Category Archives: History

The ‘great’ British potential in development and aid

This is a guest post by Dan Smith. Dan is an Engineer working with sanitation companies in frontier markets. He is also a good friend who blogs here. You can follow Dan on twitter at @dpksmith.

Everything about this image is ridiculous. From the fact that the British Embassy in Myanmar feels it’s necessary to persuade people how ‘great’ Britain is, to the idea that using posters resplendent with outdated nationalistic iconography is a good one.

All of it smacks of desperation.

A friend of mine recently sent me the picture from Yangon. My friend asked if this was how the British Government treated all of the countries we’d previously undermined. Looking at it historically and considering that my friend is Austrian; this comment is somewhat ironic but shows how our colonial history still pervades today.

The Austrians and Germans don’t cling to the dying embers of Empire, so why do we?

The simple fact is that the British Empire was an immoral occurrence over a generation ago, yet 60 years on it is still acceptable to promote the UK using imagery and terminology from that period alluding to the fact that we’ve changed. Whilst our pernicious foreign policy and the actions of British companies ensure that we’re still acting in a similar manner. Why can’t we move on from our history and start leading by example?

Our Government advertises the UK with outdated iconography whilst telling expats to go home. Our society bickers amongst itself about how best to manage our own sustainability whilst our international companies continue to steal resources from other countries as they always have done. All off this is white washed with propaganda about how great we are and as such our entrepreneurs come up with solutions for luxury abandon.

Perhaps this should change?

The Africa Progress Report 2013 paints a damning picture of powerful companies influencing kleptocratic governments in order to procure the rights to extract resources from their countries. The sharp end of the wedge highlighted in the criticism of the recent WTO Trade Agreement that this promotes the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals, poor or otherwise. All of which suggests that companies from rich countries are still operating in a similar fashion to the way various Royal Charter companies did back in the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is proof that British companies are complicit in such actions, such as the Vedanta Mining Corporation that wants to mine a culturally significant area of India or the shooting of 34 miners at the Marikana mine in South Africa owned by Lonmin. Closer to home there has been a devastating yet largely overlooked case where the British police have colluded with large construction firms to blacklist 3,200 people viewed as “leftwing or troublesome”.

Staying at home, shallow arguments such as this and this by the George Monbiot (a journalist that at least has his ‘heart in the right place’) demonstrates the divide between the middle class left, who paint themselves as the proletariat, and who the left perceive as the evil land owning bourgeoisie farmers. Yet most of our home grown challenges, such as sustainable energy security, are smothered by Government backed jingoistic promotions (such as some woman marrying a posh bloke and having a baby) to persuade everybody that we’re ‘great’.

If you do a quick search for people making change in the world you’ll find a plethora of young entrepreneurs in Africa developing businesses to fix many of the problems they see in front of them. Yet if you look for young British ones, more established ones, or look to entrepreneurial promotion such as Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice, you find people providing low cost throw away consumables, luxury goods, weaponry and food for students; as if there aren’t more pressing issues than creating maximum profit. Why are we still promoting profit over environmental and social performance?

In the UK we are a knowledge economy. We hold some of the best universities in the world; we have world leading research institutes; and some of the most respected consulting agencies. Why can’t we use this potential to lead the way in sustainable development rather than clinging to outdated dogma?

If the government really wants to increase foreign trade then perhaps it should start by regulating and prosecuting companies that are acting immorally and often illegally in other people’s countries rather than putting up posters. That would be a large step forward in changing the image of Britain. Whilst it’s doing that it could remove all of the Empiresque imagery from our foreign policy documentation and create strategies that work with people of other countries rather than against them.

Admittedly, social enterprise is supported in the UK through the creation of Big Society Capital and Social Enterprise UK. But why does this have to be at the loss to Government public sector? We could do both by going after the financial sector with the Tobin Tax – which is being pursued across Europe. Yet our government lacks both the teeth and the will to go after either the banks or international corporations.

If we could develop Triple Bottom Line businesses out of old neo-colonial corporations and promote “sustainability entrepreneurs” and “intrapreneurs” to meet our own challenges and set high sustainability standards in the UK. Then the rest of the world would look to us as leaders in sustainable development.

With external trade based on global sustainability rather than individual profiteering we wouldn’t need to tell anybody how “great” we still are.


Filed under Economics, History

On Ariel Sharon’s death and my own hypocrisy

Yesterday, Ariel Sharon was buried. While the world responded to the death of ‘a courageous war hero/a vile war criminal’ with a war of words, I have been fighting my own battle with my own thoughts. Let me explain…

Ariel Sharon
After Sharon’s death an inevitable war of words broke out.

The Jerusalem Post quoted Netanyahu as describing Sharon as a ‘courageous warrior,’ who played a ‘central role in the struggle for the security of Israel’.

The Guardian in contrast ran an article by the Oxford academic Avi Shalim which concluded, “His enduring legacy has been to empower and embolden some of the most racist, xenophobic, expansionist, and intransigent elements in Israel’s dysfunctional political system.”

No mention of war crimes, but equally not exactly the praise lavished on him by some.

Meanwhile activists and human rights organisations have used this moment to highlight his role in massacres such as that in Sabra and Shatila in 1982 which saw hundreds and perhaps thousands slaughtered.

For myself I opted for silence while I struggled with my own thoughts.

In the aftermath of Thatcher’s death I wrote and spoke, to the dismay of most on the left, about the need to show respect and to not celebrate a death.

I still stand by those comments.

But a personal experience keeps reoccurring in my mind which makes it difficult for me to not pick up my metaphorical pen.

When I started to learn Arabic before heading to the West Bank in 2012 I was taught by a Londoner who had fled Sabra and Shatila in the early 80s to make a new life for herself in the UK.

She spoke with a brittle absolutism about the past that reflected a personal experience that outweighed all the history and politics that she had so obviously read. In my own mind I foolishly criticised her for this while pompously praising myself for my ability to stand back and reflect on things objectively.

One time we were sat in a café repeating lists of Arabic words when we, as too often happened, got side-tracked into conversations about politics and religion. I can still remember clearly the London sun coming in through the window catching her downcast eyes as she told me of some of her very earliest memories. She told me about one night when an explosion went off in the middle of the night and in panic she ran outside in her pyjamas and just kept running through fear before finally breaking down and crying.

In that moment my books seemed obsolete and useless. In the pain of that story what seemed like crass historical absolutism seemed, for a short time, completely justified.

I write this now because whenever I read an article about Sharon I think, not of my Arabic teacher, but of a young girl crying in the middle of the night.

Sharon, although never mentioned by name, was a central figure in her story. He was the Israeli Defence Minister of the time.

He was the Defence Minister who an internal Israeli commission into the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in 1982 found ‘personally responsible’. He was the Defence Minister who had decided that Phalangist militias ‘should be sent in’ to the camps despite the risk that they would massacre the civilian population there. And as a result, he is the Defence Minister who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or maybe thousands, for the children, pregnant women, and the elderly, some of whom were found to have been brutally mutilated.

