Saturday, 30 December 2006


Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was hanged at dawn. The former Iraqi dictator had seemed destined for such a fate ever since his capture in December 2003, but his execution, mandated early last month by the Iraqi Special Tribunal for the killing of 148 people in the town of Dujail in 1982, is nonetheless deplorable. As many commentators have been keen to argue, keeping him alive would perhaps have allowed Iraq the cathartic process of bringing him to judicial account for the innumerable other crimes of which he is accused, while killing him carries the very real risk of exacerbating further the sectarian horrors which ravage Iraq. Yet such claims are far from certain. It would be optimistic to credit the trials as they stood, widely perceived as a sham in the Sunni community, as reconciling Iraqis with a communal heritage. The American and Iraqi governments are not wholly naive in hoping that the passing of the old dictator may do a little to actually contain factional violence by quashing the hopes, and indeed fears, of those for whom a return to the old order was still conceivable. A neutral position on the relationship between Saddam's death and Iraq's stability is also possible. As Adnan Pachachi, a former President of the post-invasion Iraqi Governing Council, argues, "I don't think it will make much difference, frankly". The ultimate effects of Saddam's death are simply too ambiguous a foundation on which to condemn it.

Yet the execution of Saddam Hussein is nonetheless a deplorable act - not because of any mooted impact on contemporary Iraq, but because it is simply never justified for the state to claim the right to take another's life. Amnesty International counted 2,148 executions and 5,186 sentences of death in 2005. When the figures for 2006 are released, Saddam will simply be one among many. Each deserves censure. But Iraq is and was, as Saddam's foreshortened trials showed, a land cursed with abominable acts. To abhor the hanging of a human being, even one guilty of crimes against humanity, may be an appropriate response, but it should pale beside the revulsion we feel for the sectarian atrocities which are occurring on a daily basis. External pundits and politicians have briefly concerned themselves with the fate of Saddam, but the real debate remains how best to contain and curtail this violence. Coalition troops, who captured Saddam just over three years ago, remain the only bulwark against full-blown civil war. Whatever the impact of the former dictator's execution, no-one should be simply giving up on Iraq. The case that withdrawal is the least-worst option - abandoning Iraqis to a slaughter with the potential to far surpass those of Saddam - is one which is yet to be convincingly made.

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Somalian strife

Ethiopian-backed troops loyal to Somalia's interim government are reported to be within 30km of the capital Mogadishu, with plans to besiege it and force the capitulation of the hitherto ascendent Union of Islamic Courts. Events have moved so rapidly in the last week - until Christmas Eve government forces were still ostensibly holed up in the provincial town of Baidoa as they had been for months - that even if the UN joins the African Union in condemning the decisive Ethiopian military presence they will be forced to deal with a fait accompli. The successes of the UIC, an Islamist alliance of sharia courts and their militias who swept across most the country after securing Mogadishu in June, had raised Western and regional concerns that Somalia would propagate destabilising jihad, but in the short term the UIC united much of what was for 15 years a failed and atomised state. This fragile stability, needed now more than ever in the aftermath of heavy rains and catastrophic flooding in November, has, however, almost certainly collapsed with loathed and largely Christian neighbour Ethiopia the real power in the land.

Addis Ababa is risking an oppotunistic Eritrean incursion into Ethiopia itself if its already demoralised army finds controlling Somalia a tougher task than conquering it. The rosiest senario sees the interim government accomodating some of the structures and members of the UIC, avoiding an Islamist insurgency and a return to chaos, and allowing the resumption of suspended airborne aid operations to the shattered south. The mounting humanitarian disaster, affecting 1.8 million people across the region, may yet force the warring parties into talks, as it perhaps did when they met in Djibouti on 3 December. But the very real danger of a devastating regional conflagration is closer than ever.

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Two turbid doves

Jordan's King Abdullah has invited the president of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, and his prime minister, Ismail Haniya, to the Hashemite Kingdom to discuss the escalating violence of the Palestinian territories. With Haniya's Hamas and Abbas' Fatah sliding into fratricidal conflict, the need for co-operation between the two main Palestinian factions has arguably never been greater, but, sadly, Western donor governments show no signs of encouraging such a move. Recent calls by Abbas for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections may have cajoled Hamas back to talks, but an actual poll is liable merely to exacerbate tensions. A quasi-constitutional move to dissolve parliament less than a year after Hamas took power looks like a naked Fatah power-grab. After fresh elections, either Hamas will retain a stake in power (and perhaps take the presidency too), or will lose it but still represent a swathe of Palestinian opinion, remaining an organisation without the involvement of whom a lasting settlement in the Middle East cannot be achieved.

