Tag Archives: European politics

“FAC” and Iran – The time for Ashton to prove herself.

Recent Violence in Iran, Photograph thanks to Doug20022 (Flickr)

On the 25th Jan 2010, Cathy Ashton (High Representative of the Union’s Foreign and Security Policy) chairs her first Foreign Affairs Council (‘FAC’ formally known as ‘GAERC’s).  This is her, and “Post-Lisbon-EU’s” chance to stand up and show that they can act coherently in this interim period and perform as a global player. Just because everything in the Lisbon treaty is not operational does not mean the EU cannot and should not act as a global player.

On the council there are some agenda points that should be easy for the EU to draw up some strong council conclusions on.  Iran and Somalia are both examples of situations with deteriorating human rights situations where a strong external voice could bring about real change. I will briefly look at the situation of Iran to illustrate this.

There has been a human rights crisis in Iran since the disputed presidential election in June 2009. The Iranian authorities have responded to the ensuing demonstrations with the arbitrary detention of demonstrators, human rights defenders, journalists and opposition figures. Torture and other ill-treatment are widely reported, non-violent demonstrations have been met with excessive use of force leading to unlawful killings.  There are now signs that the Iranian authorities may soon start executing people in connection with the post election events.

Iran, however is in an internationally sensitive position (more so than usual) with the up-coming UN Universal Periodic Review process and the up-coming UN Human Rights Council (1-26th March).  Iran has recently sent the defiant message of refusing to accept a European Parliament delegation.  Iran knows however, that they can afford to do this for as long as they are respectful of the main power base of the EU for Common Foreign and Security Policy in the EU (The Council and now Baroness Ashton).  If, Ashton pushes for really strong conclusions in this up-coming FAC then it will leave Iran in a really tricky situation.  Do they ignore Ashton, and the EU’s new structures (possibly damaging future relations) or do they implement the (what will probably be ‘modest’) human rights proposals put forward by the FAC.

The FAC and Ashton must include some human rights language in their conclusions.  As a minimum this must call for the UN Special Rapporteurs on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to be allowed access to Iran.  If they really wanted to be brave they could mention; the excessive use of the death penalty, the routine use of torture, the blanket oppression of the freedom of expression, assembly and association or even the on-going violence used by security forces. 

This is the first real big test for Ashton (as opposed to announcing relief aid to Haiti – which according to some commentators she managed to screw up).  We need a strong performance by Ashton to bring on board all the member states to push for some sort of human rights language in the council conclusions.  We will wait and see if this materialises.

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The EU’s Foreign Affairs and the implications of the Lisbon Treaty

Shimon Peres meets Spanish Prmie Minister Zapatero. Photo thanks to Israel's ministry of Foreign Affairs

Today a work colleague heroically explained and clarified the implications of the Lisbon Treaty on the EU’s Foreign Affairs. I warn you now…this is a complicated issue but I will do my best to explain it in the clearest possible way.

Before Lisbon (which came into force on the 1st December 2009), the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP – this is the same as saying foreign affairs) was part of the “second pillar” (for an explanation of the pillar system see the wikipedia page). It was nearly all done between national governments and any decisions were taken by unanimity. There was a very limited role for the European Parliament. The EU’s voice for foreign affairs was the Troika (made up of the presidency, high representative/council secretariat and the Commission). The Presidency was responsible for putting out demarches, representing the EU at the UN/OSCE etc… It also chaired all the council working groups and the GAERC.

Post Lisbon, things look a little different. The pillar system has been scrapped. Unlike most other areas of EU life, national governments kept in the unanimity clause for decision making (this means that member states still have a veto). The EU’s voice has been condensed to just the High Representative (assisted by the European External Action Service EEAS). The High Representative is also responsible for all the stuff the presidency was responsible for before (like chairing working groups and sending out demarches). Clear…

There are of course, a big long lists of buts…

The transition between what we had before Lisbon and after Lisbon is not going to happen overnight. It has already started (on the 1st Jan 2010) but will not become fully operational until at least 31st June 2011 – just before the Polish presidency. The High Representative has not yet planned anything for the EEAS. She has to submit her plans by April 2010. Until then, there is no EEAS. This means that the next three Presidencies (Spanish, Belgium, Hungarians) are all going to be “transition presidencies”.

