Miraculously they’d arrived. Emerging from the coach were thirty Nigerian sheikhs, imams, pastors, priests and activists from areas affected by Boko Haram’s terrorism in Nigeria, men and women, some hardline some open-minded, run off their feet, not knowing what to expect. An attempt to create some interfaith unity against the ISIS-style terrorism in the north-east of Nigeria was underway.
The Conference Centre was tucked away outside a small town in Northamptonshire. That first day was hard going. The body language from the senior Pentecostals said it all. They were boarding with the enemy. Most of the Christians had never been in a mosque. Most of the Muslims had never been in a church. The divisions were immediately visible in who sat with whom. With only the sheep outside the Centre to talk to, everyone was stuck, way beyond their comfort zone.
It was a high risk strategy but the only way to break the tension. Three Christians were placed opposite three Muslims and each asked to tell their story. The Muslim story was about being second class citizens in a Western dominated the Nigerian Federation. The Christian story was - implicitly - that “Muslims were killing Christians”. Tension mounted.
Then came the first woman Muslim speaker. She described being in a car ambushed by Boko Haram. Her three female companions shot dead. She was partly hidden by the body of her companion in the back seat. A terrorist looked through the window but decided they were all dead. A few months later Boko Haram came for her brother. Tears began to flow. The body language amongst the Christians changed, arms were unfolded, the tension evaporated. After that the religious divisions began to break down, doors appeared in cultural walls. By the end of the week they had a shared story “Terrorists are killing Christians and Muslims”.
The divisions in that room were religiously motivated and, on day one, entrenched. Some Pentecostals believe that Muslims worship the Devil, some Salafi Muslim reject Christianity as kufr, unbelief and Christians as infidels. The change in narrative was no small thing. But the tears broke through religious identity to a common humanity. Most of the participants had lost kin and loved-ones or experienced suffering caused by their religious affiliation. The empathy at work broke down barriers. Several of the participants, began to work together, and still communicate across religious lines years later. Nigeria remains plagued by religious divisions.
This is not just a lesson for Nigeria. What of our own social and religious neo-tribalism? A plethora of articles and books have appeared diagnosing the roots of contemporary divisions: identity politics, “somewhere” versus “anywhere” people, the differential impact of the 2008 global financial crisis. Such divisions are not just imagined, the projections of a fragmented present against a fanciful harmonious past. We seem to be heading into apocalyptic W.B. Yeats country: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. Much quoted but presciently descriptive of the political gyrations occurring globally today.
What has gone wrong since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 and Fukuyama foolishly gloried in the eternal triumph of democracy and liberal capitalism? Whatever it is politically, sociologically and economically, it has had an impact on people’s minds. Or perhaps it would be better to say it has made up many minds that the apparently contradictory mix of an emotional tribal and a cognitively individualist worldview is in their best interests.
It is a commonplace to suggest that a world in which most people spend a significant part of their life in virtual reality, with identities shaped and intensified by self-selected peer groups, might be an important factor in generating neo-tribalism. Or that social media peddles a fake individualism, nurtured by advertising agencies, based on promoting the purchase of different sorts of goods, my music, my shoes, my clothes, for example. The rapid decline of organized religion means that what is right has become simply what is right for me. And the default position for what is right for me is what most of my peers do. Traditional wisdom and ethics are like the remains of a meal, cold and congealed, to be swept into the garbage. Historical humility, the idea that the past may have some lessons to teach us about how to live, disappears in the immediacy of virtual interactions.
Yes, this me-now generation is a dismal caricature. There is a new Generation Z campaigning for strict gun laws in the USA, voting against Trump. In the UK, a youthful food and alcohol puritanism concerned about climate change and bio-diversity, voting against BREXIT. Both are alert to infringements of the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities.
But caricatures are based on certain features artfully exaggerated, and depend on these features being there in small measure ready to be exaggerated. There are people everywhere who, in the pursuit of profit and power, are ready to manipulate these features to their advantage.
Another way of looking at what has happened since 1991 is to consider not what is new or apparently growing, but what is rare, missing or notable by its absence. What is in people’s minds, or missing from them, when they see large numbers of migrants desperate enough to drown in the Mediterranean – over 2,000 this year - or die crossing the US border in pursuit of a better life, yet campaign against them? Who put jobs in the arms industry above 14 million people facing famine in Yemen. Who rise up baying in huge numbers for the death of a Christian woman on trumped up charges of blasphemy? Who gun down people of different colour, religion or political views, or from different gangs? What are the roots of this, our contemporary neo-tribalism?
My answer is not some brilliant sociological insight. I wish it were. What has been disappearing is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Or the desire, skill and formation to do so.
Can democracies create and sustain a culture of empathy? Even affluent Germany is struggling. Can Empathy be taught? Let’s hope so.
Under the Wire is a documentary film you will not forget. It brings together the story of war correspondent Marie Colvin’s last assignment for the Sunday Times in 2012, reporting the harrowing destruction of Baba Amra in Homs, the slaughter of its residents and the gripping escape of her wounded camera man, Paul Conroy. Paul Conroy and Lindsay Hilsum of Channel 4 News discussed the film at the Aldeburgh Documentary Film Festival on November 4th. The audience emerged stunned.
The Director, Christopher Martin, could have made a film culminating in the deaths of Marie Colvin and the French photojournalist, Rémi Ochlik, trapped in the Baba Amr press centre – a wrecked house – and systematically targeted by the Syrian armed forces. This deliberate killing of journalists was in itself an important story.
But Under the Wire is far more. Assad’s bombing destroyed most of Conroy’s footage and photographs but only about 15 minutes of an 80 minute film is reconstruction. Martin searched far and wide for material and found a wealth of amateur video of Homs under siege and of a make-shift health centre where a doctor struggled to keep life in the mutilated bodies brought to its door. But intense bombing coupled with lack of medical equipment and drugs could leave Dr. Mohammed trapped and helpless. The death of a single baby, watched by the mother and doctor, both unable to help, brought the daily slaughter by Assad’s regime into heartbreaking focus.
