-economic equilibria of countries. And the European people have borne the brunt of two bloody conflicts in the early 20th century. And today is Remembrance Day. The political, social and economic impact of two World Wars fought primarily in the heart of Europe weighs heavily upon our shoulders. A death toll of countless millions of lives on European soil, along with poverty, starvation and the utter destruction of social and cultural structures as well as incalculable damage to our environmental heritage.

To come to terms with some of the darkest days in Europe’s history is never easy. War is inevitably related to negative feelings in a person’s mind, bringing out strong emotions, unacceptable truths and grim memories. However, even in the starkest of moments, the world has witnessed outstanding signs of humanity that have reminded us how kind the human soul can be, despite all the odds and circumstances they are faced with. What I am going to tell you now is not a legend or a myth but an event that actually took place about 103 years ago on European soil.

In the Christmas Eve night 1914, in the region of Ypres, Western Front of World War I, German troops suddenly stopped fighting against British troops and started decorating the area around their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. British soldiers soon followed on the initiative and a tide of emotions swiftly swept over the entire battlefield ending up with both fronts singing carols and shouting Christmas greetings to each other all night long. And then, the next morning something magic happened. It is still unclear how or who started but suddenly, along both fronts, soldiers started emerging from their trenches into no man’s land. Men in different uniforms spontaneously walked off their trenches and met in the middle of the battleground to exchange gifts and take photos, release prisoners and help the wounded, to mourn their friends and hold joint burial services. That day, the football match which took place between the two warring sides was the culmination of a day where the humanity prevailed over the unnatural and cruel fabrications of power.

It does not really matter how short that truce was, nor how easily the two sides viciously started killing each other again with the resuming of the fight. It does not matter how long that moment lasted. What matters is that for a moment, something unexplainable happened to those men. For a moment, a magic spell was cast from Ypres all along the Western Front affecting more than 100,000 British and German soldiers who spontaneously decided to give up the fight and be human again. For a moment, rifles stopped firing and the artillery in the region fell silent. For a moment and for some reason, those men suddenly realised the real nature of mankind. A nature based on love, compassion and fraternity. A nature that no war or conflict can cancel. Sometimes we need the magic of Christmas to remember this, to remind ourselves who we really are. We are humans, not soldiers.

Try to bear that in mind while you commemorate Remembrance Day. Remember those men, their faces. Remember who they were.

#remembranceday #christmastruce #thereisalwayshope

Banksy - "There is always Hope"

Veritas Omnia Vincit

On 13 September 2017, Italy’s ambassador Giampaolo Cantini was sent back to the Egyptian capital after more than one year of soured relations between the two countries over the death of the Italian PhD Cambridge student, Giulio Regeni, in Cairo in January 2016. The 28-year-old student was tortured and killed in Egypt, allegedly by the Egyptian security services who, since the very outset of the affair, have denied any involvement.

The issue quickly triggered an open diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Italy due to al-Sīsī’s government’s repeated avoidance of their responsibility to investigate the murder in the face of hard evidence implying that the Egyptian security services were culpable. For more than one year, faced with the hardline stance taken by the Italian government as they strove to obtain the names of those responsible and the reason for this abhorrent act, the Egyptian authorities have been trying to cover up the truth, forging documents and misleading Italian magistrates with false trails. This misdirection is the umpteenth deplorable act of a state whose crackdown on human rights is going down in history as one of the worst in years. And while everything seemed to suggest the diplomatic deadlock was unlikely to break, out of the blue the Italian ambassador was sent back to Cairo and the crisis magically resolved, as if it had never happened.

No change of strategy, official apology or acknowledgment of guilt was issued by the Egyptian authorities. Likewise, no clear explanation was provided by the Italian government on the matter. So, what led the Italian government to take the incongruous decision to give up its legitimate right to pursue the truth about the brutal death of one of its citizens in a foreign land? Interestingly, the solution to this conundrum may not lie too far away. And with a subtle combination of imagination and cynicism, we might be able to find it.

If the world ran according to a Machiavellian conception of politics, then one might think that everything happens for a reason and nothing in politics is left to chance. Accordingly, one might think for instance that the investigation into the death of Giulio was sidelined in exchange for a halt of the migration flow from Libya to Italy, given the strong friendship that binds Al-Sīsī to Haftar, the Libyan strongman in control of the eastern part of the country. Indeed, the bizarre coincidence of the sudden halt in migrant influxes to Italy on those same days when the Italian ambassador was sent back to Cairo, after years of unsuccessful attempts to curb them, might represent enough evidence to a more cynical mind. Or, equally, the complacency of the Italian government in not taking action when confronted with some “explosive evidence” on the case provided by the Obama administration could serve as a further clue in this respect.

Nobody will ever know what happened on those days for it is no longer the intention of the Italian government to unravel the truth. People will never know for sure why Giulio was killed, who tortured and assassinated him; neither will they know why the Italian government abruptly sent its ambassador back to Cairo, forever waiving the right to justice for one of its citizens, a son of Italy. The truth will be covered up, wiped out according in the Italian tradition of state secrets.

