Freedom of Religion in Iraq and Bahrain

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 on 2nd March 2018, the special report on Freedom of Religion:

Mr President. Freedom of Religion is one of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and is a basic pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Middle East is riven by a sectarian divide within Islam between the Sunni and Shiite sects, the consequences of which have been dire. Levels of hatred in this internecine strife have now reached unprecedented heights.

The Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Bahrain are two nations on the faultline of this disturbing rift and both have national elections this year.

The Iraq elections are unlikely to generate full participation from the Sunni community. If the majority of the Sunni community were to boycott these elections out of a sense of vengeful resentment of the Iraq central government it would be a grave error.  New Sunni politicians untainted by the past are emerging in areas like Anbar province. It would be wrong to disempower them at a time when their voices should be heard.

Bahrain’s elections will be held later this year and as in 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to put pressure on Bahrain’s Shiite community leaders to encourage the non-participation of the Shiite community as a whole in the forthcoming elections.  This nonparticipation serves no purpose other than to weaken the voice of that community. It is essential that Bahrain’s Shiites participate fully in the forthcoming elections. Thank you.

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

 

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.

A Recipe for a United Iraq?

‘Iraq is like a glass of water. Once you break the glass, how do you collect the water again?’ The words are those of a young girl from Mosul, a survivor of that city’s period under the control of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS). For the past three decades, Iraq has experienced every form of armed conflict you could think of, leaving state institutions weak and dysfunctional and large areas of the country in ruins. Since the 2003 Iraq war, and the ensuing years of unrest culminating in the three-year struggle against ISIS, Iraq has not seen a moment of peace.

As ISIS is being driven out of Iraq’s towns and villages, the country still faces challenges not dissimilar to those that contributed to the creation of ISIS in the first place. These include:

  • The ethno-sectarian adversarial relationship between Iraq’s central government and Kurdistan’s regional government, and between that selfsame predominantly Shi’a government, with its ideologically motivated Shi’a militias, and the disenfranchised Sunni population.
  • The extreme lack of transparency that helps rank Iraq among the world’s top five for corruption.
  • Conflicting external pressures from the US and the various regional players, foremost amongst which is Iran.

These three lingering interconnected challenges have created fertile soil for terrorist groups to flourish, and remain an obstacle to any dream of a united Iraq.

Claims of victory over ISIS should not be exaggerated. The country has been here before. Triumphalist policies employed by then Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, from 2006 onward, in his attempt to defeat Al Qaeda (AQ) in Iraq, proved counterproductive and led to the rebirth of Al Qaeda as ISIS. Although the persistence of the challenge does not necessarily mean that history will repeat itself, in order to avoid another catastrophic situation, it is crucial to approach this challenge in a different and more constructive manner.

A high price was paid for the defeat of ISIS, particularly in majority Sunni areas, but this victory has also brought hope and has created a space in which the Iraqi people could yet unite. The challenges run deep, however. The 2018 national elections are approaching, the outcome of which depends on these interconnected challenges and will determine the stability of Iraq over the coming decade. The political landscape of Iraq today is dominated by two camps: those who support Iran, and the self-styled Iraqi nationalists.

Rival to the current Prime Minister in the upcoming elections is the former Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, who still retains strong support among Shi’a segments of society and most certainly falls into the pro-Iran camp. In Iraq, most of the blame for the destructive period that saw the creation and rapid growth of ISIS should be pinned on Al Maliki; whereas, much of the credit for the victory over ISIS should be given to Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. That said Al Abadi and his Iraq Army couldn’t have done it without the help of the Popular Mobilization Force and their allies the Iranian Quds Force, the US Air Force and the array of coalition warplanes that took to the skies at their side, and the Kurds.

The Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a coalition of some sixty predominantly Shi’a militias, many of whom are Iran backed, has become the dominant fighting force in the country, largely due to its role in the battle against ISIS. Some of the Shi’a militias are Iraqi nationalists, but most of the powerful ones are openly pro-Iran and have a documented record of sectarian violence, which was arguably one of the main elements fueling the rise of ISIS in the first place. Qasem Sulaimani, Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, was the first to declare the defeat of ISIS and he did so in a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This move underscores the hold Iran has over Iraq, and highlights Iran’s intention to maintain and to further this influence.