This means, that although what we will get at the end will be clearer, more democratic and easier to follow, there risks being great confusion over the coming 18 months as these plans begin to become grounded. This means, that now, more than ever is the time to get engaged and work for a better structure to ensure that the EU lives up to its commitments to human rights, development and democracy. If we do not engage, we risk inaction in these coming months and ineffective structures after that.

Is this clear for everyone?

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The UK and the EU

This is an issue which affects my daily life.  I am a Brit working and living in Brussels.  I have got used to the usual jibes about not caring, about being arrogant and such forth.  I accept the fact that the UK is politically isolationist, and to its own detriment.  What I do not accept though, is the level of the debate which continues to rage throughout the British Isles and fails to hold our politicians to account.  Are you pro or anti EU? What a bloody stupid question!

Am I opposed to the introduction of the Social Charter that bought with it basic societal protection like the minimum wage, no.  Am I opposed to the increasing shift towards joint military operations such as Operation Atalanta (that smacks of safe-guarding oil), yes! 

Hopefully you get my point.  The EU is a complex beast with fingers in many pies.  To suggest you are either “pro” or “anti” it is clearly daft. 

Firstly let’s expel a myth.  The EU is not separate to the UK.  The UK is part (a disproportionally powerful part at that) of the EU.  Our elected national government has to agree to all legislation that is passed (in the European Council).  So when you hear…”it was forced onto us by Brussels”… you can be safe in the knowledge that this is scapegoating.  Equally, the UK is represented by 72 Members of European Parliament (which makes up the second part of the bicameral legislative branch of the EU – along with the Council).  On top of this, we have just had Baroness Cathy Ashton appointed as the new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy (a sort of EU foreign minister).  To suggest that the UK is not an integral part of the EU is nonsense. 

Why then, if the UK plays such an integral role in Europe do I get constantly mocked for being a “Brit” (apart from my obsessive tea drinking)?  Why is the UK not seen as a “real” part of the EU? This question is a complex one and I do not suggest I hold the full answer.  Here though are two possible ideas that might shed some light.

Firstly, there is a historical significance of how we came about to become a member of the EU and how this contrasts with others accession process.  We can see that membership of the EU is something all other countries have strived for (in the current Enlargement programme the Balkan states are jumping through hoop after hoop to get in).  The UK however, eventually joined the Union in 1973 with a massive sense of feet dragging.  Whilst most nations joined with an optimistic sense of opportunity, the UK slouched in to the back of the class to play the disruptive role from the beginning.  Ever since then, the UK has been plagued by this concept that we might somehow be losing out.  This is something uniquely British.  Even other Member States who have tricky domestic politics have the ideological commitment to an integrated Europe to fall back on. 

Secondly, New Labour in the early 2000’s, chose a series of policy choices that scuppered their commitment to improve relations with the EU (after 18 years of disastrous relations jerking from one crisis to another).  New Labour came into power with a strong commitment to play a key role in the EU. Blair, by all accounts demanded respect within council meetings and for a short while a British voice was taken seriously.  In Blair’s own words, he saw himself as a bridge between Europe and the US. 

This position however was only successful in the short term.  Geo-politics soon meant that Blair had to decide to between Europe and the US.  With both France and Germany opposing the American neo-cons war mongering, Blair was left with an opportunity of great strategic importance.  At this time of decision between being Bush’s poodle and his strategic commitments within Europe, Blair sat on his metaphorical bridge for so long that the path back to the EU was soon cut off.  His inability to criticise the US meant that he lost all credibility and support within the EU (this was all dragged up again recently with him being linked to the position of President of the EU). 