Conroy, a former soldier, raises this documentary from exceptionally good to almost epic. He acts throughout the film as story-teller/commentator, Liverpudlian voice struggling for the right words, his face in close up, intercut with the live footage of mayhem, terror and suffering. Conroy struggles to express the horror of the situation, trying to suppress emotion, the story first given to camera in one long, almost unbroken, filmed session, features etched like a mappa mundi of the pain, suffering and fear around him. You are irresistibly drawn in. Here he was some six years later, getting a standing ovation in a seaside town in East Anglia, wearing a cheeky Scouser persona like a warm protective coat. Though you wonder what the trauma of his escape from Baba Amr is doing to him inside it.
Conroy’s escape retold as the Syrian tanks roll in has the desperate quality of the common fear and flight nightmare. The Red Crescent arrives when all seems lost. But the doctor in charge, summoned into the press centre, explains sotto voce to Conroy that he and his companions, including another seriously wounded journalist, should under no circumstances, despite the urgency of their physical condition, get into the ambulance. They are left helpless, in pain from bad leg wounds and in the dark, hope fast disappearing, with no apparent means of escape. Christopher Martin, Under the Wire’s Director explained to the audience that they would all have been killed and thrown into a ditch at the outskirts of Homs. Had this brave doctor not died six months before the film was screened, in order to protect him none of these details could have been included.
Were it not for Conroy, Under the Wire could have become another document of outstanding courage in a standard survival/escape movie format, with the journo as tough hero. But he infuses the film with his and Marie Colvin’s passionate conviction that they must “tell the story”. On Marie Colvin’s insistence that they must go back to Baba Amr - having left after being inaccurately informed a Syrian army invasion was imminent – Conroy, smothering his instinct and foreboding, accompanies her and goes back. Phoning the story out, of course, gave the Syrian air force their co-ordinates for bombing. The ethical backbone of the film is Colvin and Conroy’s sacrificial commitment and to the core principles of journalism, and touchingly to each other.
Getting the story out is rarely enough to bring about any substantive change in war zones. A safe passage, local ceasefire, is sometimes the reward. A Nuremberg trial for the Syrian regime with the film as prosecution evidence is not going to happen. But the truth is a value in itself and the cost of it in journalists’ lives is growing increasingly high. And I would include in the cost the unhealed invisible wounds caused by living through such experiences of civilian slaughter in war.
So don’t expect a comfortable tear-jerker. This is raw immersion in Assad’s destruction of life. You will never come closer to feeling what it is like to be bombed or wounded unless you are actually caught up in a war. I came out of the Aldeburgh Cinema feeling someone had surfaced several of my emotions at once, yet had not been manipulated by the film-maker. This is a “must see”, but more importantly a demanding “ought to see”. And if you have children, definitely worth a babysitter.
Thirteen million people are facing starvation due to the war in Yemen. Today’s call by the US State Department and Pentagon for Saudi Arabia to end the bombing of urban areas in Yemen within the next thirty days is an important policy change. The tireless advocacy of ceasefire and peace by international human rights and humanitarian organisations together with a number of smaller NGOs has played its part.
The UK is blessed by a large number of such voluntary groups, associations and formal organisations in civil society, one of its great strengths. They represent the country’s values more faithfully than successive governments, and put them into practice both in the fields of international relations and domestic poverty. They are often invisible, persevering on non-existent budgets.
Below is a letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sent on 26 October from one such group. The authors await a reply. The US policy change will likely make the reply more than a routine acknowledgement of concern.
Yemen Safe Passage Group
“Dear Foreign Secretary,
Yemen: the famine of this century is rapidly becoming the crime of this century
The Yemen Safe Passage Group (YSPG) is writing to you as a group of former ambassadors and other diplomats, military officers, academics and aid professionals with a shared experience of working in Yemen. Yemen is back in the news following the renewal of fighting around Hodeidah and the UN’s revised estimate that half the population now faces starvation. There is still time to respond effectively to this crisis. The United Kingdom is in a position of exceptional influence. Working jointly with key allies and involving the regional powerbrokers, we can work for a ceasefire to avert complete disaster in Yemen and start to plan the country’s long road to recovery. Under your leadership, the Foreign Office has the opportunity for a fundamental rethink of the UK’s role.
Fundamental UK policy reset on the Yemen conflict
With the Khashoggi debacle, the veil has been lifted on Saudi Arabia’s lack of respect for international law. We have been arguing since our inception about the illegality of economic blockades and the military targeting of civilians. Those implicated in the Khashoggi affair have both initiated and continue to supervise Saudi involvement in Yemen’s war with all the breaches of international principles and laws that are so evident. The opportunity now presents itself for a strategic change of UK policy. To regain public confidence there needs to be a thorough review of UK interests, both upsides and downsides, which must be transparent and public. We continue to support the ever-growing calls for the suspension of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia until HMG is satisfied a sustainable peace in Yemen has been achieved.
Our analysis developed through extensive consultation with actors on every side of the conflict, indicates that the Coalition led by Saudi Arabia deploys two strategies in its attempt to prevail in Yemen – to escalate its military operations or to squeeze economically the areas outside its control in the hope that the population will then rise in its favour. However, a military victory is wholly unrealistic, as has been recognised in a succession of HMG statements, and its pursuit is unacceptable given the inevitable level of civilian casualties and wanton destruction. Economic warfare is banned by international law as is the targeting of schools and hospitals, which nevertheless continues. Such tactics leave a toxic legacy of bitterness and hatred towards those inflicting such suffering.