Better, therefore, to entice Hamas into a unity government now, than deal with them embittered and either still ascendant or excluded from power. With Abbas and Haniya possibly meeting within the week, a positive step would be for donor governments to soften their stance on the three conditions currently attached to ending their boycott of the Palestinian Authority. For Hamas to renounce violence, recognise Israel and sign up to previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements is vital to medium term progress in the peace process, but it is naive to expect an organisation established to violently oppose Israel to simply capitualate in the face of international pressure. The enforced isolation of the PA has done little to weaken support for Hamas, and has rather driven Haniya, once considered something of a moderate, firmly into the hands of Iran. The integration of Hamas into a coalition which may not explicitly accept the three conditions, but at least does not explicitly oppose them, would be an achievement worth the loosening of (probably European) donor purse strings. Abbas and Haniya have the oppotunity to prevent a Palestinian bloodbath. But Western governments can help too.

Monday, 25 December 2006

Merry Christmas

Ah, 'tis the season of PC-scare stories. Nevertheless, leafing through the cards I was receiving (and indeed absent mindedly sending), I did notice an abundance of morbidy neutral 'Season's Greetings', rather than some message which actually linked this rampant card-sending with any particular time of year. I for one think it would be a good thing if many more of us DID send correspondance to mark a plethora of seasons, but thats another story...

As a secular humanist, a corner of my soul thinks I should lament the wishing of a 'Merry Christmas'. But I don't, and in case this seems a latent tradition of my Christian upbringing, I'd welcome the wishing of the joys of any religions' festivals. What I am hardly alone in lamenting instead is the continuing collapse of our sense of 'community', an enervation I am perhaps feeling more than ever having just moved out of the familial home. The more collective joy-spreading we can engage in, the more living local communities can be sustained (hence 'merry', rather than 'happy', as much jollier word). Beliefs, moreover, whether secular or nae, are fragile indeed if they cannot call a celebration by its commonly held name, especially since the modern festival of Christmas has for many as much to do with the origin myths of a 1st century Levantine holy man as Thursday does to Thor.

So, on this day of Mona, a Merry Christmas to you all!

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Speaking in tongues

As the number of British 14-year-olds taking a foreign language plummets, the Economist has spent the last few weeks fearing a loss of competitive advantage for monoglot native English speakers against the 400 million other folk who converse fluently in the language of Marlowe as a second tongue. It hails moves by some universities, led by University College London, to make a modern foreign language GCSE a mandatory requirement for taking a degree. Yet even if such developments would have the positive effect of forcing foreign languages back into the curriculum after the government made them optional at GCSE in 2004, they would have the corollary of excluding from top universities those children who at 14 indeed opted out of an MFL. 14 is hardly an age at which to irredeemably hinder ones future prospects, especially in an environment often hostile to MFLs when language departments are facing cuts as courses become optional and French, German and Spanish are pitted against apparently more appealing subjects. Instead of focusing on the university-end of education, what needs to be addressed is this basic lack of appeal, and this in turn has to be rooted in the irrelevance of basic vocabularies to high school students. The way to reinvigorate the learning of language in Britain is to create a linguistically stimulating environment at a much younger age.

I, at the ripe old age of 22, am currently attempting to learn another language myself - French - to join a GCSE in German and a basic grasp of colloquial English. Theoretically, at least, I have had two opportunities within formal education to learn it in the past. In my final year of primary school we were taught to sing some of the song Sur le pont d'Avignon , but, alas, not actually what any of the lyrics meant. So when I came across French again at 13, as a second MFL after German, I was left learning how to describe the contents of my pencil case at a time when in other subjects I was being encouraged to think on a whole new conceptual plane. The lack of any sophisticated vocabulary thus left my experience of French at school as little more than meaningless, and I had no desire to continue it beyond 14.