And now only sorrow is left. Sorrow of a girlfriend in losing the love of her life. Sorrow of a family in losing a son. Sorrow of a nation in losing its future and its honour. Yes, its honour. Honour because Giulio is not just a human viciously slaughtered on foreign soil. Giulio represents a vision, a feeling, an idea. The idea that unites men and women of different countries and different cultures; the idea that human rights violations in Egypt are real, raw and ruthless, and affect men and women whatever their nationality; the idea that Italy is a country whose leaders had no hesitation in selling the truth, trust and hope of its own citizens as well as its own dignity in exchange for some political or economic payoff; the idea that western democracies “fill their mouths” with nice words on human rights but that after all it is a mere façade, as they continue to aid and abet such crimes and violations where convenient.

There is a Latin saying whose power and meaning has always struck me. It expresses the universal principle of a vision, a feeling, an idea. The Truth. “Veritas Omnia Vincit”, truth conquers everything. And Giulio represents the Truth, for his death has shined a light on the lies, the falsehood, the cruelty and the wickedness of a global system that brings together democracies and dictatorships, thus rendering them accomplices. It does not matter that the official version will never admit the existence of any deal, agreement or negotiation between Italy and Egypt in exchange for silence on the death of Giulio. For the conspicuous silence on the part of Italian government speaks louder than any official statement.

And hence, Veritas Omnia Vincit: we will know when a state betrays its own citizens, its own values and future for its own gain;

Veritas Omnia Vincit, when public outcry spreads across the world after Giulio’s death, against al-Sīsī’s authoritarian rule, thus uniting men and women who, just like Giulio’s family, have lost their loved ones.

And again, Veritas Omnia Vincit, when the mask of this self-proclaimed democracy is removed revealing the true face of power.

I recently visited a Banksy exhibition at the Moco museum in Amsterdam. I was taken aback by how the author emphasised the existence of a thread that connects sorrow to hope and love. In suffering and grief people can gather and unite, taking solace from the shared experience of finding justice, truth or stillness. Such feelings bring them hope. And being able to connect and to hope means being able to love. This is what is happening in Egypt, Italy and elsewhere in the world at the moment. The sorrow caused by the circumstances of Giulio’s death has spread across the globe, uniting people in hope for justice, for “truth” and for a better world.

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars”, (Martin Luther King Jr).

Giulio is your son, your brother, your cousin; Giulio is your colleague, your neighbour, your friend; Giulio is a vision, a feeling, an idea.

Giulio is hope, love and truth, and he has already won.

Veritas Omnia Vincit.

Ciao Giulio

#veritàpergiulioregeni

Poland’s authoritarian turn?

The recent decision by Poland’s government to pass a law that weakens the judiciary’s independence raises concerns on the overall soundness of the Polish democratic system. The law by which the government acquires de facto control of the Supreme Court represents a heavy blow dealt to one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary.

Such a decision is a cause for great concern as it represents the pinnacle of a more general trend of recent reforms that are dismantling the democratic tissue of the Country. Since 2015, Law and Justice, also known as PiS – the ruling right-wing populist party in Poland – has been implementing policies and reforms aimed at limiting civil liberties, controlling media and dismantling some of the major checks and balances in place since the end of the Soviet era. While the European Union is closely looking into this delicate issue and threatening the activation of a sanctions mechanism, protests broke out all over the country in response to this illiberal conduct from the Polish government.

Such an immoral turn for Polish politics, however, was hardly unexpected. The PiS is an unorthodox populist party whose members are unpredictable mavericks with no sense of responsibility. Playing games with people’s rights is standard procedure for them. The most glaring example is the controversial immigration policy in force in the country since 2015. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq have been progressively denied asylum in Poland on a simple matter of religious belief. Poland indeed is one of those eastern European countries which has recently engaged in the contentious strategy of favouring Christian refugees as eligible for their resettlement scheme.

While a blade, a bullet or a bomb does not make any distinction between a Christian or a Muslim refugee making all men equal when faced with war or persecution, the enlightened leaders of Poland cynically reserve the right to decide on the fate of thousands of innocent lives on the grounds of their religious faith. Fairly odd for a country which suffered similar discrimination and illiberal laws not such a long time ago and whose social identity is proudly claimed to be based on Christian values. But as we all know, people have a bad memory and they learn very little from history. Do not be surprised if democratic countries such as Poland in 2017 still impose limits on civil liberties, still exert control over media or judiciary, still discriminate against people on grounds of religion. Sit down and make yourself comfortable, a new era of populism is about to start.