The UK has played a leading role in several positive initiatives in Yemen, including increasing humanitarian aid and supporting the efforts of the UN’s Special Envoy. However, HMG has allowed itself to be unduly influenced by the Saudis, and the benefits of our bilateral relationship have been greatly overstated. Rather than giving the UK ‘leverage’ over Saudi actions, the opposite has been the case. Recent academic research points convincingly in this direction. Specifically, the relationship has been deeply damaging to precisely what you yourself have been highlighting: British values and the rule of law. HMG succumbed to pressure in failing to halt the Coalition’s military action on Hodeidah in the full knowledge of its massive humanitarian implications. It has sought to defend licences for arms exports when their use against civilians has been well documented and is placing itself increasingly at risk of being implicated in war crimes. You have stressed that Saudi Arabia has helped keep terrorism off British streets, but at the same time we must recognise that, by creating such instability and resentment, the continuing war is feeding the underlying threat to the UK from terrorism.
In addition, HMG is not helping the long-term interests of our primary ally in the region. The bitter truth is that the Yemen war has been a disaster for the Saudis. It has increased rather than curtailed the influence of Iran on their southern border, has provided the Houthis with an excuse for their cross-border attacks on Saudi cities, and due to repeated and well publicised attacks on civilian targets has played a major role in destroying Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
Need to decisively avert Yemen’s downward spiral to mass famine
We support the call from the UK’s Ambassador to the UN3 for unhindered access for commercial food supplies, especially on the main transport routes being threatened by current military operations, and for an end to Houthi interference with the humanitarian response. On the latter, we urge HMG to use its backchannel contacts with the Houthis to bring this to an end.
We urge HMG to focus on what lies ahead, and to consider where Yemen’s calamity is leading – a crippled economy, destitution, political instability and terrorism in a highly strategic location. The lack of governance and rampant corruption that have bedevilled Yemen have contributed to the paucity of basic services, have been major drivers of the resentments fuelling this war and have contributed to the rise of extreme Islamism. The war in turn is leading to a massive loss of human potential, so vital for the rebuilding of the country, with a generation out of school, the de-skilling of youth, and war forcing early marriage of Yemeni girls.
HMG needs to recognise the ever-growing opportunity cost of reconstruction from an ever-lower base and start to plan with others how Yemen will finance a balanced reconstruction reaching all areas, whatever political control they are under. This will allow for a future less dominated by outside interests and could dramatically contribute towards peace efforts.
The UK’s role in achieving a sustainable peace
Of the P5, the UK is uniquely placed to sponsor and prioritise an urgent ceasefire on all fronts especially Hodeidah. The recent joint statements made with major European powers are a welcome development and need to be maintained and extended to exert the necessary leverage. Only a ceasefire will allow the proper resumption of the UN Special Envoy’s diplomacy, which needs continuing and robust support, but additionally a more vocal and visible commitment from Western leaders, and a readiness to match words with action.
Immediate action to address the threatened famine
Decisive international action is needed to support the Yemeni riyal and address the reasons for its collapse, which include irresponsible currency printing, uncertainties over trade, and major hard currency revenues failing to be deposited at either of the components of the split Central Bank. Credible banking measures need to be put in place to allow unimpeded trading operations, including letters of credit for importers and the urgent reversal of Government of Yemen’s ‘Decree 75’ which in practice restricts the movement of goods. Credible sanctions are needed to thwart individuals, on all sides, who are making massive financial gains from their positions.
We urge the UK to play a leadership role by calling for Saudi Arabia and other parties to the conflict to agree a ceasefire and decisively move to bring the war in Yemen to an end. The UK can draw on its key role on Yemen within the UN, while working with European allies and the US to support such a change in Saudi strategy. Given the UK's historical links with Yemen, our alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and our continuing dialogue with Iran, the UK is best placed to bring the international community towards a working consensus to achieve a lasting and meaningful peace. This will start the process of rebuilding Yemen as a functioning State.
Yemen Safe Passage Coordinating Group, after extensive consultation within the wider group. See https://yemensafepassage.org/yspg-membership/ for the full listing.
James Firebrace (YSPG Coordinator). Please address replies to email@example.com Frances Guy (former UK Ambassador to Yemen) Captain Philip Holihead (former Head of Western Indian Ocean Counter–Piracy)”.
China is passing through “a second cultural revolution”, or at least a return to further conflation of State and Communist Party. Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Party and President of the Peoples Republic embodies the ethos of the regime. This year the National People’s Congress lifted term limits on his stay in power. Since 2012, repression of dissent and a quest for complete Party control of all major institutions has gained momentum under his autocratic rule. A symptom of this development, relations with religions were transferred in March from the State’s Department of Religious Affairs to the Party’s United Front Work Department formerly in charge of ethnic minorities, traditionally a peripheral - dangerous - phenomenon.
In China, citizens and Churches are banned from using the internet for anything that might be seen as evangelization. Party/Government employees are not allowed to express a religious faith. There is a general prohibition on young people under eighteen attending churches. In strong Christian centres such as Wenzhou City in Zheijang Province, medical staff, school and university teachers have a duty to report religious behavior; OFSTED-style inspections ensure compliance. In some schools, students must submit a formal commitment not to “believe in religions”. Even family prayers can fall under local oversight. In Luzhou Catholic Diocese, crosses on churches have been pulled down and priests ordered to fly the national flag with a portrait of the President displayed prominently in the building. Overall some 1,500 churches have lost their crosses.
How much is zealous local initiative or on direct orders from Beijing is unclear. This level of repression is far from uniform across the country. The large Zion church in Beijing was shut down in February. Non-Party Protestant and house churches suffer more. The Xinjiang Muslim Uighurs suffer most with an estimated million people now dispersed into “re-education camps”.
This persecution has three drivers: Sinicization, the Party’s demand that religion “serve overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people and support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party”; fear of religions’ disruptive power, viewed as irrational and emotional, in contrast to an ordered and harmonious development of Chinese society. Finally, less overtly: China’s historical experience of foreign influences retained and expressed in the mutated form of authoritarian Communist rule with religion feared as an exploitable weapon against Communism and Poland as a warning.
