The Balfour Declaration: 100 Years On

It is exactly 100 years to the day since the signing of the Balfour Declaration, an event that has had profound consequences and which continues to shape the Middle East and the rest of the world today. The Declaration, a product of British design, made two promises. First, it promised a homeland for the Jews, a people facing widespread persecution  and who would go on to face persecution on an abhorrent scale. Second, it promised that the civil and religious rights of those non-Jewish communities already occupying the land would not be prejudiced. Decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians underpins this failure to fulfill that second promise.

Britain must accept responsibility for its role in this, but not shy away from the important role it can play in the future. The U.K. should begin by recognising the state of Palestine as an important first step, and on that basis, lead new efforts at peace and reconciliation which acknowledge the fundamental rights of Palestinians and also the right of Israel to its security. It is no good making further promises. It is time for a new approach.

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.

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