Blair, back tracked on his personal enthusiasm for the euro, he smashed any concept of a common position on foreign and security policy within the EU and most of all he isolated himself from all “socialists” across Europe. 

Enough about the past though…what does the future hold for us?

In all likelihood a Conservative led government headed by Cameron.  This is a man who has chosen to remove his MEP’s from the most powerful block in the European Parliament in favour of teaming up in a marginal group with radicals from central and Eastern Europe (The European Conservative and Reformists Group).  This has annoyed nearly all major centre-right figures across the EU.  A Cameron UK government will not be taken seriously by their conservative counter parts (who now make up the main power houses across the EU).  This EU observer article gives you an idea of how the UK Tories are viewed (http://euobserver.com/9/28783). 

The only ray of European hope in British Politics is represented by Greens and Nationalist (Plaid Cymru) who sit in the Greens/EFA group.  Both the UK Greens and Plaid Cymru representatives have played a progressive integrationist role in Brussels.  This however, is only reflected in the European Parliament and not in the European Council (which has national governments in…i.e. Labour or Conservatives). 

The EU is facing a defining two years as it entrenches the changes that the Lisbon treaty has put in place.   I welcome the introduction of a progressive British politician into the position of High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.  I worry however, that the level of debate in the UK around European politics removes any sense of accountability to our flailing politicians.  Cameron should not be able to ruin the UK’s strategic interests in Europe and not be held to account.  Browns work to repair relations with the EU should be applauded (opposed to the usual Brown bashing we experience in our media).  More to the point, I should not have to endure daily jibes because my fellow countrymen are blind to one of the most powerful influences on their lives and cannot hold their politicians to account.

The UK is lost in Europe but it is not dead.  We still (just about) have the economic and political stature to be welcomed back by other Member States.  I do not know whether this will still be the case in 5 years after a Cameron premiership!

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Celebrating Human Rights Day in the centre of Europe

Today, the 10th December, marks International Human Rights Day.  All around the world people have come together to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  I personally spent part of the day outside of the European Commission alongside Amnesty International highlighting the intrinsic relationship between the EU and human rights.  

Sometimes, it is easy to underestimate the role of the EU in protecting human rights.  It is easy to forget that the EU was founded as a union of principle set up to protect and advance these fundamental rights.  I opened this blog with a comment piece on the EU and Uzbekistan highlighting how the EU can have a detrimental effect on human rights.  Overwhelmingly however we can see that the EU has advanced the adoption of universal human rights through its work. 

The EU pushes human rights on a number of levels, through enlargement, trade agreements, foreign policy, neighbourhood strategies, strategic partnerships and in direct dialogues.  The EU has got a commitment main-streamed throughout nearly all of its work to further human rights.  What we need however, is a renewed commitment to making these commitments a reality.   Too often we can see human rights being sidelined because of other commitments whether it is energy security, trade or defence. 

I have written before that without common values the EU is reduced to a large lumbering block of countries.  It is only through shared values such as human rights that it draws any political strength.  If the EU wants to maintain its position in global affairs it must unite behind these shared values.

For more information on how the EU affects human rights, have a look at:

http://www.amnesty-eu.org/static/documents/2009/EU_and_Human_Rights_Making_the_Impact_on_People_Count.pdf

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Copenhagen and the 2 degree guard-rail, the wrong goal missed

We are constantly told that if we want to avoid “serious” climate change then we have to stick to below two degrees. Have you ever wondered though where this mysterious 2 degree figure came from or who came up with it? In the next couple of weeks at Copenhagen anyone with any grasp on climate change will be trying to beg, borrow and steal their way to an agreement that would result in us (humans) limiting the average global temperatures to below 2 degrees from 1990 levels. Anything above this and we are doomed! It is thus slightly important to explain why even this target is wholly inadequate.