Sharon has gone to his grave without ever facing justice for his role in this war crime and others he oversaw.

These thoughts have been weighing on me in the last few days. I am fully aware that writing these words won’t help bring justice for any of his victims or their families. Nor will it help people who experienced the harsh repercussions of his policies.  It certainly won’t help those who see Sharon as a hero and who are mourning him as I write.

In fact I am not sure this blog will help anyone – especially not me. I am still not sure why I am writing it. I know the ever quick to judge bloggersphere will jump at the chance to accuse me of hypocrisy, inconsistency and double standards.

All I know is that it felt important to write it. Somehow if I didn’t write it I would feel like I wasn’t being honest with myself.


Filed under History, Human rights, Middle East, Politics

The political battle over WW1 misses the ‘c word’ – colonialism

In recent days a political battle has broken out over the teaching of World War 1 in British schools. This battle is, by definition, political and misses the more important point: we need to be teaching our children a history that goes beyond the ‘we fight bad guys and win’ narrative. Britain has some stains on its history and we have to make sure our kids know about them.

Writing in today’s Telegraph Boris Johnson hits out at Labour’s Education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, saying that Hunt is “guilty of talking total twaddle” for “his mushy-minded blether about ‘multiple histories’”.

This all come as backlash to Labour’s attack on Michael Gove’s “crass” comments that attacked “left-wing and unpatriotic” understandings of what caused WW1. The party-political rhetoric goes on and on…and I won’t bore you with more of it here. If you like, you can read Gove’s original Daily Mail article here, and Hunt’s Observer response article here.

This whole argument between Labour and Conservatives falls into insignificance when you consider that they both have failed to reform the teaching of history in our schools that still so overwhelmingly misses out so much of Britain’s (let alone the rest of the world’s) history.

Take my (now rather outdated) personal experience of school as a case in point. I took history up to my A-levels and then studied history modules during both my BSc and my MA. By the time I left university I had studied different elements of Nazism and WW2 on at least 5 separate occasions. WW1, and particularly the causes of WW1, were covered on at least three separate occasions.

A sign of a good education? Possibly, were it not for the gaping holes in my education that failed to enable me to put any of this into context. One word was significantly and consistently missing from my education – colonialism.

It took me until the age of 22 before I started reading, of my own accord, about the rest of Britain’s track record outside of the two world wars.

The only thread I can spot between what I didn’t learn at school is that it paints my home country in a bad light. Although colonialism is an obvious case in point for this, there are other notable gaps such as the UK’s response to post independent Ireland.

So my rhetorical question is this: who decided not mention the atrocities of British colonialism in our classrooms? Who decided, and perhaps more importantly continues to decide, that the 26,000 women and children who died in British concentration camps during the Boer War are worthy of only a passing mention in our schools? Who has chosen to edit our history of colonial suppression in Kenya that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths to be about mutiny and uprisings not political oppression?

I will tell you who…the man! No, not Gove but the man. As much as we would like to blame this all on Gove and his merry band of revisionists we have to be honest with ourselves. My lifetime has been defined by years and years of establishment thinking that has failed to face up to its own atrocities.

Over the last few days politicians, both red and blue, have spent their time arguing an important argument – how do we teach, interpret and understand our history. This debate about how to represent or understand an event can only take place though if you’re teaching the event in the first place.

It’s time we start teaching our kids about the c-word – colonialism.


Filed under History, Politics

What would happen if you were judged by what you wrote when you were 17?

On Saturday, the Daily Mail chose to publish an article about him under the banner headline 'The Man Who Hated Britain'Geoffrey Levy has defended his article in the Daily Mail in which he accuses Ralph Miliband (father of Ed and David) of hating Britain by saying, “my piece was based entirely on his political views in his own words, from his early caustic diary entries about the British.”

Ignoring the fact that Levy offers no evidence to support his title that suggested Ralph Miliband hated Britain, one also has to judge the nature of this hatchet job journalism that relies primarily on a diary entry from a 17 year old Ralph.

Imagine that your 17 year old thoughts were recorded and then used against you? My 17 year old self is only 10 years behind me but already I have changed physically, politically, emotionally, spiritually and socially almost beyond recognition. I cannot even begin to imagine their irrelevance in 50 something years time.

One of the many differences between me and Ralph is that at the age of 17 I was still forming my political views. I felt passionate about issues but I lacked any context to my views. At the age of 17 Blair’s government invaded Iraq and my immediate opposition to the war was based on a crass gut instinct. My naivety led me to a response that I am proud of today in this instance but it also led me to some idiotic decisions.

To give an example, my parents and sister were both involved with local fox hunts and as such came home with Countryside Alliance materials. I read some of it and was taken in by the soft rhetoric of needing to stand up for the British countryside (something that I am still passionate about). Of course I now wouldn’t touch the Countryside Alliance with a barge poll, their inward looking blinkered conservative approach leaves then on the opposite side to me in almost every debate but I remember proudly (and my fiancé who I met at college won’t let me forget) wearing a Countryside Alliance badge to my sixth-form college.

The shame of it! But what can you deduce from this about me? I would hope very little other than teenagers sometimes make bad decisions!

My point here is simple – my 17 old politics were crass and I said and did some things I am proud of and some things I am not. I am sure the same could be said for most people.

To base an entire hatchet job of a man who, amongst other things, authored at least two books, battled the NAZIS in WW2, holds a PhD from LSE and has taught at Universities around the world, is journalism that is barely worth the paper it is written on.

For some real journalism and a sense of who Ed and David’s father was have a read of this obituary for Ralph Miliband.


Filed under History, Politics

Boycotting Sunderland FC is the only appropriate and moral response to their recent installation of a fascist manager

This is the final article in a short series on Social Justice First about the state of modern football.

Paulo Di Canio, a fascist (in all probability), is now sitting at the helm of one of Britain’s most respected football clubs. The only way to remove him from such a prestigious position is for the fans to implement a boycott of the club.

For the last two years I have been calling for a boycott of Swindon Town FC – Di Canio’s former employers.

"I am not political... I do not support the ideology of fascism" - Paulo Di Canio

Few in the midst of the media scrum that followed his appointment to Sunderland commented on his two year reign at Swindon Town. Barney Ronay at the Guardian was the exception to this rule when he wroteDi Canio has been manager of Swindon for two years without complaint…there is an excellent point to be made about the lack of attention paid to events in the lower leagues.”

He was right on one count. The whole Di Canio debacle shows the unhealthy media spotlight that is shined upon the Premiership leaving the lower leagues in its shadow.

Just as the next big things can be spotted playing in the lower leagues, so the next big problem can also often be found there.

Barney was wrong however to assert that Di Canio spent two years at Swindon without complaint.

I was complaining and complaining loud.

Back in 2011 I wrote that Swindon should be embarrassed to employ a man who is a symbol of modern fascism and called for all fans to boycott the club.

I finished that article by appealing to the Swindon fans saying, “The message has to come from the supporters. Sack him for the reputation of the club.”