Last month the Vatican signed an historic interim agreement with the Chinese State/Communist Party to resolve the issue of the quasi- schism (relationships are complex) between the government- controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Roman Catholic Church whose bishops are appointed by the Pope. The government will now propose candidates’ names. The Pope will make the final choice of bishop. The excommunication of seven Patriotic Association bishops has been lifted. To date, details of the agreement have not been made public. But assurances have been given to Taiwan that current diplomatic relations will not change.
The interim accord between China and the Vatican was the fruit of many years of difficult negotiation. Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has praised it as a significant achievement for Vatican diplomacy. His were not sentiments universally shared. Timing was unfortunate: an anniversary of the ratification of the Vatican’s 1933 Reichskonkordat with the nascent Nazi Germany that cut the ground from under the Catholic Centre Party, the major source of parliamentary opposition to the National Socialist juggernaut.
But no-one should fear loopholes in the wording of the Accord. Vatican negotiators leave no comma or semi-colon safe from scrutiny. No hostages to fortune pass muster. This is not why many people - most notably emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong - are opposed. They do not trust the regime to honour its promises.
Was it right to do a deal with Beijing whilst the detention of some dozen priests remains unresolved and persecution grows of people of faith? Isn’t counting on the good faith of the government negotiators and Xi Jinping risky? And is this another assault on the Church’s moral integrity? The answers hinge on your understanding of the purpose of Vatican diplomacy in the life of the Church.
Vatican diplomats mainly aim to do two, sometimes incompatible, things: to promote the implementation of the living tradition of Catholic social teaching around the world, seeking peace and justice, and also to nurture and protect Catholic communities. For example, Vatican diplomacy came in strongly behind the Jubilee Campaign to reduce Third World debt and in support of poverty reduction strategies. But it held back, for example, from public criticism of US bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia limiting itself to diplomatic initiatives for peace and pauses in the air-strikes. In the first instance priority was given to moral leadership on debt reduction. In the second, criticism of what had become an offensive war with savage bombing of Hanoi/Haiphong, prosecuted by the USA, was much delayed; protection of South Vietnam’s then large Catholic population from Communist take-over took prededence.*
What was the Vatican’s thinking when it came to dealing with communist China? There was a benign precedent in a recent Accord with Vietnam. There was historically the equivocal experience of Ostpolitik after the second Vatican Council, a diplomatic démarche to Communist States that evoked the prolonged resistance of the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty and other eastern bloc bishops. I suspect that Rome thought a divided Church in China would not survive the mounting tide of persecution. The nurture and protection of the country’s over 12 million Catholics took precedence over a denunciation of human rights abuses. What in Christian-speak is called “the prophetic voice” was muted. Though this has proved contentious, and some bishops appointed by Rome obliged to resign, or retire early, to make way for new “dual control” bishops, the Accord shores up Catholic defenses by building institutional unity.
Experience has taught the Church that a determined and reasonably efficient State has the power to reduce it to a remnant. A prophetic voice can carry high costs in a world of conflicting national interests. The Accord is arguably the least bad strategic option for the Catholic Church in China today. I hope the difficult prudential judgment of the Pope and the lead Catholic negotiators, Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Celli, turns out to be wise. The Protestant Churches must feel more exposed to government pressure. It makes me uncomfortable. But that may have more to do with wanting to enjoy the moral high ground than concern for the moral integrity of Vatican diplomacy, and the fate of China’s Catholics.
*See A. Alexander Stumvoll A Living Tradition: Catholic Social Doctrine and Holy See Diplomacy Cascade Books 2018
The game of chess can either end in checkmate or stalemate. With negotiations deadlocked, BREXIT negotiations are now being described as a stalemate. Stalemate means that a player not in check can only move into check. No-one loses. The result is a draw. Checkmate occurs when a player’s King is both in check and will be captured wherever it moves. Someone wins. Someone loses. You can’t be stalemated and checkmated at the same time.
If it is a real stalemate the UK loses the game; “no deal” is a disaster. So the Tories have managed to get the UK stalemated and checkmated at the same time. They have pulled off an impossible feat. No wonder they engage in magical thinking. The UK government has not acquitted itself well nor even understood the rules of the game and the thinking behind their opponents’ moves. Pity the poor civil servants who negotiated and played skillfully but to no avail.
But who cares whether chess terms give a true picture of the mess we are in? Not the Conservative Party, which like the Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, manages to believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. Our Prime Minister, due for a great fall, adopts the worldview of Humpty Dumpty: “a word means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less”. Which is just what the incantation “BREXIT means BREXIT” means – if you see what I mean. “The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all”.
The Brexiteers, led by the European Research Group (ERG), disport themselves in this magical Wonderland. For example, when they first got into a corner over a hard border in Ireland, mere mention of the words “latest technology” was supposed, in one mighty bound, to get them out of it. Drones hovering over Crossmaglen would count cows crossing the Republic’s border. Artificially Intelligent customs robots in roadside haystacks in Armagh, or on ferries to Stranraer, would register the country of origin of goods. Or something like that. Then they shifted to producing a weighty tome on less-techy bureaucratic controls with electronic form-filling in factories. And all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well. Just saying it makes it happen. Because, you see, it’s MAGIC.
In case you hadn’t realized it, CanadaPLusPlus is Brexiteer for Abracadabra. Just speak the words. They trip nicely off the tongue. If the spell doesn’t work, all you need do is a “pivot”. This is clever new trick from the National Association of ERG Magicians. It means magically getting the EU and Parliament to accept another unworkable solution to the problems thrown up by BREXIT. The Merlin Award this year should go to the inventor of “The Pivot”. Deciding you have made a calamitous mistake and radically taking the situation in hand with firm leadership? Well, we all know no ERG magician would hold their audience for one minute with that kind of performance.
The magicians of the ERG cannot, or will not, recognize that the EU starts off with principles and deductively comes to policy decisions. And then mean what they say. Whereas Little England starts off with the incantation “BREXIT means BREXIT”, and ends with touches of World War II nostalgia, standing alone, getting by with only a ball of string, duct tape, flack jacket, and lots of jolly optimism…. and, if desperate, some latest technology.
