My generation lived through the Cuban missile crisis. Our lives were threatened not by an invisible, spikey, round virus but a nuclear mushroom cloud. Today, 22 January, after many years of campaigning and debate the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, (‘The Ban Treaty’ for short) with 86 signatories, including 51 ‘states-parties’, came into force. It had taken over three years to collect more than the 50 state signatures that were required for implementation of an agreement reached in 2017.
In the summer of 2017, a rolling conference convened by the UN General Assembly produced a legally binding prohibition of nuclear weapons in the hope of their ultimate elimination. Developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory, were all banned. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the Treaty’s principal non-governmental mover and shaker, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, later that year. The Vatican celebrated the Treaty with a conference for the forty or so campaigning organisations that had contributed to its creation. But I would guess worldwide few people know of this treaty or its significance.
The existing nuclear powers were and are determined not to sign. So another piece of paper on the shelf of the UN Secretary-General, not even to be honoured in the breach, just ignored? No, far more significant than that, both opponents and supporters would agree. The Treaty represents a growing global legal consensus concerning international humanitarian norms. An international regulatory body for its implementation will be set up – the Austrian government is preparing for a first meeting of states parties in late 2021 - and there is a legally time-limited opportunity for the nine existing nuclear powers to start what they have notably failed to do: negotiate the elimination of their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Or, as former President Khatami of Iran replied to my question on the status of nuclear weapons in Shi’a Islam: “Haram, haram (prohibited) for both possession and use”.
Because of their immense destructive power and long term consequences nuclear weapons along with chemical and biological weapons are clearly a unique threat to humanity. But it has to be said that as the Syrian and Iraq governments have demonstrated by using chemical weapons this is no guarantee of future compliance with international law. And here is the rub. While it is just conceivable that public pressure and actual cost might persuade Britain to abandon Trident, neither of these pressures would make North Korea, China or Russia sign up to and become compliant with the Treaty. We have to acknowledge and accept the potentially asymmetric impact of pressure for total elimination of nuclear weapons. It’s a big ask. South Africa did not have any enemy on its doorstep in 1991 when it led the way and dismantled its nuclear warheads the apartheid regime developed with – suspected - Israeli help.
The renunciation of nuclear weapons by any country or countries requires prolonged diplomatic engagement and peace building. The conflict between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers and embroiled in a bitter dispute over Kashmir dating from Britain’s withdrawal, is only one example. For all the BREXIT talk about sovereignty, Britain’s own options are constrained by our membership of a defensive nuclear alliance, NATO. What would be the strategic implications of Britain’s adherence to the UN Treaty? Again decisions about nuclear weapons can only be made in the context of a national discussion about what we want Britain’s role in the world to be, and what we think security and responsible geo-politics should look like in the future. Apart from these questions NATO’s total rejection of the Treaty should stimulate a much wider national discussion than the one intermittently taking place within the peace movements and the military about Trident.
NATO has been deploying powerful arguments. Michael Rühle, the main interlocutor for NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division does not pull his punches. He writes that advocates of the Treaty ‘ignore the international security situation’ , engage in ‘moral grandstanding’ and that it ‘pulls the rug from under’ the 1970 Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Ban Treaty reflects the frustration of many states in the Global South at the failure of the NPT to change the nuclear weapons landscape. It challenges the strategy of mutually-assured destruction. But the Ban Treaty is consistent with Article VI of the NPT which commits states-parties to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.’ That more or less covers the process which led to the Treaty.
Religious opinion is increasingly vocal and united. The Pope, the Vatican and the British bishops, both Catholic and Anglican, have clearly called on the British Government to “forsake its nuclear arsenal”. This month the British Catholic bishops stated:
“On Friday 22 January 2021 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force. This is an historic milestone on the path to nuclear disarmament and an opportunity to refocus on genuine peacebuilding rooted in dialogue, justice, respect for human dignity, and care for our planet.