This message was ignored by most, if not all, Swindon fans. Could it be different for Sunderland?

At the heart of every football fan is passionate burning desire for success. Regardless of Di Canio’s politics he delivered promotion to Swindon. Success on the pitch acted to numb the consciousness of many Swindon fans. Promotion enabled them to look the other way.

Although this isn’t an excuse for their silence, it does at least act as an explanation.

For Sunderland fans there is little chance of this level of success and this might act as the catalyst for his dismissal or at least a de facto boycott (drop in gate sales).

The harder question though sits with all of the non-Swindon and non-Sunderland fans. Di Canio has been a manager in the UK for over two years now; why have they not spoken out until now?

Not my club, not my problem was the most common response from non-Swindon fans that I spoke to over the last few years.

Let’s be clear though: it is our problem. Fascism has no place in a modern tolerant democracy. Fascism, by its nature, invokes a support for authoritarianism coupled with a questionable understanding of culture and national identity. Is this what Sunderland want in a figurehead?

This issue moves beyond just fascism though.

In a macabre game of ‘footballing extremist ideology bingo’ we are now erring towards a full house in modern football. We’ve got racists, we’ve got homophobes, and now, to complete the set, we have a self-declared fascist.

While the footballing establishment has at least started to tackle the first two problems, there remains uncertainty about how, or even if they should, tackle fascism.

Once again this is why the message needs to come from the fans that fascism has no place in the game.

Look either side of you on the terraces and you will see people who not only fought fascism but also know people who died at the hands of fascists. The horrors of the 20th century are not as far away as some think.

It pains me to have to write this, but being a fascist is not just being ‘a bit right wing’ – it is lending your tacit support to a movement that oversaw the mass death of millions.

At best Di Canio will stay quiet. At worst though, the poisonous ideology that this confused Italian extrovert follows will drip into his decisions and affect the players underneath him.

Just as Marcel Desailly would probably choose to never play for a team that Ron Atkinson managed, so I doubt any Italian with immigrant descendants would want to play for Sunderland.

For the good of British football, for the good of Sunderland FC and for all those who spent their lives fighting fascism I call on everyone to boycott the Stadium of Light until Di Canio has either renounced all aspects of fascism or left the club.


Filed under Far-right politics, Football, History, Sport

A note to David Ward MP: Your historical comparisons are unhelpful

I never for a moment intended to criticise or offend the Jewish people as a whole, either as a race or as a people of faith, and apologise sincerely

David Ward MP

The Liberal Democrat MP David Ward was criticised for suggesting that “the Jews” in Israel inflicted “atrocities on Palestinians… on a daily basis” and had not learned lessons from the holocaust.

Ward (I believe inadvertently) used language to suggest that all Jews were responsible for the crimes that are being committed by the state of Israel. This is fundamentally not true and can be highly offensive, not least to the many Jews who oppose the immoral foreign policy of the Israeli state towards the Palestinian territories.

The Liberal Democrats responded sayingThe Liberal Democrats deeply regret and condemn the statement issued by David Ward”.

The Liberal Democrats were right to condemn his comments, and Ward was right, in retrospect to apologise.

When speaking to Sky News though, Ward seemed to dig himself deeper. He was asked if he accepts that he was accusing “The Jews” of inflicting “this persecution on the Palestinians,” not the Israeli state. His answer:

Well, I’m accusing the Jews who did it, if you’re a Jew who did not do it then I’m not accusing you. I’m saying that those Jews who did that and continue to do it have not learned those lessons [from the Holocaust]. If you are a Jew and you do not do those things and have never done those things then I am not criticizing you

Hmm…So when he uses the term “The Jews” he is actually just referring to the Jews that are committing the atrocities that he has witnessed in the occupied territories, not Jews in general. As clear as mud.

At best, his (well intentioned) comments were sloppy.

An aspect of his comments that I felt equally uncomfortable with however was his assertion that

The Holocaust was one of the worst examples in history of man’s inhumanity to man. When faced with examples of atrocious behaviour, we must learn from them. It appears that the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treatment”

Ignoring his repeated inaccurate and potentially offensive use of “the Jews” he makes a point here that is unhelpful and inaccurate.

Of course, I agree with Ward in the basic assertion that “we must learn” from the holocaust. What I am unclear on though, is what does he want us to learn that is applicable to the current situation in the occupied territories?

This latest uproar reminded me of George Galloway, Oona King and Jenny Tonge’s comments comparing the situation in Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto, comparable only in the fact that they both involved human suffering.

At the time, Howard Jacobson wrote in The Independent saying:

In the early 1940s some 100,000 Jews and Romanis died of engineered starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto, another quarter of a million were transported to the death camps, and when the Ghetto rose up it was liquidated, the last 50,000 residents being either shot on the spot or sent to be murdered more hygienically in Treblinka. Don’t mistake me: every Palestinian killed in Gaza is a Palestinian too many, but there is not the remotest similarity, either in intention or in deed – even in the most grossly mis-reported deed – between Gaza and Warsaw

Does this mean we have to ease off our criticism of the Israeli government while they continue to push their expansionist war mongering agenda? Not in the slightest.

There is nothing more powerful than describing the atrocities that are occurring daily in the occupied territories as exactly what they are.

If you want to understand the occupation, Read about the indignity of being made to queue for hours to get to work. Read about the reality of living in a community that is raided at least weekly by a foreign army. Read about the pain of losing your son who is held in detention on spurious charges (often without charge or trial).

No comparison is needed, a sentiment shared by Ward’s colleague Julian Huppert MP.


Filed under History, Human rights, Middle East, Politics

Major Bob Astles, the self styled ‘British adviser’ to Idi Amin passes away

Major Bob Astles, the self styled ‘British adviser’ to Idi Amin has passed away in south London.

It was announced earlier this week that Major Bob has been cremated as per his wishes after passing away three weeks ago. Only five people attended his funeral.

Dubbed ‘The White Rat’ for his support of Amin’s reign, Major Bob stayed in touch with Amin until the former President’s death in 2003.

Henry Gombya, the editor at the London Evening Post where Major Bob wrote a regular column said that Major Bob “never… regretted his time” with Amin. He added that he felt that he “did what he had to do”.

Major Bob was imprisoned for 6 years after Amin’s exile in 1979. It was reported that he then moved back to London and enjoyed a life of luxury living in a £1,000,000 house.

He was allegedly the inspiration for the British doctor in Giles Foden’s novel ‘The Last King of Scotland’.

Major Bob Astles died of cancer at the age of 87.

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Filed under History, Uganda

Harry’s Winky and Wanted War Criminals – Welcome to The House of Windsor

It looks like Prince Harry took the advice to leave the Nazi outfit at home a little too literally.

Not to worry, The House of Windsor is no stranger to controversy and has become pretty used fire fighting royal fuck ups. Harry is not the first royal to hit the front pages for the wrong reasons and nor will he be the last.