In an attempt to contain the PMF, Iraq’s parliament passed a law in late 2016 allowing the inclusion of the PMF as part of Iraq’s regular armed forces. However, the militias’ ethnosectarian base, their evident loyalty to Iran and their recent emboldening will arguably undermine the democratic process in Iraq.

The major Shi’a militias, including the Badr Organisation as well as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), have announced their intention to create a unified bloc in the coming elections. Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has banned militia leaders from running for both parliamentary and provincial office, a number of PMF political affiliates have registered for the elections.

Prime Minister Al Abadi’s move to restrain the militias represents just one dimension in his struggle to tackle sectarianism, repression and corruption as well as Iraq’s vulnerability to external influence.

A new anti-corruption campaign has been launched which could arguably be as much of a challenge as the fight against ISIS. The Prime Minister had the backing of Iraq’s highest religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in his earlier attempt to tackle corruption in 2016.  Since the formation of the PMF was fuelled by a religious edict (Fatwa) from Ayatollah al-Sistani in 2014, perhaps another Fatwa could foster the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of militia members. That would be a strong step towards reestablishing national unity but would require the right circumstances.

Because of the commitment of Prime Minister Al Abadi to the union of the country, there may yet be hope to establish a strongly nationalist Iraq government that includes Shi’as, Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups. The greatest counterweight to the challenges facing Iraq today is to enhance the Iraq national identity.

And there is every chance to do just that given the set of  circumstances that are now in place.

The Kurds have been forced to work for a fair power-sharing arrangement. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took control over much of the disputed territories after the 2003 US invasion, and subsequently during the battle against ISIS, they have now lost all of their gains in the aftermath of their abortive bid for independence. The KRG has had to fall back on a campaign to promote stronger and more effective federalism. This new approach is reflected in:

  1. Their effective acceptance of the court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of the recent independence referendum and,
  2. Their retreat when faced with the PMF’s advance into the disputed territories after the referendum.

The Sunnis in Iraq are exhausted and every sectarian Sunni card has been exploited and played. After the 2003 US invasion, despite a promising start under Iyad Allawi’s premiership, the subsequent rise to power of Nouri Al Maliki heralded what became, from a Sunni perspective, a repressive Shi’a government. Ordinary Sunnis were ready to welcome anyone as a savior. So ISIS took control, then when the people learned of ISIS’s true intentions, it was too late for them to do anything about it.

The success of the Global Coalition against ISIS depended on a decisive force, destroying and killing everything that stood in its way. The fight against ISIS took the status of the Sunni majority areas from zero to negative, to a political no-man’s land. Sunnis in Iraq are moving toward what is called new Sunni realism. In this dire situation, Sunnis won’t give up their identity, but their hope is for a better future for themselves, their children and their country as a nation.

It is not only the Sunnis and the Kurds who want a united Iraq. The Shi’a population is also suffering from the lack of goods and services under the rule of  a supposedly Shi’a-dominated government. Rates of poverty and unemployment are at their highest in majority Shi’a provinces just as they are everywhere else. Between 2003 and 2013, mostly Nouri Al Maliki’s tenure, not a single new hospital or power plant was built despite the spending of $500 billion in public funds. A number of prominent Shi’a clerics have blamed the enduring failure of state institutions on corruption and the damaging influence of external powers, particularly Iran. Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr,  an Iraqi nationalist who opposes Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, inspired a number of protests by Shi’a groups in Baghdad last year.

So, back to the question; if you break the glass, how do you collect the water? Iraq needs a functional, transparent, and inclusive government.  And the international community, particularly the Global Coalition against ISIS, has to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq with the same enthusiasm as it did in the fight against ISIS. As Dr. William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation stated, it is a moral and honorable obligation to at least ‘divert Western aid money to post-conflict Iraq and to specifically use it to construct social housing in areas we [the West] have bombed in the past two to three years.’ A stable, prosperous, and, more importantly, united Iraq, is in the interest of the region and the world.

Iraq – a Practical Approach to Reconstruction

There are a whole raft of issues in the much fought-over country called Iraq: the Kurdish question; the 2018 elections; getting rid of ISIS; and the rest.