In 2001 the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) came up with the 2 degrees figure using a very sensible method. Simply, they looked at the bad stuff that was likely to happen because of climate change (species extinction through to run-away climate change – this is when tipping points cause further tipping points (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkUaAltxUpg) and worked out how likely at different temperatures it was to happen. At 2 degrees they figured there was very little chance of runaway climate change occurring. There was however still a significant chance of species extinction (there were then events in between that varied in their likelihood of occurring). They considered this to be a “safe” level to aim for.

This all seems very sensible (what’s a few species in the grand scheme of things?). In the run-up to Copenhagen however, the University of Copenhagen produced a report (http://www.pik-potsdam.de/news/press-releases/files/synthesis-report-web.pdf) authored by many of the original IPCC authors highlighting why, in the light of the latest science since 2001, this 2 degree guardrail is wholly insufficient. Essentially they were saying that they had underestimated the temperature at which these reactions to temperature rise would occur. This is hugely problematic.

According to their latest estimates, sticking to 2 degrees would leave us with a moderate chance of experiencing run-away climate change. I cannot emphasize how scary this is. A moderate chance of plunging our entire species into starvation, mass migration, probable war and potential extinction! Why are we not in a state of emergency? Why have I been blogging about the death of the local pub, when soon we will not be able to grow the crops needed for brewing (let alone to feed ourselves)?

This is IF we meet our 2 degree target. What do you think…will our leaders unite together to make the sort of agreement that is needed to make lasting cuts in carbon emissions? I suggest not. Will our leaders buckle to economic and political pressure rather than scientific reality? I suspect so. What does this mean for us as a species…as a civilized society…a community…a family or even as an individuals?

It means that we are facing very very tough times ahead. How tough depends on how we (as a species) act now! How prepared we are for these tough times depends more on how we act as a community, family and individuals. To tackle this issue we need a collective effort like never before (think WW2 and multiply it…the enemy we face now is far scarier than the threat fascism ever posed to humanity…the millions that Hitler wiped out might look like small numbers if we do not act on climate change).

Think of climate change though not as something that is either happening or not happening but as something that is on a scale. I have no doubt that we will witness the extinction of many more species, but how far down this scale towards run-away climate change we slip is really up to us.

British Green MEP Caroline Lucas recently summed the situation up by stating that if we meet the EU’s most ambitious targets then we will leave ourselves a 50:50 chance of experiencing the worst consequences of climate change.  These are odds I am not willing to accept.

We can act now to limit to the consequences of climate change or we can go down in history as the only species that monitored itself into extinction.

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Another Murder in the North Caucasus

I have blogged before about the incredible life and sad death of Anna Politkovskaya.  I finished that blog by stating that unless we stood up and demanded justice and a full investigation into hers, and all other journalists and human rights defenders deaths and attacks this would continue to happen. 

On the 25th October Makasharip Aushev, a civil society activist was shot dead in his car in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus.  He was a member of the Russian Federation’s Human Rights Ombudsman expert council on the North Caucasus.  He known best however, for running the opposition web-site  www.ingushetia.org

How much longer will the EU sit by and let its neighbours allow attacks on individuals who wish to carry out peaceful and legal activities?

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Anna Politkovskaya – A letter to Anna

Anna Politkovskaya was an investigative journalist who was shot dead on the 7th October 2006.  A few nights ago, I went to see “A letter to Anna”, a documentary film about the work and death of Anna.  She had written extensively on torture and human rights abuses across Russia but particularly in the North Caucasus.  Often her writing would have a member of authority as the villain in the story exposing scandals within the highest enclaves of society. 

She knew that she worked in constant danger but continued because of her belief in telling the truth.  She was a truly remarkable person who lived in truly remarkable danger.  In 2004 on her way to cover the Beslan hostages situation she fell mysteriously ill on the flight on the way there.  She came close to dying that day and many of her friends suspected poisoning.  The threats and attacks she suffered and her eventual death, is unfortunately, not a rarity amongst journalists in the Russian Federation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_journalists_killed_in_Russia).  This Wikipedia page highlights the point. 