The British Election

20170609_May_reuters_article_main_image

The outcome of the British elections, hung parliament though it may be, is in many respects encouraging. Though the Brexit issue may not have been in the forefront of all voters’ minds, this is a vote against hard Brexit, and thus a vote for less disharmony between Britain and the other nations of Europe. Furthermore the unique vote in Scotland, one place in which the Conservative Party did better, was a vote, in part, against the concept of Scottish independence. And we see too much micro-nationalism in the world today. A world in which we all need to work together, rather than working against one another for our own selfish interest.
The true winner of the elections was democracy. The United Kingdom, in the face of terror and fear, provided the world with a prime example of how to respond. People went to the polls to participate in a peaceful democratic process. There is an example here for many nations across the globe, when faced with tyranny, a genuine respect for democracy is of the utmost importance. For if we resort to the ballot box rather than the bullet, to resolve our differences we build a safer tomorrow – and a better world for our children.

And the hidden plus was that this vote was a vote led by the young. The youth of Britain had felt dissempowered by the Brexit vote. This was payback time. it has implications for democracy in the future.

May´s snap election: the facts

Although Theresa May was hoping to strengthen her leadership with a snap election and thought to increase her mandate in Britain´s negotiations with the EU regarding Brexit, the actual election results did not meet her expectations. The Tories lost 13 seats in the House of Commons and thus their parliamentary majority, while the Labour party on the other side gained 30 seats, leading to a hung parliament. This rather unexpected election outcome has forced the Conservative Party to enter into discussions with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland in order to form a DUP-Tory alliance.

Brexit talks in the aftermath of the elections

Undoubtedly however, a hung parliament signifies uncertainty for Britain´s future relationship with the European Union. A soft Brexit, meaning that Britain would after all remain a member of the European Economic Area, is more likely than before due to the loss of MPs on the conservative benches, and negotiations with Brussels are thus likely to become messier and longer. European politicians and diplomats are starting to worry about the disastrous effect that a hung parliament could have on the UK-EU future relationship and perceive a weak prime minister as a threat to Brexit talks. Article 50 is triggered, the clock is ticking and Brexit talks need to be concluded in 2019.

Diversity within the new parliament

Yet, no matter how uncertain the future between continental Europe and the UK may be, there is something positive to focus on: diversity within the newly elected House of Commons. Never before has a British parliament been so diverse. The statistics speak for themselves. While the 2015 election brought 191 women into parliament, in 2017 women represent almost 32 %, an increase of 9 %. The number of ethnic minority MPs has also increased by 41 since 2015. Moreover 45 members of parliament consider themselves part of the LGBT community, while the number of disabled MPs and of those who went to state schools rose as well.

 

European Civilians are Being Punished for Providing Aid to Refugees

In September 2016 the Danish high court upheld a verdict, which criminalised humanitarian assistance to refugees. A children’s rights activist was among the three hundred other Danes who were found guilty of breaching Danish law, and subsequently prosecuted for human trafficking.

Shockingly, there is no evidence of human smuggling in any of the cases presented in court. There was no exchange of money, nor were they clandestine in nature.  Benevolent Danes merely picked up refugees after a train from Germany was stopped in the Danish border town of Rødby. At the time, the government was quiet with no proper policy position in place for refugee migration.  This lack of clarity led to extreme confusion, particularly amongst the Police Force about the legality of helping migrants along their journeys. People simply did not know that helping another human in distress was illegal.

These prosecutions have resulted in large fines and prison sentences of up to two years being given. They have successfully deterred many European civilians from providing help to migrants crossing the continent. European civilians are now faced with a dilemma; either abandon their moral compass and remain on the right side of the law or risk breaching the law but maintain universal humanitarian values that connect us all. This is a unique situation in which the law is at odds with decency, empathy and liberty, virtues upon which the European project is predicated.

Unfortunately, there is also large confusion on the definition of migrant smuggling. The United Nations define the act as exclusively motivated by “financial or other material benefit”. This is in sharp contrast to the Council of the European Union definition which broadly stipulates that anyone who assists migrants to “enter or transit across” a country is in breach of national law and can be prosecuted. Discussing and debating the legality of civilian refugee aid becomes much more difficult when many contradictions are present. Uncertainty will continue to rise amongst the public and further indecision will continue from all parties responsible for tackling the migration crisis.

Whilst we must be wary when comparing recent events with the biggest genocide of the 20th century, punishing European civilians for aiding the persecuted is reminiscent of the punitive policies of Nazi Germany. The intent of this comparison is not to trivialise the Holocaust, indeed drastic measures such as death penalty have not been implemented, and over one million asylum seekers have been welcomed in 2015 alone. But it serves as a continual reminder that punishing civilian goodwill and outlawing instinctive humanitarian qualities will only compound mass humanitarian crises.
refugees-walking

Photo credits to TT

People often talk about the dangers of progressive dehumanisation of refugees, but perhaps we ourselves are subtly undergoing a form of dehumanisation led by these faulty laws? Perhaps we are becoming increasingly desensitised to the refugee crisis? It is at moments like these, when we must remember that history is never repeated unintentionally.

Majed Tw 31/01/2017