One certainty is that we in the West have bombed countless homes into oblivion in the battle to defeat ISIS. One US strike on Mosul on 17th March of this year, targeting two ISIS fighters on a roof, killed almost 200 people, according to the Human Rights Watch. Whether or not you view Human Rights Watch as a credible source what is indisputable is that much of central Mosul has been obliterated.

Meanwhile there are refugees all over the place in makeshift camps. I hate and have always hated UN speak, whereby refugees who do not cross borders are called IDPs or “internally displaced persons”. A refugee is a refugee is a refugee.

Some of these refugees are the widowed wives of ISIS fighters who, along with their children, are kept in prison camps. They hate us of course. And nobody knows what to do with them.

An answer, not just to the ISIS wives but also to help ameliorate the wider refugee problem, would be to divert Western aid money to post conflict Iraq and to specifically use it to construct social housing in areas we have bombed in the past two to three years. Just the areas we have bombed. Just the houses we have destroyed. To do so is honourable. It was not our intention to hit civilians – but hit them we did. We had good reason for making the air strikes we made. But where we were culpable for the collateral damage and we could and should make amends.

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.

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.

On Power and Leadership, Love and Hope

The following report is the first in a new monthly series from the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General. It represents the personal view of the NCF Secretary General and should not be regarded as an NCF perspective:

British Prime Minister Theresa May continues to serve as a world leader out of a sense of duty. The 1922 Committee that controls the Conservative Party to which she owes her allegiance is frightened to allow her to fall on her sword. So a lame duck Premier limps on past her sell-by date, an embarrassment to the nation at a critical time, with the Brexit negotiations collapsing around her ears.

Why is the 1922 Committee so very frightened? Evidently because the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, is both charismatic and effective. The Committee feels it needs to face like with like and, alas, there are just three charismatic public figures in today’s Tory Party with any real high-profile presence. They are:

Boris Johnson,

Boris Johnson and

Boris Johnson.

I had thought of including other names but there are only two bitter choices for the Conservative Party: either win the 2021 election with Boris – or lose it. A difficult choice, because the British Foreign Secretary is a wildcard, a maverick schemer and a narcissist. He is no predictable pragmatist. He despises Bashar Al-Assad, or so he claims, whilst seemingly being complacent about the blockade on Yemen. Boris as Premier is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The current Tory Party only has one other charismatic public speaker and that is the foppish Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is a drive to polish him up and bring him out of the dark ages and shape him into an alternative to Boris, but that would perhaps represent too great a challenge. Difficult times for Britain, because to limp on with Theresa is to lose all credibility.

Iran faces a similar challenge. President Trump intends to defer to congress the decision on whether to reintroduce sanctions on Iran. This act of moral cowardice is no doubt prompted by his friends in Saudi Arabia and Israel, who so fear a hegemonic Iran. Iran for her part is concerned about the US returning to a hardline position. As a consequence, Iranian President Rohani has chosen to visit Oman and use the occasion to offer, astonishingly publicly, to reign in Iran’s client group, Hezbollah as well as encourage the Houthi of Yemen to attend peace talks. Curious that last point. Our experience at the Next Century Foundation in promoting second track discussions in Switzerland has been that the Saudis are the reluctant party when it comes to discussing peace. That aside, Iran’s offer on Hezbollah is nothing short of astonishing.

How does this impact on leadership? Well, Iran has made it clear in private discussion with the NCF that she will face a hardliner with a hardliner. Which means what? It means that if Trump’s hardline approach is to be the order of the day, then at the end of Rohani’s current term he will be replaced by Qasem Soleimani, the head of the foreign division of the Revolutionary Guard (the Quds Force) and a charismatic hardliner.

Charismatic leaders are in vogue. Sissi in Egypt, Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and the emergent Hadi Al-Amri in Iraq and Haftar in Libya are examples of hard men who through sheer grit and determination have seized or are seizing power.

We are moving out of an era of mediocrity, simply because the people of the nations of the world have had enough of the complacent establishment, that has led to an era of the rich-poor divide becoming more acute, and increasing globalization. There is a clear difference between commercial globalization with the uneven playing field that rewards the sweatshop and the polluter, and the advocacy of a world without frontiers, in which we should  all believe.

So the world has leaned, and is leaning, toward a preference for ‘What-you-see-is-what-you-get’, transparent leaders and protest ballots. Hence the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Hence Trump. Hence Mohammed Bin Salman’s incredible popularity in Saudi Arabia. These are all anti-establishment trends.