Harry though has a bit of a reputation. In 2002 Harry was found to have smoked cannabis. In 2004 Harry had a fist fight (well got hit) by some paparazzi outside a London nightclub. In 2005 there was Harry’s now notorious Nazi fancy dress. In 2007 Harry fell into a gutter after telling reporters to “fuck off”. In 2009 Harry was caught on camera calling a fellow soldier his “little Paki friend”. As I say, a bit of reputation.

And then there was Harry being photographed naked in a hotel room in Las Vegas – want to see it again? Click here.

Should we be worried though about Harry’s ‘antics’? No, of course we should not be worried.

He has been caught smoking cannabis, drinking too much and using sloppy and offensive language. If we used these criteria to condemn people then there wouldn’t be many of us walking free. I for one would fall down on at least two of these charges.

Is his behavior acceptable? No. But it is no worse than what occurs in bedrooms up and down the country.

Whatever you do though, please don’t mistake this post as evidence that I am a royal apologist. I am far from it.

Indeed, when we look at Harry’s list of controversies, we can see they pale into insignificance compared to some of his extended family.

Remember the Duchess of York offering to sell access to Prince Andrew who was the UK’s special representative for international trade and investment for £500,000? Not exactly the behavior one would expect from one’s royalty.

Then of course Prince Andrew himself was never far from controversy. His list of friends leaves some room for questioning his royal judgement. Prince Andrew has met with alleged war criminal Saif Gaddafi, the son of the disposed Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Sakher el-Materi and last but not least, the son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Timur Kulibayev.

Not people on my Christmas card list.

This is without mentioning his “billionaire pedophile” mate Jeffrey Epstein.

Then of course we have the Duke of Edinburgh himself. Until recently, it was rarely mentioned that all of his brother in-laws were Nazi officials and three of his sisters Sophie, Cecile and Margarita were members of the party. The Duke of Edinburgh was quoted describing his family relations to the Nazi as saying “[there was] a lot of enthusiasm for the Nazis at the time, the economy was good, we were anti-Communist and who knew what was going to happen to the regime?”

Yes, who knew…I mean the setting up of concentration camps in 1933 couldn’t possibly have offered a hint to the type of regime the Nazis were running.

In the grand scheme of things, I feel inclined to forgive and forget Harry’s relatively minor mistakes.

He might dress like a Nazi, but at least (as far as I know) he’s not actually a Nazi. He might splash away £5,000 a night on a Las Vegas hotel but at least he’s not making money by selling access to his family. He might like to hang with the rich and famous but at least they’re not wanted war criminals.

Am I worried about Harry getting his winky out? No. Am I worried though about the Royal family as our supposed representatives (I never voted for them) relaxing with some of the most deplorable elites in the world? Yes.

Let’s try and keep things in perspective…


Filed under Celebrity, Far-right politics, History, Human rights, Politics

10 years of foreign policy that has included secret detention, torture and rendition – the legacy of the Tony Blair/George Bush tag team

On the 11th of January 2002, the first detainees were transferred to the US Naval base Guantanamo Bay. The orange jumpsuit has become a symbol of the USA’s and its allies failed ‘war on terror’. The atrocities that we know have occurred behind the security fences at Guantanamo are an ugly blight on both the UK’s and the US’s foreign policy. This is the 3rd year in a row I have blogged about Guantanamo Bay, still being open, still being a blight on the US and its allies and still ruining lives.  This blog is a plea to President Obama urging him to live up to his word to close the camp and restore the credibility of the US on the world stage. Until this happens, he can never separate himself or his country off from Bush’s disastrous legacy.

The legacy of Guantanamo Bay is one that we should all be ashamed of. For as long as it stays open, we know that to a limited extent, arbitrary detention, secret detention, torture and other ill-treatment, renditions, and unfair trials still plays a part in our foreign policy. When our representatives go abroad and talk of democracy and human rights, Guantanamo is mentioned as a symbol of our hypocrisy.

There are still 150 detainees in Guantanamo. All 150 people are still being denied their basic freedoms. The majority of them are being held indefinitely without charge or trial. Remember a few years ago, we were all up in arms (quite rightly) that New Labour tried to introduce a 90 day period where you could be held with charge or trial? Well imagine what it must be like to be held indefinitely, never knowing if you will be a free man, or even what crime you are supposed to have committed. There is still a Brit in Guantanamo Bay, alongside others, who have no idea why they are being held there.

The few ‘lucky’ ones who are being put on trial are facing the notoriously unfair military commissions and potentially face the death penalty if found guilty. Why, they cannot be tried in conventional courts has yet to be explained to me. Maybe it is because any self-respecting legal system would not go near information obtained through torture! The US government has already stated that those who are found to be NOT guilty may still face being returned to indefinite detention.

In short, the US is making up the rules as it goes along. To make it worse, these ‘new rules’ that are being introduced fly in the face of all pre-existing human rights standards which the White House still has the audacity to claim to support.

Guantanamo detainees should either be charged and prosecuted in fair trials or released to countries that will respect their human rights. If there ‘home’ countries cannot take them, or if there is any belief that they will be in danger should they returned then they should be offered refugee status in the US. It is about time the US started living up to its responsibilities. The US military commissions, which do not meet international fair trial standards, should be abandoned without delay. The right to a fair trial is so central to a democracy that it undermines the very bedrock of US society if it is removed.

President Obama, for as long as you fail to live up to these very basic demands, you will be seen as being no better that George Bush. Sort it out!

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Filed under History, Human rights, Middle East, Politics

Hynd’s Blog: 2011 in review

The stats have prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Filed under History

Lifting the Nobel Peace Prize

 OK, so I will admit, I didn’t actually win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Quakers did and they were recently nice enough to let me see it up close. I think this is pretty cool. Although not half as cool as why the Quakers won it in the first place.

Before going to see the prize I read the speech by Gunnar Jahn, the then Chairman of Nobel committee. It makes me really proud of the loose connections I have with the Quakers. It makes me proud of all my friends who are still activley involved with them. I would really urge you to read this speech, it makes for compelling reading.

“The Nobel Committee  of the Norwegian Parliament has awarded this year’s Peace  Prize to the Quakers, represented by their two great relief  organizations, the Friends Service Council in London and the  American Friends  Service Committee in Philadelphia.

It is now three hundred years since George Fox1 established the Society of Friends. It was  during the time of civil war in England, a period full of the  religious and political strife which led to the Protectorate  under Cromwell2 – today we would  no doubt call it a dictatorship. What then happened was what so  often happens when a political or religious movement is  successful; it lost sight of its original concern: the right to  freedom. For, having achieved power, the movement then refuses to  grant to others the things for which it has itself fought. Such  was the case with the Presbyterians and after them with the  Independents. It was not the spirit of tolerance and humanity  that emerged victorious.
  George Fox and many of his followers were to experience this  during the ensuing years, but they did not take up the fight by  arming, as men customarily do. They went their way quietly  because they were opposed to all forms of violence. They believed  that spiritual weapons would prevail in the long run – a belief  born of inward experience. They emphasized life itself rather  than its forms because forms, theories, and dogmas have never  been of importance to them. They have therefore from the very  beginning been a community without fixed organization. This has  given them an inner strength and a freer view of mankind, a  greater tolerance toward others than is found in most organized  religious communities.