In October the education secretary Alan Johnson commissioned Lord Dearing to report on languages in schools and his interim report is due today. Dearing is sadly expected to back the continued optionality of languages at GCSE, but he at least looks set to recommend compulsory schooling within primary schools. Grounding learners in languages at the youngest age possible is surely a more effective way of creating a nation of linguists than curtailing opportunities at 14 then punishing non-linguists four years later. For me, learning French is currently proving a highly enjoyable experience. But had I been taught more than a meaningless song, it could have been so a decade ago.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

French choices

Opinion polls continue to show Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal all but neck and neck heading into next April/May's French Presidential election. But in order for such head-to-head polling to be meaningful, both first have to make it into the second round, which, in 2002, the Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin famously failed to do, when the National Front's Jen-Marie le Pen piped him by 200000 votes. This time around, should Sarkozy, as expected, defeat his only declared challenger for the UMP ticket, Michèle Alliot-Marie, both the main two candidates look set to sail handily into the runoff. But the spectre of a candidate who has no hope of securing the backing of half the French electorate in a second round nevertheless making it into such a situation is far from buried. IFOP-Le Monde's polling of 17th-18th November asked respondents their support for both Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, the current President who has not yet ruled out running for a third term. In the latter case, respondents gave Le Pen, Chirac and François Bayrou, the candidate of the Union of French Democracy who has promised a 'Third Way' in French politics, 15% of first round votes apiece. Bayrou's chances in a runoff with Royal are moot, but Le Pen would be almost certain to face a similar fate to his eventual humiliation in 2002, when he increased his share of the vote by less than 1% as 82.21% voters backed Chirac.

Chirac, however, aged and unpopular after a decade in power, is unlikely to stand again, so for now at least this issue perhaps seems academic. But a system which fails to deliver voters a real choice in the final round of an election is clearly flawed. What is needed is an 'instant runoff' regime - effectively when single transferable voting is applied to a single-winner election - which sees voters rank the candidates by preference, with the more successful accumulating votes as those with less support are weeded out. In France, votes initially given to alternative left or right-of-centre parties would tend to migrate towards the Socialists and UMP, thus excluding extremist candidates who have no hope of securing a mainstream majority. Instant-runoff would also have the beneficial effect of strengthening support for moderate third party candidates such as Bayrou, a vote for whom is currently effectively wasted, thus weakening the unhealthy duopoly the Socialists and UMP currently hold. Nevertheless, it would be best if instant-runoff was only used to whittle the field down to two, for maintaining an second round serves a useful function by emphasising the ultimate choice faced by the electorate. What is vital is ensuring that this choice is meaningful. In a year in which the power of the street trumped that of parliament in the furore generated by the doomed-CPE, there has been talk of a coming crisis in French politics and the potential end of the 5th Republic. If and when a new one is born, let us hope it delivers a healthier democracy than the current one.

Friday, 8 December 2006

Food for thought

The Economist leads this week with claims that "ethical shopping harms the world" - "people who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits: transforming the planet requires duller disciplines, like politics." It trains its sights on three targets: the organic, Fairtrade and local-produce movements. Organic farming is far less intensive than chemical methods and thus requires much more land under cultivation, threatening wilderness. Fairtrade encourages overproduction by providing a disincentive to diversify, with the corollary that commodity prices are depressed for the majority of farmers not fortunate enough to fall within a Fairtrade scheme. Local food with supposedly fewer "food miles" is often much more energy intensive to produce, and smacks of protectionism reinvented as environmental-awareness. The only way to make a real difference, claims the Economist, is through the ballot-box, influencing governments to introduce a global carbon tax, reform the world trade system and abolish agricultural tariffs and subsidies such as the notorious CAP. Ethical-food movements, while offering the hope that governments will recognise the potential support for an ethical agenda, may nevertheless "leave the world in a worse state and its poor farmers poorer than they otherwise would be".