Under pressure, a principle may emerge like a genie out of the bottle of pragmatism; for example there can be no “economic separation of Northern Ireland from the UK” (Prime Minister) or, if you prefer our more colourful Attorney-General, be “torn out of the UK”. But some economic difference is an inevitable product of devolution. In addition, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) celebrate having laws different from those of the rest of the UK: notably their own restrictive laws on abortion and gay marriage. These two big issues are apparently less important than the remote – backstop - possibility of being legally consigned to a customs arrangement different from that of post-BREXIT Great Britain.
To jog your memory, the DUP are supposed to be governing Northern Ireland alongside Sinn Fein rather than taking bungs from Theresa May and threatening the UK government about the direction of BREXIT negotiations. The checkmated player has two possible ways to behave: stomp off in a huff after knocking the board over or politely shake hands. The DUP can expect to forfeit respect when they threaten the former. They could, though, shake hands on the UK remaining in a/the Customs Union and Single Market, the only possible solution, barring a short-term fudge, to a clash of two irreconcilable principles.
How many legions has the DUP? They only won 28 out of the 90 seats in the 2017 Stormont Legislative Assembly elections, just 28.1% of the votes cast. And remember, 56% of the Northern Irish referendum vote was for Remain. Are we really going to let the future of the United Kingdom be determined by ten DUP members in the London Parliament plus the ERG? Perhaps the DUP should pivot to concentrate on doing the job they were elected to do in Northern Ireland: co-governing the province on behalf of all its citizens in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, an International Treaty. For, as I’m sure all good Ulster men and women would agree, the Devil makes work for idle hands.
The gunman at the door of the church must have taken aim carefully. The Archbishop, his sermon just ended, must have seen him. Then the sudden deep physical fear; they found salt crystals from copious sweat in his black woollen trousers.
He knew that his sermons might result in his assassination. Broadcast nationally on church radio to a huge audience, they provided the only news of the Salvadorian military’s latest barbarous acts, and his appeals to the army to stop the repression. The death squads and the military in1980s El Salvador were murdering with impunity all they deemed a threat.
The cry “Santo Romero” went up in Latin America, and around the world, soon after the gunshot that killed Archbishop Oscar Romero on 23 March 1980. The army had silenced a resonant prophetic voice speaking of justice and peace. Yet thirty five years passed before Romero's beatification in May 2015, a formal recognition of his holiness attended by a quarter of a million people. It was a first step towards his canonisation this Sunday, 14 October 2018.
Romero’s story has been editorialised by those who opposed his beatification, for whatever reason, and those who promoted it, for whatever reason. For example, Romero's words, supposedly in a telephone conversation, “If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador”, were invented by a Guatemalan journalist. In catching the Christian essence of what happened that day the “quote” has a lingering quality: not true but not false either. Yet the words he didn’t utter could be exploited as a sign of hubris against him.
Romero was an unexpected hero of radical Catholicism. He was close to Opus Dei members, a Catholic association distrusted by radical, and liberal, Catholics; he enjoyed watching cartoons in his slippers on Sunday afternoons with his friends, the Barraza family. And he innocently loved Rome, praying at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul between defending his actions, his outspoken sermons, and his support for the poor of El Salvador. For very understandable reasons, he shared with the Pope whom he revered from his younger days, Paul VI, a struggle with anxiety. With the papal nuncio to El Salvador and most of his fellow bishops against him, denouncing him to Rome, with political pressure from all sides and horrific bloodshed around him from the civil war, he had good cause.
There is a revealing entry in Romero's diary: he recounts how Pope John-Paul II, misapplying his Polish experience of Communist rule, put great weight on the importance of maintaining unity in El Salvador's Bishops' Conference. This advice could only have worried him further. Any prophetic witness to truth precluded unity; most of his fellow bishops were solidly opposed to his stance. Such were his dilemmas as a bishop traditionally obedient to the Pope. The response to his death, like to his later life and sermons, reflected the deep conflicts in a Church tragically divided by the Cold War. In El Salvador, with the oligarchy and army supported by the CIA, there was only the unity of the grave.
George Orwell once said that “who controls the past controls the future” but “who controls the present controls the past”. The way different Church leaders spun Romero's story confirms Orwell. For some Vatican bureaucrats and some important Latin American Cardinals defending their past record, Romero's cause fell under the category of “sensitive”. The “sensitivity” stemmed from a surfeit of calumny and detraction. Or was just a product of bad theology. His canonisation process was blocked for “prudential reasons”.
It was only in 2012 that Pope Benedict unblocked the process and it was cleared by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops and the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then a Pope from Argentina with a similar love of the poor could enthusiastically add San Romero of the Americas to the litany of saints.
Whatever the past opposition to Romero, if a theological plumb line is imagined indicating the centre of Catholic thought, “thinking with the mind of the Church” in Catholic-speak, Romero's words and actions fell plumb along it. He had received a classic - ordinary -seminary formation. He was committed to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, its pastoral theology and the option for the poor endorsed by the Latin American Bishops' Conferences (CELAM). The strength of this formation, the reality of El Salvador, drew him into sharing to the utmost in the pain and suffering of his people. By thinking, preaching and acting with the mind of the Church in the context of El Salvador in 1980, he qualified for martyrdom. The message of his life and death is almost as simple as that.
Almost as simple. Romero’s sermons suggest that he inhabited a traditional Catholic world of binaries: religious/spiritual versus political, the mind of the Church or liberation theology, ideology or sound doctrine. But rejecting the “political”, Romero adopted a deeper understanding of what politics might mean for Christians: he lived it, striving for conformity with the politics of the historical Jesus. Romero's “no” to violence, whether of the oppressed or oppressor, entailed his “yes” to a deeper liberation than promised by the political and armed struggle against tyranny and the rule of the military and oligarchies in Latin America. Liberation theology was not political enough. His martyrdom at the altar, under the cross in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital, San Salvador, bore testimony to this truth.