The Quaker movement originated in England, but soon afterwards in  1656, the Quakers found their way to America where they were not  at first welcomed. In spite of persecution, however, they stood  fast and became firmly established during the last quarter of the  century. Everyone has heard of the Quaker, William Penn3, who founded Philadelphia and the colony of  Pennsylvania. Around 1700 there were already fifty to sixty  thousand Quakers in America and about the same number in  England.

Since then the Quakers have lived their own lives, many of them  having to suffer for their beliefs. Much has changed during these  three hundred years. Outward customs, such as the dress adopted  by the early Quakers, have been discarded, and the Friends  themselves now live in a society which is outwardly quite  different from that of the seventeenth century. But the people  around them are the same, and what has to be conquered within man  himself is no less formidable.

The Society of Friends has never had many members, scarcely more  than 200,000 in the entire world, the majority living in the  United States and in England. But it is not the number that  matters. What counts more is their inner strength and their  deeds.

If we study the history of the Quakers, we cannot but admire the  strength they have acquired through their faith and through their  efforts to live up to that faith in their daily life. They have  always been opposed to violence in any form, and many considered  their refusal to take part in wars the most important tenet of  their religion. But it is not quite so simple. It is certainly  true that the Declaration of 1660 states: «We utterly deny  all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons,  for any end and under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our  testimony to the whole world.» But that goes much further  than a refusal to take part in war. It leads to this: it is  better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. It is from  within man himself that victory must in the end be gained.

It may be said, without doing injustice to anyone, that the  Quakers have at times been more interested in themselves and in  their inner life than in the community in which they lived. There  was, as one of their own historians has said, something passive  about their work: they preferred to be counted among the silent  in the land. But no one can fulfill his mission in this life by  wanting to belong only to the silent ones and to live his own  life isolated from others.

Nor was this attitude true of the Quakers. They too went out  among men, not to convert them, but to take an active part with  them in the life of the community and, even more, to offer their  help to those who needed it and to let their good deeds speak for  themselves in appealing for mutual understanding.

Here I can only mention some scattered examples which illustrate  such activity. The Quakers took part in creating the first peace  organization in 1810 and since then have participated in all  active peace movements. I would mention Elizabeth Fry  4, John Woolman5, and other Quakers active in the fight  against slavery and in the struggle for social justice. I would  mention the liberal idealist John Bright6, his forty-year fight against the principles  of war and for the principles of peace, his opposition to the  Crimean War7, and his struggle  against Palmerston’s8 policies.  Many other examples could be mentioned to show how their active  participation in community work, in politics if you prefer,  increased during the nineteenth century.

Yet it is not this side of their activities – the active  political side – which places the Quakers in a unique position.  It is through silent assistance from the nameless to the nameless  that they have worked to promote the fraternity between nations  cited in the will of Alfred Nobel. Their work  began in the prisons. We heard about them from our seamen who  spent long years in prison during the Napoleonic  Wars9. We met them once again  during the Irish famine of 1846-1847. When English naval units  bombarded the Finnish coast during the Crimean War10, the Quakers hurried there to heal the  wounds of war, and we found them again in France after the  ravages of the 1870-1871 war11.

When the First World War broke out, the Quakers were once more to  learn what it was to suffer for their faith. They refused to  carry arms, and many of them were thrown into prison, where they  were often treated worse than criminals. But it is not this that  we shall remember longest. We who have closely observed the  events of the First World War and of the inter-war period will  probably remember most vividly the accounts of the work they did  to relieve the distress caused by the war. As early as 1914, the  English Quakers started preparation for relief action. They began  their work in the Marne district in France and, whenever they  could, they went to the very places where the war had raged. They  worked in this way all through the war and when it ended were  confronted by still greater tasks. For then, as now, hunger and  sickness followed in the wake of the war. Who does not recall the  years of famine in Russia in 1920-1921 and Nansen‘s appeal to mankind for help? Who  does not recall the misery among the children in Vienna which  lasted for years on end? In the midst of the work everywhere were  the Quakers. It was the Friends Service Committee which, at  Hoover’s12 request, took on the mighty task  of obtaining food for sick and undernourished children in  Germany. Their relief corps worked in Poland and Serbia,  continued to work in France, and later during the civil war in  Spain13 rendered aid on both  sides of the front.

Through their work, the Quakers won the confidence of all, for  both governments and people knew that their only purpose was to  help. They did not thrust themselves upon people to win them to  their faith. They drew no distinction between friend and foe. One  expression of this confidence was the donation of considerable  funds to the Quakers by others. The funds which the Quakers could  have raised among themselves would not have amounted to much  since most of them are people of modest means.

During the period between the wars their social work also  increased in scope. Although, in one sense, nothing new emerged,  the work assumed a form different from that of the wartime  activity because of the nature of the problems themselves.  Constructive work received more emphasis, education and teaching  played a greater part, and there were now more opportunities of  making personal contact with people than there had been during a  time when the one necessity seemed to be to supply food and  clothing. The success achieved among the coal miners in West  Virginia provides an impressive example of this work. The Quakers  solved the housing problems, provided new work for the  unemployed, created a new little community. In the words of one  of their members, they succeeded in restoring self-respect and  confidence in life to men for whom existence had become devoid of  hope. This is but one example among many.

The Second World War did not strike the Quakers personally in the  same way as did that of 1914. Both in England and in the U.S.A.  the conscription laws allowed the Quakers to undertake relief  work instead of performing military service; so they were neither  cast into prison nor persecuted because of their unwillingness to  go to war. In this war there were, moreover, Quakers who did not  refuse to take an active part in the war, although they were few  compared with those who chose to help the victims of war. When  war came, the first task which confronted them was to help the  refugees. But the difficulties were great because the frontiers  of many countries were soon closed. The greater part of Europe  was rapidly occupied by the Germans, and the United States  remained neutral for only a short time. Most of the countries  occupied by the Germans were closed to the Quakers. In Poland, it  is true, they were given permission to help, but only on  condition that the Germans themselves should choose who was to be  helped, a condition which the Quakers could not accept.  Nevertheless, they worked where they could, first undertaking  welfare work in England and after that, behind the front in many  countries of Europe and Asia, and even in America. For when  America joined the war, the whole Japanese-American population,  numbering 112,000 in all, of whom 80,000 were American citizens,  was evacuated from the West Coast. The Quakers went to their  assistance, as well as opposed the prevailing anti-Japanese  feeling from which these people suffered.