All of which is short-term and naive. As the Economist admits, buying ethical food "sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development" - but it tucks this concession at the very end of it's article and chooses instead to stress the manifold ways in which ethical food is self-defeating. There are very few ethical organisations that believe governments are not at the heart of any realistic solutions. But to lecture consumers that real change only comes through the ballot box ignores the lack of choice voters are faced with unless ethical movements pursue parties and governments to co-opt part of their agenda. The intentions of organic and local food pressure groups are admirable, but for me they are not priorities. Fairtrade, however, is, and I will continue to support it despite the qualms I have over its actual impact. I will also indeed continue to vote, but my power at the ballot box can only be enhanced by a movement which seeks to influence what the parties have to offer.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Pax Europa

As the Finnish EU presidency struggles to thrash out a compromise between Turkey's refusal to open trade with Cyprus and the EU's embargo on the Turkish-occupied north of the island, the lastest to emerge is a Turkish offer of a tit-for-tat deal. Ercan airport and the port of Famagusta would open to EU trade as simultaneously Turkey would open a sea and airport of its own to Greek-Cypriot trade. Cyprus is likely to veto the deal, as its people vetoed the flawed reunification Annan Plan in a 2004 referendum. But larger EU powers should put pressure on Cyprus to accept and sign up themselves. The continued economic isolation of the north will only make eventual reunification that much more difficult as attitudes harden and wealth disparities widen even further, and the opening of trade with a large and increasingly rich neighbour can only be in the Greek-cypriot community's long-term interest. It is impossible to envisage a unilateral capitulation by either side; only negotiated concessions and compromise of the like proposed yesterday will ever solve this intractable dispute, and it is better for all parties to start on the path to a solution now, rather than wait first for the messy derailment of Turkey's EU bid.

Should compromise be reached and ultimately lead to reconciliation over the Turkish north, it would only be the most recent of manifold EU successes in employing the lube of its lucre to smooth intractable political conflict. The EU's trade and aid can prove to be a guarantor of stability in the western Meditteranean just as it is proving in the Balkans, and as it has long-since proved in western Europe. It is arguably the Communities' greatest achievement that one has to look back to the Romans to find a similarly prolonged period of peace in what is the most violent corner of the world in recorded human history. Turkey and Cyprus are unlikely to slip back into war, but without a little Cypriot reciprocation of Turkey's limited flexibilty relations are not going to normalise any time soon either. Cyprus' status as both party and judge in the dispute complicates the issue, but the money has to be on an eventual resolution to the cypriot question that is both inspired and underwritten by the EU.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Contesting the 'centre ground'

David Cameron celebrates the first anniversary of his election as Conservative leader today, having spent the past week warning of the 'huge mountain' the Tories still have to climb if they are to win back power, but promising 'real grit' to get them there. Yet there is something of a contradiction in his professed strategy of both seeking to appeal to an electorate "crying out for change" and trying to reclaim from Labour the 'centre ground' of British politics. From the perspectivce of traditional Tory voters, changing the Conservatives into Labour-lite offers no real choice of change at all, and Lord Saatchi last month implicitly criticised Cameron's first year in charge by warning of the electorate's potential alienation. "One direct result of this convergence on the centre ground is a super-cynical British electorate and low turnouts at election time", said he. "In Britain, the centre ground has ground the ideology out of politics", and "without ideology, political discourse is reduced to claim and counter claim about actual 'delivery'".

Unsuprisingly for a man of Saatchi's analytical intellect his diagnosis is acurate. Unlike him, however, I do not bemoan the passing of a calcific ideological divide in British politics; that all parties recognise the realities of relative poverty and climate change and are seeking proposals to tackle them is no bad thing. But I do worry that marginalising views beyond the centre is weakening British democracy. The Big Three British parties are obliged to contest the centre ground by a first-past-the-post electoral system which forces them to appeal only to the same 'swing-voters' in key marginal seats; according to the Electoral Reform Society 70% of cast ballots in the 2005 General Election were essentially irrelevant. Only with an element of proportionality in British elections will political parties gain from forging a distinctive position for themselves and giving a voice to voters whose sentiments lie outside the mainstream. Pursuing 'big-tent' politics will always be a sensible electoral strategy, and that the Big Three are fighting and debating over the same ground is not in itself a bad thing. What is lamentable is that it is not the electorate as a whole which gets to define where the political 'centre' truely lies.

Monday, 4 December 2006

Iraqi frying pans and internecine fires

The Iraq Study Group report, due to be published on Wednesday, looks set to recommend talks with Iran and Syria aimed at fostering stability in their troubled neighbour, alongside a drawing down of American combat troops to be fully sidelined to a supporting role by the Iraqi army by early 2008. The aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq has proved disastrous, for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians (and the thousands of Iraqi and coalition troops) who have perished, for wider regional stability, and for the image of the West in the world. But that is no reason to withdraw now. If the current situation is a disaster, it is only the continued presence of coalition troops which stand between disaster and catastrophe.