Clearly people seek something new from their leaders. What I believe the people of the world now yearn for in leadership is integrity. That is far more than mere box-ticking honesty. Integrity is empowered honesty in action.  Integrity means that you mean what you say when you say it. But that is not to say that there isn’t still room for old-fashioned loyalty. Theresa May and Sultan Qaboos of Oman are both examples of people who live for loyalty, by loyalty, with loyalty. And that is admirable. Combine loyalty with genuine risk-taking integrity and you get a leader who may truly change the world.

And so to Love, the other quality necessary for leadership. Here we are not talking of sit-at-home, watch television and weep sort of love. We are talking of love-in-action. This means love for all those for whom you are responsible. I have just returned from Kirkuk in Iraq where, questioned about care for the refugees in his province, the Governor of Kirkuk told me, ‘They are not my responsibility’. His issue was that they couldn’t vote for him, so why should they vote?

This is not genuine leadership. Genuine leadership means that you take responsibility for everyone for whom you have responsibility, even if you don’t particularly like them. This is a key aspect of leadership. You do not have to like people to love them. There are those who advocate the practice of loving your enemies. That is the nature of truly great leaders. Sissi of Egypt and Al-Amri of Iraq, take note. Great leaders care for the minorities, for the vulnerable. You could do better if you wish to build the nations we know you cherish.

We seek heroes,

We need heroes,

We demand heroes.

And we expect heroic leaders to love us, to protect us, to nurture us, even if they don’t particularly like us. That way they earn our loyalty. And people can be incredibly loyal.

And when we meet gross failure in love and leadership, we must call those responsible to account. Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar for example, who has let herself down, let the world down and, most importantly of all, has let the people of Myanmar down by being complicant in the Rohingya genocide.

Cruelty in all its dimensions is unacceptable. May God have mercy on the souls of all those world leaders responsible for the blockade on Gaza. The collective punishment on a people is an act of great wrong, whether in Syria, Gaza, Yemen or in Qatar. Leadership without love is not leadership – it is oppression. Even Machiavelli understood the need for wodges of love. He advised his disciples that, if they needed to use a heavy hand to keep things in order, they should do so ruthlessly and severely, but then stop, let go and treat people well. For he recognized people deserve love and care, and must get it if stability is to be engendered.

And then there is hope. We have an obligation to hope. Indeed without hope the very fabric of the universe could fall apart. And there is much reason to hope. We live in one of the most peaceful eras in all human history. You don’t think so? Remember our parents lived through the twentieth century with its two World Wars, its genocides in Europe for the Jews, in Turkey for the Armenians, in Africa for the Tutsis. The Vietnam and Korean wars, plus the partition of India. I could go on and on. Names parade through my mind. Aden. Kenya. Uganda. Then famine on famine. Live Aid was not for nothing. Ah, and Sudan. Misery on misery on misery in the twentieth century. And so many miserable footnotes. Little Kashmir, for instance. A century defined by human suffering. Things are better now in terms of sheer numbers of the dead in wars: the world has improved.

Plus things have got better in terms of war avoidance. We, as already stated, are just back from Iraq. There could reasonably be a war- a new war – between Baghdad and Arbil in order to curb Kurdish aspirations for independence. There won’t be, because Washington and Tehran want war avoidance so that they can concentrate on the existing war against Daesh. They have said so both publicly and privately, which is hope in action. Leaders, just like the rest of humanity, but even more so, have an obligation to hope. Whichever obligation or duty the rest of us has to be moral, the responsibility on the shoulders of our leaders is greater still.

The women of the little Christian town of Alqosh in the Ninevah Plain keep suitcases by their bed in anticipation of the coming war. But now they can unpack. There will be no new war in Iraq. Hope? Write the word large. It is often all that we live for.

William Morris LL.D.

Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation 10 October 2017

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Discrimination and Intolerance against Women

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.