Now, with the war over, the need for help is greater than ever.  This is true not only in Europe, but also and to the same degree  in large areas of Asia. The problems are becoming more and more  overwhelming – the prisoners who were released from concentration  camps in 1945, all those who had to be repatriated from forced  labor or POW camps in enemy countries, all the displaced persons  who have no country to which they can return, all the homeless in  their own countries, all the orphans, the hungry, the starving!  The problem is not merely one of providing food and clothing, it  is one of bringing people back to life and work, of restoring  their self-respect and their faith and confidence in the future.  Once again, the Quakers are active everywhere. As soon as a  country has been reopened they have been on the spot, in Europe  and in Asia, among countrymen and friends as well as among former  enemies, in France and in Germany, in India and in Japan. It is  not easy to assess the extent of their contribution. It is not  something that can be measured in terms of money alone, but  perhaps some indication of it may be given by the fact that the  American Committee’s budget for last year was forty-six million  Norwegian kroner. And this is only the sum which the American  Committee has had at its disposal. Quakers in all countries have  also taken a personal and active part in the work of other relief  organizations. They have, for instance, assisted in the work of  UNRRA14 in a number of places  such as Vienna and Greece.

Today the Quakers are engaged in work that will continue for many  years to come. But to examine in closer detail the individual  relief schemes would not give us any deeper insight into its  significance. For it is not in the extent of their work or in its  practical form that the Quakers have given most to the people  they have met. It is in the spirit in which this work is  performed. «We weren’t sent out to make converts», a  young Quaker says: «we’ve come out for a definite purpose,  to build up in a spirit of love what has been destroyed in a  spirit of hatred. We’re not missionaries. We can’t tell if even  one person will be converted to Quakerism. Things like that don’t  happen in a hurry. When our work is finished it doesn’t mean that  our influence dies with it. We have not come out to show the  world how wonderful we are. No, the thing that seems most  important is the fact that while the world is waging a war in the  name of Christ, we can bind up the wounds of war in the name of  Christ. Religion means very little until it is translated into  positive action.»15

This is the message of good deeds, the message that men can find  each other in spite of war, in spite of differences in race. Is  it not here that we have the hope of laying foundations for peace  among nations, of building it up in man himself so that the  settling of disputes by force becomes impossible? All of us know  that we have not yet traveled far along this road. And yet – when  we witness today the great willingness to help those who have  suffered, a generosity unknown before the war and often greatest  among those who have least, can we not hope that there is  something in the heart of man on which we can build, that we can  one day reach our goal if only it be possible to make contact  with people in all lands?

The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into  action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for  others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the  sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race,  which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting  peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the  Nobel Peace Prize today.

But they have given us something more: they have shown us the  strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit  over force. And this brings to mind two verses from one of Arnulf  Överland’s16 poems which  helped so many of us during the war. I know of no better  salute:

The unarmed only can draw on sources eternal.  The spirit alone gives victory”

As I said, pretty compelling!


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Celebrating John Stuart Mill and David Starkey

If you have not already seen David Starkey’s outrageous racist slurs have a little watch. Awful no? There have been no shortages of people who have thrown their weight into articles to highlight why he was not only wrong, but also dangerous. If unchallenged, views such as Starkey’s can foster hatred which has very real and very dangerous consequences. The point however, is that they are not left unchallenged. Authors such Owen Jones have done a great job of providing an articulate alternative. Indeed, what has been lovely is the way the majority unite in shocked opposition to the repulsiveness of Starkey’s comments.

In a perverse twist of logic, we would not have had a torrent of columns and articles about tolerance, trust and community if it was not for Starkey’s awful comments. This thought process draws its ideas from the thinking of John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ (1859) in which Mill argued that truth (that evolves and adapts over time) can only be ascertained through its comparison to ‘false’ sentiments. Although he also warns about our ability to judge what is ‘false’ and what is ‘truth’. He argues freedom of speech should be celebrated, and ‘false’ comments should be welcomed as they help us to distinguish what is ‘truth’. Mill argued that free discussion is necessary to prevent the “deep slumber of a decided opinion“. I would argue that the likes of Starkey and Douglas Murray (two high profile public figures whose views I find deplorable) keep the moral consciousness alive and burning.

Ordinary people are struggling to find meaning behind the recent riots. It is interesting that it takes someone like Starkey for us to be able to articulate what we know was not the ‘cause’. Without doubt or hesitation, 99% of Brits can happily say the riots did not happen because the “whites had started to act black”.  Thanks to Starkey and Mill, we know what we are not – racists.

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Swindon Town FC should be embarrassed – Di Canio is a symbol of modern fascism

The figure head of a reputable club?

After a torrid season (relegated 41 points off 46 games with -22 goal difference) Swindon Town FC have put the icing on the cake by appointing a fascist (in his own words) as a manager. Paolo Di Canio is an ex-Italian footballer with well documented fascist views and an admiration for Mussolini.

Di Canio, in his autobiography, praised Mussolini as “basically a very principled, ethical individual” who was “deeply misunderstood”. He has the word “Dux”, the Latin equivalent of “Duce”, tattooed on his arm. In our fight to remove far-right politics out of league football this is an unwelcome step in the wrong direction for Swindon.

I do not need to write about the well documented atrocities that happened under Mussolini’s rule. The routine use of executions, torture and oppression has left a lasting legacy in Italy and beyond. For a club to think that they can separate themselves off from such a history is both naïve and insensitive.

The GMB Unions cutting of any financial link with the club is clear condemnation of the two-year long contract awarded to Di Canio.  Andy Newman, the GMB’s Swindon branch secretary, said: ‘We have decided to end our sponsorship deal with Swindon Town, we will not be renewing our agreement with them. Because we are a trade union we could not be seen to have a financial relationship with a club that has fascist manager. We have no choice. It’s unfortunate but that’s the way it is.’

This move is welcome as it highlights the unacceptable nature of Di Canio’s appointment whilst hitting the club in the one place that the board cares about, the wallet.

This is why I am calling on all Swindon Town fans to boycott all matches between now and Di Canio’s inevitable dismissal. The only thing a clubs board will listen to is falling gate sales.  It is not acceptable for a club to appoint someone with such despicable views. The message has to come from the supporters. Sack him for the reputation of the club.

I believe that the clubs decision to appoint Di Canio directly contradicts their club’s charter which states, “Swindon Town FC will not tolerate sexual or racially based harassment or other discriminatory behaviour, whether physical or verbal, and will work to ensure such action is met with appropriate action”. They have essentially managed to give tacit institutional support to discriminatory behaviour. This cannot be accepted.


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David Cameron has to move beyond words when calling for Christians to be “welcoming” and “accepting” of homosexuals

This article was originally published in OUT Bristol magazine.

Cameron has to move beyond words

David Cameron has moved his party on leaps and bounds from its deeply homophobic past.  Yet, when he calls for Christians to be “tolerant” and “welcoming” in light of a recent adoption ruling, we all know that he is referring to some within his own party.  For Cameron, Christianity will be one of the major battle grounds where his vision of an inclusive form of Conservatism is contested. He has to prove that he has at least thought about how the two can be reconciled otherwise his words are just that – words!