In setting out the ‘moral and humanitarian imperative’ for complete elimination of nuclear weapons, Pope Francis reminded us that ‘international peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation.
We urge support for the Treaty and repeat our call for the UK to forsake its nuclear arsenal. The resources spent on manufacturing, maintaining and upgrading these weapons of mass destruction, should be reinvested to alleviate the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, for the Common Good of all peoples”.
But nuclear disarmament remains the dog that doesn’t bark in British politics.
If the Treaty does its job of making people once more aware of the terrible consequences of nuclear warfare, and if it initiates a national and international debate about a responsible geo-politics, what we mean by security, what sort of alliances we must make in the face of ruthless authoritarian regimes, it will have accomplished a great deal. The nuclear issue has disappeared from the manifestoes of our political Parties. The gulf between the settled opinion of the securocrats and politicians and the clear message coming from the faith communities, peace movements and what used to be called the non-aligned states of the Global South, is daunting.
On 5 February this year the US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty New Start which caps each country’s nuclear weapons at 1,550 comes up for renewal or extension. China refuses to engage. Looking back on the near-nuclear disasters of the 1960s, the eventual outcome of an entrenched belief in a strategy of mutually assured destruction will probably be accidental ….mutually assured destruction.
See TheArticle 23/10/2021
An American would be forgiven for feeling as lost in Washington today as the Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff in his song Many Rivers to Cross. The United States may be on the verge of serious civil violence.
There are different contending stories about the 2020 US Presidential election. The comforting one is that Joseph Biden, with his black running mate Kamala Harris, won a popular mandate by seven million votes. The disturbing one is that Donald Trump increased his popular vote by over eleven million. It is estimated that 93% of those who voted Republican in 2016 renewed their support undeterred by the evidence of four years of misrule by a manipulative demagogue consciously cultivating resentful, violent, and what Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder calls pre-fascist movements promoting the politics of white supremacy. Besides the pandemic, four rivers stand out for President Biden to cross.
The first is 74 million voters who chose Trump. What got into almost a quarter of the country’s population? The short answer is fear. There is nothing novel about that. McCarthy knew how to tap into it in the 1950s. But from the beginning US political culture, born in the lonely conquest of an expanding frontier and a violent confrontation with Native Americans was imbued with fear. In the South, slave owners’ own violence was projected onto its black victims. An abiding anxiety that only brutal punishment stood in the way of insurrection and retaliation, was the result. What other country has a powerful and successful lobby persuading families of the need to own guns for protection? And in what other country do gun sales soar when protests take to the streets against unlawful police killings of black people?
A substantial number of angry Americans seem to see, or countenance, white supremacy as a defence against black, or non-white, advancement. Demographic changes in the USA are felt as a zero-sum game. Non-Hispanic Whites make up 60% of America’s population but to many the Obama Presidency, despite his best efforts, looked like a period when the White majority lost control. Trump’s attempt to undo everything Obama had achieved spoke reams to his constituency: he understood their fears and resentments, he was their champion. The Biden team must now promote the traditional promise of the ‘City upon a Hill’, and destroy the lie that equality of opportunity and fairness is an evil un-American force called Socialism. Failing that, Biden may have to fall back on his Catholicism for a coherent counter-narrative.
The second swirling river to cross is the Republican Party itself. Trump drew in a rag-bag of small extremist movements addicted to racism, wild conspiracy stories and hatred of ‘elites’. They now both support and threaten the hundred or so Republican congressmen and perhaps ten senators, shaped by the former Tea Party movement and fearful of their voter base, who went along even after 6 January with what they knew to be Trump’s blatant lies, and particularly his Big Lie of having won the election. Professor Timothy Snyder divides these elected representatives into two categories: the ‘gamers’ who cynically surf the wave of popular feeling rather than lose office and the ‘breakers’, quasi-anarchists bent on destroying ‘the system’. Were the Republican Party to split, the ‘breakers’ would form the core of a Trumpist Party. The Republican Party as it now stands is a huge obstacle in the path of national reconciliation and, while the Senate is so evenly balanced, will make it very difficult for Biden to produce economic gains for his black supporters and the disaffected workers who once would have voted Democrat. Already a daunting task after the pandemic’s damage to the economy.