This Sunday will be a time of joy for those who persevered in promoting the cause of Romero’s canonisation. His story will be celebrated not only by many Catholics round the world. There is a message here for everyone. It is that anxiety and fear can accompany great courage, vision and moral leadership. And the good news is that the ordinary really can become extraordinary.
To read more see Roberto Morozzo Della Rocca Oscar Romero: Prophet of Hope Darton Longman Todd 2015
Tory Brexiters should be careful what they wish for. They seem to have regard for neither the Conservative past nor the country’s future. Several aspects of the UK government’s positions on BREXIT are either quixotic or dishonest. First amongst them is the quest to leave the jurisdiction of the European court.
Actually there is more than one European court. But for political effect they are frequently conflated or confused. Which one is supposed to be most objectionable to a true patriot is unclear. Is it the Court of Justice in Luxembourg which adjudicates on the correct reading and implementation of EU laws and treaties by national governments, or is it the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg overseen by the Council of Europe, not the EU, that rules on alleged infringements of the human rights of citizens in member states?
The Court of Justice gives judgments on disputes about the EU regulation of a wide range of matters reflecting the wide areas regulated by EU member States: customs duties, fisheries and so on. The idea that Britain can leave the EU to emerge into a strong and beneficial relationship with its European partners outside the existing regulatory system and the supranational jurisdiction of the EU, its standards and its Courts, is frankly nonsense. Even after the BREXIT referendum the UK expressed its intention of joining a new Unified Patent Court being set up under the jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice. Transnational space in Europe has too many vital things going on in it not to require transnational legal bodies enabling common standards and practices to prevail. In the real world, Britain cannot vacate this space and prosper.
The origins of the European courts hold surprises. The Court of Justice and the Strasbourg ECHR were set up in the early 1950s at a time of profound distrust of totalitarian regimes and their disregard for civil liberties. Winston Churchill broadcast a call for European unity in a speech at the University of Zurich on 19 September 1946: “If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance” he declared in a romantic vision, “there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity, and glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy”. Churchill’s fear that the Atlee government would impose its state-heavy socialism on the citizens of Britain lay beneath his promotion of a noble inheritance like an unwanted ice cube in his whisky. Churchill saw a European supranational juridical body as a necessary protection of civil liberties because it would defend “fundamental personal rights” as the lynchpin of “European democratic civilization”.
Marco Duranti sheds much light on this post-war period in his The Conservative Human Rights Revolution Oxford University Press, 2017. He analyses the European ideological mix, both NGO and governmental, that led to the creation of the Council of Europe, the writing and adoption of European Convention on Human Rights and the establishing of the ECHR that enforced it. Calling this process a revolution is no exaggeration. It was the first time individuals and groups could petition for their human rights in a supranational court. The rights in the European Code were individual rights or civil liberties. There was no mention of social rights beyond the right of parental choice in education – thanks to a strong Catholic lobby. In comparison, the UN’s – more extensive and global - rights regime had no such body to legally ensure compliance. The establishment of the ECHR was an extraordinary achievement. Here was a firewall against the state over-reaching itself, creating an imagined Europe defining itself in distinction to the Soviet Union and its satellites. Socialist Parties worried it would impede the state’s economic planning and their domestic agendas. To understand what people see as desirable transnationally, always factor in domestic circumstance and historical experience
So why are a clique of right-wing conservatives so desperate to turn the clock back demanding that we “take back control of our laws”? Clearly not back to 1950s and Churchill. Could it be that the European Research Group simply wish for elites to have greater freedom to accumulate wealth and privilege? I cannot believe that Mr. Gove enjoys being referred, with five other European states, to the Court of Justice by the European Commission for the UK government’s dilatory approach to air pollution. Effective action would reduce company profits. The Court of Justice fined Google $2.4 billion for abuse of its position as the world’s dominant search-engine. It has the power to do so. Alone, we don’t.
The mass media’s refrain is “unaccountable bureaucrats” reveling in petty regulation. But who was being petty when UK prisoners got back the vote? I recently bought a new freezer. It was the same overall size but much smaller inside; stuff had to be chucked out or defrosted and eaten. The helpful installer told me this was “all down to the EU”. It sounded petty. But he explained why: they had ruled that insulation had to be much thicker to preserve energy and a shield was required at the back to stop fires.
Will control taken back by an extreme right-wing government increase national investment in curbing air pollution, or deter the great cyber-corporations behaving more or less as they like, or come to that , result in better insulated freezers to save energy and avoid fires? Yes, we have a distinguished Supreme Court but, observing the USA, will ours always remain as un-politicised as today? Is upholding what the French Catholic Europeanists in the 1950s called “the rights of persons and communities”, not least those of workers, safe in the hands of BREXIT extremists?
Many rashly assume so. But, like Churchill, however unfairly distrustful of political opponents, I think it is wise to hedge our bets. We need the safety valve of the European courts and the values that they try to reflect in their judgements. Yes, Conservatism has come a long way since the Eurocentric 1950s. But where is it going?
In the game of chess, pawns can be promoted into queens when they reach the other side of the board. That is a lot of squares to cross with a high risk of being taken by the other side on the way. Queening doesn’t happen very often: one or other of the players has usually resigned before it gets to the End Game.
In the EU Middle Game, Boris Johnson and David Davis, both knights on the UK side, were lost. A pawn of the DUP and the Tory back benches, Theresa May is lucky to reach the end game. She stands little chance of being transformed into an all-powerful queen. This to my mind is because she has not yet made the speech that she needs to make. Here is a draft ready for the Prime Minister to deliver.
“Good Evening. (Sombre dress, direct to camera)
After much deliberation I have decided to speak to you, fellow citizens, on a matter that deeply troubles us all. On 26 June 2016 those of you eligible to vote chose by a majority to leave the European Union. None of us, and I include myself, a lapsed Remainer (smile), could possibly have known with any assurance what this decision would entail. This is neither shameful nor surprising. The task of disentangling forty years of countless accumulated links, ties, and formal binding arrangements with the European Union was daunting and unprecedented. Yes, I believed the overall effect of those relationships to be mostly beneficial and that inclined me to remain.