British politics has a very recent and very bleak history in relation to homophobia which still frames the current debate. Throughout the 1987 election campaign, the Conservative party campaigned on a heavily homophobic stance with election posters having slogans such as ‘Young, Gay and Proud…Labour’s idea for good education for your children’.  Outrageous in our eyes – a good election strategy for the late 1980’s Tories! I won’t mention the scandal that broke just before the May 2010 election in relation to Mr Grayling (current Minister for Work and Pensions)!

It was only in 1994 that our enlightened leaders chose to legalize “sodomy”.  The very word “sodomy” holds long rooted biblical significance coming from the wildly misquoted story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Too often, the LGB community roles over and accepts that Christianity and Homosexuality are incompatible. I believe it essential to tackle such ideas.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was a story that aimed to highlight the morality around hospitality; the sexual undertones are minor, if there at all. The argument goes that Lot was giving hospitality to an unknown stranger, and the men of the city gathered to ‘know’ who this stranger was. The argument that this can be understood in term of homosexual relations is weak; to imply that God destroyed Sodom for this reason is weaker still. This story is also later referred to by Jesus (Matthew 10:14 15) where he implies the story has more to do with hospitality that homosexuality. He said “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town”.  

The status of hospitality over sexual morality is highlighted by the fact that when Jericho was destroyed by the Lord, the one person spared was a prostitute, despite prostitution being prohibited (Leviticus 19:29), because she offered hospitality. It would suggest therefore that the “homosexual” understanding of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has more to do with modern and post-modernist understandings of sexual morality than it does with the story itself, which is based predominantly around hospitality. If we did choose to understand it in relation to sexual morality we have trouble explaining the climax of the story with Lot being seduced by his two daughters.

This does not stop homophobic politicians using Christianity to hide behind to avoid facing up to their own prejudices.

If Cameron really wants to win over the LGB community, I would like to see him engage the Christian community on these difficult issues rather than lazily accepting the out-dated discourse that Christians can be homophobes because the bible tells them so.  At the very least we have to understand these attitudes as a subjective understanding of Christianity.

Should the state be there to lazily force Christians to be “tolerant”? I suggest only as a last resort. Before that it should be the politician’s responsibility to argue and persuade people of these views.  Maybe this is why we have experienced such a harsh backlash from many within the Christian community.

Therefore this piece finishes with a fun challenge.  Write to Mr Cameron asking him how he thinks his “deep rooted Christian beliefs” fit with his open belief in sexual equality. Does he think they are compatible?

I think they are, but it would be good to hear the leader of our country say so.

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UKIP MEP’s continue to humiliate Britain in the European Parliament

UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom has added his name to the prestigious list of UKIP MEP’s who have managed to humiliate the UK in the European Parliament by acting in a totally unacceptable way.  Mr Bloom shouted “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer” at Martin Schulz (the leader of the Socialist grouping in the European Parliament).  He then held up proceedings on a couple of occasions by refusing to leave the chamber (when asked).

Mr Bloom joins his party leader Nigel Farage in letting the UK down.  Mr Farage notoriously told President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy he had “the charisma of a damp rag” in an outburst in the European Parliament.  These incidents are hugely unusual within the European Parliament, but are increasingly becoming normal for UKIP members.

These men continue to embarrass the UK by breaking Parliamentary rules around treating members with “respect”.  Voting UKIP will not bring the UK any closer to leaving Europe, but it will move the UK away from holding influence in Brussels.  They do nothing but isolate us further.


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Environmental refugees – Why an environmental refugee convention for the 21st century is needed

Since the development of the modern nation-state, people have been fleeing them.   The very concept of a nation-state developed out of warring territories.  The idea however, of international responsibility for individuals forced out of their nation clearly did not develop at the same time as nation states.  It wasn’t until after WW2 that any form of international responsibility became acknowledged in international law.  After WW2 politicians were concerned about the issues of the day (political, religious and ethnic persecution). The issue of environmental degradation as a cause to flee your country was not on the agenda.   We have to up-date what we understand to be a refugee.  We have to create a refugee convention fit for the 21st century.  A convention that covers the issues facing a 21st century refugee – climate change.  This problem is only going to get worse.

Other reasons why people flee also need to be taken into consideration.  For example sexuality need to be carefully considered.  The case of Mehdi Kazemi whose asylum claim was rejected despite his boyfriend in Iran already being executed for “sodomy” is a shameful blight on our countries recent history. This blog however will focus predominantly on the need to protect those who are fleeing their country for environmental reasons.

The problem inherent with climate change is that it is not one single environmental problem that forces people to flee. Instead it is a complex web of climate changes linked by unpredictable feedbacks.  Thus the science is still often contradictory. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes advocates who connect climate change with increasing number of refugees make is to pretend they can predict how it will affect humanity exactly.  This simply is not possible. Thus it presents a huge challenge, how to prepare for and act on a slowly unifying field of scientific research when all major power sources in the current political climate appear to be working against environmental sustainability?  It is clear there are no easy answers for this question.

The basic problem with acknowledging environmental refugees is that it implicitly suggests that the west have to take responsibility for “our” actions.  The moral obligation was taken on by New Zealand to take in the citizens of the collection of small islands of Tuvalu; the independent nation-state which is predicted to be underwater within a century by rising sea levels.  Tuvalu has a population of just 11,000 and so a satisfactory solution was relatively easy to find, even if it’s not perfect.  The real challenge faced by the international community as a result of rising sea levels are the millions more to be displaced, the 15 million in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, Bangladesh. If we in the West accept that we have a responsibility, we have accepted we have a responsibility for the hundreds of millions of people fleeing for climate change related reasons.  Would any government want to do this?

The wider consequences of accepting the term environmental refugees are massive.  Governments would have to provide protection for millions more, 5 or 6 times the number of conventional refugees at the moment if you accept the UNEP estimate.  The refugee debate would need to open itself up to reconsider other categories of people left out of the current convention (Internally Displaced Person’s and sexuality for example).  The UN would then need to address its current structures, could one UN body address all these different fields and concerns? There is a fairly comprehensive argument that would suggest the UNHCR is struggling under its current mandate.  So potentially this could justify a separate environmental refugee commission.  With the international community acknowledging these new types of refugees could host countries cope?  Would this approach succeed or would there be a anti-asylum backlash? Would current host countries sign up to such a concept? These are all questions that must be addressed before taking on moral arguments surrounding environmental refugees. 

One thing is for sure; the idea of “charity” to “help” those affected by climate change is not sustainable. Too often governments acknowledge their role but hide behind concepts of charity.  The Tsunami disaster is a good example, individuals, governments and business alike pledged 278 million dollars to the humanitarian disaster; Oxfam was over whelmed with money but it was all given as ‘charity’.  Is there anything wrong with this? It provided the basic support mechanism that the 1.8 million displaced people so desperately needed.  The problem however is that the concept of charity is inconsistent and unreliable, while the Tsunami was being overly funded (and rightly so) there were still non headline grabbing locus plagues that hit the Sahel that left food shortages affecting 9 million.   Similarly the aid money that comes through charity doesn’t tackle the underlying problems, thus monetary aid is all too often used as a smokescreen for government inaction.  This is not to say it doesn’t have its role but it ultimately only fixes short-term problems.  Also, at any point (times of recession) it faces the threat of being withdrawn.