The problem does not stop at individual cases such as Anna’s.  There is wide spread de facto impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes.  This has left an environment where journalists and human rights defenders work in constant danger.  Irene Khan of Amnesty International directly correlated the impunity that is allowed for these crimes with many recent deaths, including the death of Natalia Estemirova (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/human-rights-activist-natalia-estemirova-murdered-in-russia-20090716). 

The Russian and Chechnayan authorities need to highlight in the public domain how they intend to investigate these politically sensitive crimes in an impartial and thorough manner.  We cannot allow such impunity to go unchallenged in the 21st century.

If you think that this has nothing to do with you, I ask you to do one thing, Watch “A letter to Anna” and tell me that you were not moved by her incredible outlook on life.  Tell me that you could not feel the incredible injustice in her life and death. 

Anna Politkovskaya’s spirit lives on through the work of all the journalists she inspired.  It is imperative, in my opinion, that we let her life be remembered by not letting her colleagues be forgotten now as they face the same challenges she did. 

Please, make an effort to watch the film.

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Welcome to Cathy Ashton

The two top jobs in Europe were decided last night, Cathy Ashton, the former commissioner was appointed as high representative on foreign affairs and security.  If you are wondering who Cathy Ashton is, don’t worry, so is half of Europe.  She was bought into replace Peter “mandy” Mandelson as commissioner for trade! She has never stood for elected office and she has just over a years experience in foreign diplomacy.

It is clear, that this decisions (along with the decision to appoint Herman van Rompuy, PM for Belgium as President of European Council) is the result of the Member States choosing to climb down from the Lisbon Treaty by choosing two individuals who will pose no challenge to Member States autonomy.

Let’s look on the bright side though.  She used to work for CND and she was the former minister for Human Rights in the UK.  Can we expect to see nuclear disarmament and human rights being pushed onto a world stage?

 We will have to wait and see, but I suspect this means we can expect more of the same here in Brussels.

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Forgetting the past, Sexual violence in Bosnia Herzegovina

For a long time it was the subject of headlines, documentaries and judicial concerns. Now, it is a buried memory in Europe’s forgotten history. The war crimes that took place in Bosnia Herzegovina were some of the most horrific to occur on European soil since the Second World War. Depending on what report you believe, between 20,000 and 50,000 women and girls were raped in BiH during the conflict. Many were held captive and sexually exploited over long periods of time. With the EU’s drive to tackle corruption in BiH it worries many who have been affected by this issue that it will become a forgotten memory.

The International Criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was set up in 1993. Part of its mandate was to prosecute serious violations of humanitarian law, this includes sexual violence. To date, the ICTY has convicted 18 people of rape. This combined with the domestic courts that have convicted 12 people, brings us to a grand total of 30 prosecutions. Out of a minimum of 20,000 rapes there have only been 30 prosecutions. This is wholly inadequate by anyone’s standards, let alone the thousands of women who have not been able to return to normal life after being subjected to these horrific crimes.

The mandate of international judges is due to lapse in the coming months. This would mean that many cases would have to be bought back to square one in the domestic courts loosing years and thousands of Euros of work. It is essential that the mandate for the International judges is extended so they can continue to investigate these crimes in an impartial and thorough manner. This has to go hand-in-hand with a development of the domestic courts system that currently are inadequate to address issues of rape. This needs to be done with the support and encouragement of the whole European community.

At the moment however, the European community seems hell bent on tackling the headline grabbing issue of corruption. While there is no doubt that this issue is endemic in BiH and is often a root cause of other issues, it can not be prioritised over tackling rape. There needs to be sustained pressure put onto the BiH authorities to insure thorough and impartial investigations are undertaken. If this does not happen I fear that some will never be able to access to justice that they need to have a chance of returning to ordinary life.

“This nation forgets everything. They forget about us victims. But I will never forget about what happened to me.” – Sabiha, interviewed by Amnesty International

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