I have learnt since I was elected to Parliament in 1997 to be cautious about making policy based on forecasting, even when provided by those who are rightly considered experts in their field (suggestion of a smile). But I am committed to building policy on evidence. The evidence is now overwhelmingly that reaching No Deal is becoming more likely. No Deal means for us and for future generations a dire economic impact, loss of jobs, losses for businesses, losses of businesses moving out of the United Kingdom, losses of tax revenues and therefore further austerity with the poor bearing the burden, and the question of the border between Ireland and the United Kingdom unresolved.
This is not a legacy I wish to leave.
In the past I have often said that No Deal is better than a Bad Deal. As we get closer to the end of this stage of our negotiations with the European Union, the picture is getting clearer: both are unacceptable. As your Prime Minister, I never forget Government works not only for the wellbeing of the present generation but for future generations. It is important to remember that the younger generation, sons, daughters, grandchildren voted by a large majority (emphasize) to remain. Their views must be taken seriously.
Throughout my premiership I have strived for the unity of my Cabinet, Party and Country. But we must not let unity be the enemy of truth, prosperity and justice. Nor should talking about the likely consequences of leaving the Single Market, the single most important market for our goods and services, and the Customs Union, be dismissed as “fear-mongering”. Hard facts as they emerge should be an integral part of our decision-making directed at the good of the country. We have now reached a point in our negotiations when evidence of the damage which leaving the EU will cause our country cannot be brushed aside.
I have worked tirelessly with civil servants and government ministers in negotiations with the EU. We have made some progress. I realise fully that what I am saying to you tonight will displease a significant number of voters and MPs in my own Party. But I cannot continue to conduct negotiations with a mandate that I believe can only lead to stalemate and impasse. The vote of confidence that matters most to me is that coming from you, the British people. Perhaps you will think I should have spoken earlier. I have waited until it became absolutely clear that the leaders of the EU cannot and will not make concessions that they believe undermine the principles which define membership of the European Union. There is no easy time to tell hard truths (rueful look).
For this reason I have asked the Electoral Commission today to prepare for an opportunity for you to consider the new facts as we now see them and choose the way forward. You will be asked to make this vital decision in a fresh vote in a few months time. By then you will have a clearer picture of the options before us than now, much clearer I hope than two years ago.
I have undertaken much reflection and introspection before speaking to you tonight. Saying ‘I have changed my views’ is a very hard decision for a political leader. We must move away from the dangerous idea that leadership is rigidly inflexible. Yes, when the facts change, views on what to do should change. Britain is at a cross roads. Our democracy demands that people when voting have adequate knowledge of the future destination of their society. My pledge to you is to champion truth in the forthcoming debate, both from my lips and those of my colleagues in Parliament. For without truth our democracy is undermined.
(Smile) Thank you and goodnight”.
It was a small paragraph buried in the newspaper this week. The Saudi-led coalition was again, despite international pleas, pushing on with Operation Golden Victory, their attempt to take the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. Yemen is a semi-desert and desert land. Over three quarters of the country’s imported food passes through Hodeidah, as well as arms for the Houthi rebels whom the Saudis and United Arab Emirates (UAE) hope to interdict and defeat. Over five million children depend on these food supplies and already face starvation. UNICEF is struggling to get food aid into the country and the UN has warned of “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”. This is what serious damage to, and complete closure of the port will achieve.
Yemen is desperately poor. From the 1960s, the international aid organization for which I worked had a development programme in Yemen. My memory of the people and the land is still vivid. As visiting CEO of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), I stayed in Ja’fariyah, in a remote village high in the beautiful Raymah mountains. You had to walk to smaller settlements. These mountains may be unique; the higher you climb the noisier it gets. The poverty is as striking as the beauty.
In this terrain your fellow climbers are trying to make a living, mostly climbing up and down rather than along the ridge roads. You meet shepherds herding their flocks in front of them, men and donkeys carrying impossible loads and improbable items, a television set, a Kalashnikov, all moving at a punishing rate upwards, or skipping downwards like fleeing goats. You mount uneven steps, some cut into the basalt, some natural, passing small terraces where food crops and qat are grown. On the mountain top there is a buzz of human occupation: houses, villages, dirt ridge roads. You don’t climb mountains in Yemen to seek solitude.
The CIIR Yemen programme tried to reduce maternal and child mortality. It was called International Cooperation for Development and employed mostly Muslim volunteer development workers. They trained traditional birth attendants building on their experience and knowledge and introducing them to modern midwifery skills and better practice. The time around birth was a privileged period for imparting health – and sometimes feminist – messages. Unable to understand instructions on medical items, the women trainees asked to learn to read and a special course was developed. Women who completed the training and implemented it were the first women to appear on Yemeni television and soon played leadership roles in their villages, and nationally, promoting preventative health care. Fewer women and babies died in childbirth.
But as Yemeni women these trained birth attendants had to struggle. The distinctive Yemeni house, in the shape of a tower, reflects the relationships between men and women. Upstairs in the mafrage, enjoying magnificent views, the men converse and chew qat declining in Roman fashion in a large airy room. The television sets and Kalashnikovs laboriously brought up the mountains adorn these upstairs rooms. Food is placed before the men on floor mats and everyone dips in to common dishes. Downstairs the women cook and live with the children in gloomy rooms lit by windows set in high walls. The trained, literate birth attendants faced the daily challenges of an entrenched social conservatism. Yet this is only a partial picture of life in rural Yemen.
Uthman, one of the volunteers, a former Sudanese Trades Unionist, now a nurse, was something of a Muslim Saint in his dedication to the patients at the local health clinic. Mid-surgery, he once rescued a fellow development worker being operated on for appendicitis and, with a companion, stretchered her some 15 kilometres down the mountain to the regional hospital. He had spotted in time that the incompetent doctor operating on her couldn’t find the infected appendix.