Governments should not be in a position where they can chose to act in a humanitarian sense in one moment but ignore other situations in another.  There is a need for a legally binding agreement to bond government’s obligation to act in the case of environmental refugees.  That is why a working definition is so important.  Despite this, there has been no adequate working definition of an ‘environmental refugee’ put forward.  This does not mean though that they are not real and not in need of real protection.  

This is not an issue that sits comfortably with a conclusion.  The debate around environmental refugees will continue and an adequate solution will not be reached.  We have known about these problems for decades and solutions have only been partially reached.  A working definition of a refugee that would deprive millions of the protection they deserve and require must be adopted and indeed codified into international law.   Few would argue that the current definition of ‘refugee’ is perfect; and indeed few would argue we would be better off without it.  The same applies to environmental refugees.   This leaves a close to impossible question, how do you quantify an environmental refugee.  Is it the level of human influence, the time scale or the number of displaced that should qualify the individuals who would claim environmental refugee status to be refugees?  It is clear though that a limited working definition remains better than none at all. 

Recent attention on climate change suggests that, perhaps, the time is now ripe for action to be taken to deal with the world’s environmental refugee problem.

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We are still haunted by the legacy of colonialism

We have to reclaim our history, however vile!

The modern western world has colonialism and imperialism entrenched into its history.  The racial and ethnic tensions that are apparent in contemporary society can be traced through history back to the time of colonialism and imperialism.  To pretend it is not there is to play into the hands of the modern far right.

Colonialism refers to the political authority of the European powers over some of the areas of Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas.  Broadly it is the time when there was a political economy based around the slave trade By the end of the 19th century nearly all Africa had been colonised by one or other of the Great Powers.

Modern racist discourse can be traced back to the slave trade.  Although, it is important to remember that racism and slavery did not always go hand-in-hand (think of the ancient Greeks!).  Why then, in our murky colonial history did race become such a big deal? From the earliest recordings of British involvement in Africa (large scale in 17th century) the exaggerated term “black” was used to describe the very obviously different skin colour between British and the (at first) West Africans.  However the colour ‘black’ came with some deeply ingrained values; it was associated pre 16th century with dirt and death.  It had connotations of evil and wickedness.  This is illustrated in the distinction between black and white magic and as well, the Black Death.  This all came at a time when the ideal of beauty in Britain was very much of a pale white face.

Throughout the Colonial period the appearance of the African was stretched and exaggerated through European discourse.  Their nakedness was often highlighted to illustrate their difference from the ‘civilised’ European.   To start with people were content to comment on skin colour to describe their difference; during the 17th and 18th centuries however a number of other characteristics were attributed to them.  Soon African men were considered to have potent sexuality.  The men were considered to have a larger penis and to be extremely lusty.  Some Europeans at the time speculated on the sexual intercourse that might have occurred between apes and Africans.  Indeed increasingly Europeans would compare the Africans that they ‘discovered’ to the apes that they “discovered” at a similar time. Indeed, other characteristics were recorded at this time such as laziness and superstition.  After meeting Africans as neutrals (pre slave trade), the colonial legacy slowly degenerated into a deeply racist discourse.

Towards the end of the 19th century a movement developed to legitimise Imperialism.  Social-Darwinism was used to justify the colonial power’s actions in Africa.  There was a belief that there was a natural hierarchy of races.  These were predominantly European ideas and as such Europeans were normally ranked as the ‘highest being’.  This is an almost laughable idea today, but at the time was considered gospel by many.  It is important to note that such broad biological assumptions are still made and believed in modern racist belief.  For example Charles Murray’s book ‘The Bell Curve’ (1994) is still used by extremists to argue that White people have a higher I.Q than black people. Stereotypes still persist in main stream society in many western countries as the mass of the population still see Black Afro-Caribbean’s consistently performing low skilled manual jobs (a changing but lingering phenomena).

Although the dark days of our colonial past, are just that, our past.  It is worth taking a moment to reflect the impact that they are still having on our society.  There are some very clear ethnic tensions that can be directly linked to European colonial past.  The continued conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo demonstrates some extreme racial tensions that have a clear link to the Belgium legacy there for example.  The racism that we see most regularly today however is a lot more subtle.

Modern conflicts, especially in the West appear to be increasingly more complex than simply a reflection of race.  Ethnicity is a wider term that can describe a group of people beyond their inherent characteristics.  For example the Muslim community in the U.K could easily describe themselves as an ethnic group.  No longer does it simply describe your skin colour. This leads to a more complex system of discrimination where culture, religion and race all become intertwined.  In the UK there is no simple way of defining what it exactly is that people discriminate against. However appearance still plays a large part in social discrimination in contemporary society.  This is reflected in police stop and search figures; increasingly Arabs have been subjected to a greater number of searches.

Despite conflicts growing increasingly more complex, there are still racial elements to most conflicts in the western world.  In November 2005 large-scale riots broke out throughout France.  The BBC described these as ‘race riots’ as it was predominantly members of the black community rioting.  However a more accurate way to try and have one term to describe these riots would perhaps have been to describe them as socio-economic deprivation boiling over.  It is no coincidence that these riots took place in some of the poorest neighbourhoods across France.  However these riots were portrayed across the world more as race riots.

Today we can see the BNP riding a roller coaster of popularity (for whenever they have risen high they have very soon plunged in public opinion).  The peaks of the BNP’s popularity however should worry us.  The BNP often attack a way of life opposed to a specific “race” (although the racist undertones are clear).  For example their leader Nick Griffin was cleared of the charge ‘inciting racial hatred’ for describing Islam as a ‘wicked faith’.  In his trial he argued he did not hate Muslims or any ethnicity but purely the faith they followed.  However what the B.N.P does illustrate is that there is still interest and small support for such extreme right-wing politics.  They often play on fundamental fears that are still apparent in society; for example they argue that these ‘migrants’ are stealing British jobs.  It is apparent that there is interest in these ‘racial’ issues in the main stream even if there is not much support for it.  A lot of the discourse they use is similar to that of colonial times.  For example the B.N.P campaigned for many months about the Asian ‘sexual predators’ that were coming after ‘our girls’.  This is a clear link back to colonial stereotypes that play into the discriminative discourse that the B.N.P wishes to capitalise from.

To forget our colonial past, in all it’s ugliness, is to give the modern racist a free use of a deeply ingrained sub-conscious tool.  Regardless of whether we would like to admit it or not, racism still exists in this country.  We have to acknowledge that it has a long history.  If we do not acknowledge this history, then those outdated images of the black man as a sexual predator, or the monkey chants across football grounds will continue to be used.  We have to reclaim our history, however vile it is! At least we have the decency to acknowledge it to be vile!


Filed under Far-right politics, History, Politics