Bar the violence which flared in August 2005 during sensitive discussions over the future constitution, the last five months have been the bloodiest since April 2003, but it was nevertheless misleading for Kofi Annan to describe the situation as 'worse that civil war' earlier this month. A full withdrawal of coalition troops would give free reign to the low level ethnic cleansing already in operation and draw in the major powers from across the region. Recent Iranian and Syrian interest in Iraqi talks, on which parts of the ISG report seem to be predicated, is if anything an indication that such countries are fully aware of the destabilising potential of Iraqi chaos for their own populations. Turn the clock back 30 years and regional powers armed militias and bloodily intervened in Lebanon to fuel a civil war which still fizzes today. Transpose such a situation to Iraq, and we face the prospect of a nuclear Iran invading in support of the Shia-dominated government, a Jordanian, Saudi or Syrian response in support of the Sunni insurgents, and violent Turkish efforts to stamp out an efflorescence of Kurdish separatism. The situation in Iraq might be beyond repair, but until that is certain, the coalition should not seriously be countenancing a phased withdrawal. The elected Iraqi government should be given yet more rather than less time and material support to impose its authority over its territories and peoples. The American government bears the brunt of responsibility for the chaos in Iraq, but George Bush would bring yet more misery to region if he goes against his word and decided to 'cut and run'.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Constitutional thaw?

Nicolas Sarkozy this week confirmed his widely anticipated bid for the French presidency. He is campaigning in part on a commitment to a European 'mini-treaty' - an attempt to salvage the practical parts of the ill-fated European constitution. If he wins, as opinion polls continue to suggest he will, he would thus have a mandate to put France's name to such a document without the need to risk another 'non' in a second referendum. But what hope of a 'mini-treaty' across Europe as a whole?

If commitment to the European project is a prerequisite to reviving any element of the constitution, the signs from member states are not encouraging. Public support for the bloc is brittle and waning even in the newly acceded east, after Labour markets in the west failed to liberalise beyond Britain, Ireland and Sweden and nationalists and populists took power in Poland to Slovakia while Hungary and the Czech Republic succumbed to governmental paralysis. Unless these trends are reversed such states will join traditionally more eurosceptic older members like Britain in being unlikely to endorse a treaty promising yet deeper integration. Britain itself, despite never actually rejecting the original, looks ever less likely to accept a simple constitution-redux, as Gordon Brown replaces a greater Europhile in Tony Blair as Prime Minister, while David Cameron, a Conservative leader who still needs to burnish his Eurosceptic credentials after failing to fulfil a pledge to pull the party out of the European parliament's pro-integration EPP-ED bloc, waits in the wings.

All of which is a great shame, for the constitution contained much of necessity if the EU is to function coherently as a 25-and-counting member bloc in the 21st century. A 'mini-treaty' could create the post of a European foreign minister, and reform the ludicrous situation whereby every member state is guaranteed a commissioner in Brussels, which is set to subdivide the bureaucratic pie into 27 once Bulgaria and Romania join the club next year. If Europe is to regain the momentum needed to forge such a rationalising document, a catalytic first step would be to regain a sense of mission, and a mission, moreover, with which Britain and the recent arrivals could sympathise. One appropriate agenda has already supposedly been agreed upon, at Lisbon in 2000, when member states committed themselves to transforming the EU into "the world's most dynamic and competitive economy" by 2010. Yet little has been done to nurture the knowledge-based economy Lisbon promised, and the key Eurozone countries with their bloated public sectors continue to stagnate. With fragile coalition governments in Germany and Italy, however, it asks a lot of Angela Merkel or Romano Prodi to lead the way. Thus, if he serious about moving forward in Europe, not to mention getting to grips with long term unemployment in France itself, it falls to Nicolas Sarkozy to go further in his presidential platform than a promise of support for a new 'mini-treaty'. By putting his name to serious structural reform of the French economy now, he could claim a mandate to overrule the street protests which stymied Dominique de Villepin's sadly tepid CPE, re-establish the economic dynamism of his country, and pull Europe along with it.