One of CIIR’s development workers had a bad car accident: a well-known Sheikh accompanying her was killed. We feared the worst. Traditional rates of compensation could be considerable for such a locally notable figure. The development worker who had been driving risked a spell in prison until compensation was paid. But news came back from the Sheikh’s wife. “We loved her” she said of our staff member, “we ask only a small token to honour our customs and to show respect”.
Does Ja’fariyah’s inaccessibility still protect it from the worst ravages of war? I don’t know. But when you remember real people, live and loving human beings, reports of the numbers dying catch the eye and catch the heart. Few non-Muslims in UK give to the main Islamic development agencies which, on a much smaller scale, do courageous humanitarian work in these war zones. They need support but they cannot cope with the magnitude of the destruction.
The big international NGOs with the capacity to respond to this pending humanitarian disaster, OXFAM and Save the Children, have seen their funding from the public falling whilst the Tory back benches have succeeded in getting government to punish these Agencies by cutting their funds. A tiny number of male staff grievously abused their position of power and wealth for sexual favours, and this is the outcome. The public rightly expects higher standards of humanitarian agencies whose work is based on idealism. But does this justify walking away?
The question I want to ask when I remember the Yemen of the 1990s and the overseas development workers there is: Which is more important punishing the humanitarian agencies for poor governance and ignoring whistle-blowers, hardly a unique crime, or continuing to donate to enable these big Agencies to save the lives of thousands of children in a country no-one really knows or cares much about? Now the media interest has subsided the question can be, and should be, asked.
Save the Children estimate that up to 50,000 Yemeni children died of war-related hunger and disease in 2017 and some 400,000 were in need of treatment for malnutrition. This is no time to let transient outrage get the better of solidarity and compassion.
“The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread.
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out "stop!"
When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible.
When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.”
Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems
This year is the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Thirty Years war in Europe, the setting for Brecht’s Mother Courage. A savage and complex war, it pitted Catholics against Protestants and drew in five large national and imperial armies. Some eight million people died, some in battle, or in civilian massacres, most from famine and disease. Europe’s cities were devastated. Some of the German States lost 40% of their population. The horror of religious war is being repeated today, this time within Islam.
The Assad, distantly Shi’a Alawite led regime with its Russian and Iranian (Shi’a Muslim) allies have begun the final systematic destruction of resistance in the Idlib Province of Syria. Villages and towns with their additional refugee population, together making up some three million mainly Sunni inhabitants, will be bombed and the number of civilian casualties will soar. The assault has started. The slaughter of civilians in Syria continues, whether by barrel bombs dropped from Syrian air-force helicopters or the modern rocket technology of Putin’s air-force backed up by Iranian Revolutionary Guards ground-forces. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
Saudi bombing in Yemen, accelerating during August, is similarly indifferent to civilian casualties: children on buses, weddings, funerals, markets and medical centres have been attacked from the air. The Saudi-led largely Sunni Coalition ground forces have also perpetrated war crimes in three years of war against the Houthis, Zaidi Shi’ite Muslims. Naval blockades and attacks on the key port of Houdaydah suggest the aim is to use famine as a weapon of war, a tactic employed in Syria. Meanwhile Houthi forces retaliate and commit their own human rights violations. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
At the same time, within Sunni Saudi Arabia an internal sectarian conflict is in progress. Israa-al-Ghamgham, a 29 year old Shi’a woman, imprisoned since 2015, was tried in the notorious Special Criminal Court in Riyadh for giving support to rioters. (She documented human rights violations and attended funerals of protesters against discrimination). The public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty under Royal Decree 44/A for her and four other human rights activists - including her husband. They are all from the Shi’a majority Qatif governorate in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province. Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’a cleric - and forty-seven others - were executed in 2016. He was charged for allegedly leading protests and encouraging sectarian strife. The Qatif Five’s fate will be decided in October. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
We would know next to nothing about these events and crimes were it not for a handful of courageous journalists and humanitarian and human rights organisations. Governments know only too well. They try to hide the level of their complicity and do nothing. Spain has just cancelled an arms deal but is a very minor player compared with the USA, $8 billion, and UK, $2.6 billion, in arms and military sales to Saudi Arabia since 2014. Weapons pour in from Russia, and to a lesser degree from Iran, into Syria. This is a more than generous contribution to the militarization of the region, the entrenchment of sectarian conflict and a state of perpetual warfare.
The sponsorship of this ethnic/religious/national conflict in a strategically vital arena pits five national and “imperial” armies against each other: US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as key belligerents, with the UK and others playing a supporting role. Despite much publicised efforts to mediate truces, more clandestine efforts are made which pour gasoline on the fire by promoting fear and exporting planes, weapons, communications and military transport. President Trump - and Israel - have now clearly taken sides with Sunni forces against Iran and Russia which is backing the Iranian brand of revolutionary Shi’ism. The most powerful military power, and thus potentially diplomatic power in the world, has abdicated any role of peace-maker and mediator to become a proxy or direct belligerent in sectarian wars.
The late UK Foreign Minister, Robin Cook MP, the lonely figure who resigned rather than support the war in Iraq in March 2003, promoted the idea of a foreign policy with an ethical dimension (note not an ethical foreign policy but even so a contentious proposal). It was, at least in intention, a significant adjustment to British foreign policy. He was jeered in Parliament. I doubt if President Trump would even know what Cook was talking about. Prime Minister May is far too busy trying to glue together a fractured Tory Party to conduct any coherent foreign policy. She demonstrated early contempt for the Foreign Office by appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. So nobody is doing anything about the coming decades of war in the Middle East except wring their hands.
The consequences of this burgeoning sectarian conflict will reverberate around the world. The expulsion from the Middle East of Christians and other minority faiths will continue. The flight of refugees will remain a pressing humanitarian concern. Devastated cities will remain havens for extremists. Trump, but not just Trump, is fashioning our very own Thirty Years War. And as the evil doers in Brecht’s poem take centre stage Mother Courage returns as the unheroic heroine of our time.