Election Monitoring – the Kurdish Referendum

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The NCF election monitoring team is in Iraq, as so often in the past. This time we are here for the controversial Kurdistan regional referendum on whether the people of the Kurdistan region wish to have independence. And this time our team has joined forces with a larger group kindly invited by President Barzani drawn from a wide spectrum of nations including France, Germany, the USA, the UK, Israel, Canada, Qatar, Russia and Spain.
We will issue a full report in due course but some issues that had concerned us have been resolved. Initially our team had concerns about what we consider may be oversights in transparency. Apparently the breakdowns of the vote by region or district were not to be available. We thought this might be because of misplaced pressure from the international community that did not want the vote to turn into a referendum on the status of the disputed territories. If so we thought that would be unfortunate. There would be no way of knowing whether an individual town in the disputed territories votes for independence or not. We raised the issue at a senior level and our concerns were noted and, whether because of us or because of the influence of others, the policy was reversed and the vote by region is being released.
That said the majority most certainly voted for independence. The mood is one of excitement in most quarters, even exhilaration. We met Kak Masrour Barzani, the President’s son and potential heir apparent. He explained that this would not be treated as a vote on whether an individual town wanted to be absorbed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Hence the desire to treat this as a “collective vote”.
The potential for trouble in the aftermath of the vote is of course considerable which is why the international community had asked that this vote be deferred for two years. The world wants no distraction from the fight against Daish. They view this vote as creating additional tension between Baghdad and the Kurds a.k.a. ISIS. They my be right but there is no holding back the Kurds with their newfound confidence. If you are the praying type, a prayer that nothing major goes amiss in the aftermath of this vote might be welcome, even appreciated.
Dr William Morris, NCF Secretary General
Ambassador Mark G Hambley, NCF Trustee

 

Unanswered questions following the Defeat of Isis in Mosul

Mosul Pic

Iraqi forces have been celebrating the liberation of Mosul after three years of occupation by Islamic State. The victory has given rise to questions about how to ‘win the peace’ by safely rebuilding a more stable and peaceful country.

Now that ISIS may soon be militarily defeated, the real challenge begins, that of offering an ideology of fair play and inclusiveness as an alternative to the ISIS ideology of exclusiveness. Younger generations who have been educated under ISIS have been inspired by their message. Measures could and should be taken to turn them away from such ideologies.

A power vacuum will be left behind in the territories formerly held by ISIS.

While the liberation of Mosul offers a beacon of hope, consider the challenges ahead and the continued desperation of those in Mosul who still face homelessness, hunger and oppression. The city may have been liberated, but fear continues to rule the streets of Mosul.

World Wildlife Day: How do our actions impact the environment and the animals that inhabit them?

Our actions, and our conflicts, impact negatively on many habitats and the animals within them. In war the environment suffers exploitation and violence just as people do. Actions which would normally be condemned become normalised and are justified in the context of violence.

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Maintaining armies alone is a huge drain on natural resources but deployed armies use vastly more resources. One report suggests that the US military used 190.8 million litres of oil every month during the invasion of Iraq. As well as this, the destruction of infrastructure in Iraq led to huge amounts of pollutants entering fragile ecosystems.

In the heat of war, it is easy to see how the natural world is not an immediate concern. However, the environment is what keeps us all alive. We are sustained and nurtured by the life around us and if we do not show compassion in return we will not continue to experience the world’s bounty.

Resources are limited and in war the present demands more respect than the future. The future belongs to all of those on this planet, including plants and animals. It is not only pragmatic but also morally right to respect this glorious planet.

It is easy to suggest that humans should have a right to peace, but are we not also animals?  We should extend the right to peace to our fellow animals. They are after all sharing this planet with us and many of them, mammals in particular, are able to experience strikingly similar emotional responses to us. Elephants for example have been recorded as experiencing symptoms of a condition similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following heavy poaching.

Looking after our environment not only protects vulnerable species of plants and animals, it can also help to prevent human conflicts from happening in the first place. Resource scarcity is often the catalyst for violence. Water and food shortages are often exacerbated by man-made climate change. Climate change, resulting from overuse of fossil fuels, produces increasingly volatile and unpredictable weather patterns. This in turn leads to loss of crops and livestock in unseasonal and extreme conditions.

The environment and the animals within it are casualties of war which cannot cry out in pain. We must raise our voices for those animals and plants that are destroyed and disregarded. It is in all of our long-term interests to do so. We must fight to preserve the resources needed for peace, even in times of war.

By Eppie Parker