Democrats will also have to tackle Republican power at a state level. Where Republicans control state legislatures and governorships gerrymandering and voter suppression on a large scale will persist. Frightened people are gullible. In key states voters behaved differently from expectations. For example 18% of the black vote in electorally all-important Florida, voted Republican in addition to the state’s Cubans and Venezuelans, taken in by the portrayal of Biden as a Socialist Front candidate propped up by a female Vice-President who as a public prosecutor had sent a lot of black Americans to jail. In South Texas (along the Mexican border) the Biden Democrats took the Latino and farmworker vote for granted but they fared worse than Hillary Clinton.
A third river to get over for Biden, and crucial to Trump’s success, is the endless flow of misinformation from radio and TV stations which act as echo chambers for his lies presenting him as the leader of victimised white Americans. Equally, until the shock of the storming of the Capitol pushed the great social media platforms to ban Trump, they’d given almost free play to various pre-fascist and conspiracy groups of different kinds. The internet giants then tried to put the genie back in the bottle. Their regulation by government will be a complex task. Curbing the impact of pernicious radio and TV shock-jocks and their popular angry and emotional presentation of politics will be equally difficult. Biden will have to establish some kind of consensus about a regulatory programme consonant with the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Fourthly and finally, reversing the flow of foreign policy directed by Trump won’t be simple. Multilateralism has a price tag in domestic approval and dollars. Isolationism is popular. Given domestic pressures, Biden will be disinclined to cut the Gordian knot that is Israel, a knot tightened by Trump. The difficulties of re-opening a peace process based on a serious two-state solution are great. The US needs to support Lebanon in danger of disintegration. Attempts to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran will not be welcomed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards nor by concessions from the Supreme Leader, nor by those pre-occupied by Iran’s proxy militias in the region. The Iranians have already increased uranium enrichment to 20% in retaliation for Trump’s reneging on the international nuclear treaty. China is the key to effective action on climate change, said to be Biden’s priority, and is crucial in blocking North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. But, post-Trump, how can there be any Nixonesque diplomatic demarche towards China given its appalling human rights record which the incoming administration cannot ignore?
Electoral defeat for Trump doesn’t mean that the pursuit of white supremacy and Trumpism will disappear. At last, after the debacle of 6 January, the focus of national security has swung towards the internal threat of armed militias and white supremacist terrorism. Biden has to decide how to clamp down hard on the leadership of such extremist groups without creating martyrs. The currency of white domination is fear and violence. Biden’s greatest immediate task is to stop its circulation. To do so he must make America less angry and less fearful. Many rivers to cross and they run deep and wide and flow fast.
See TheArticle 15/01/2021
People recognise corruption when they see it though they would find it hard to define. The abuse of entrusted power for private gain is a concise definition used by the Berlin-based Transparency International, a not-for-profit authority whose Corruption Perception Index scores and ranks corruption by country across the globe. Transparency International points to poorly regulated financing of political parties as the source of the trouble. Political bribery, bungs, ‘buying influence’ to use Tony Blair’s words, are all part of a wider story. In societies ranked as the worst at the bottom of the table, corruption is endemic reaching beyond the political into business and into access to public services bringing misery to those too poor to bribe. In many countries like Nigeria it is a longstanding feature of the political and economic culture. You wonder when and how it started and became so pervasive.
Forty-five years ago in Nigeria I received my first - and last - bribe, more of a sweetener really, on the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, situated in the North. One evening just before the final exams there was an unexpected knock on the door. It was Mr. Chukwuma Onyeme (name changed) a mature Ibo student of mine from the South who had once whispered to me ‘we foreigners must stick together’ - it was not long after the Biafran war of secession. Mr. Onyeme, father of seven children, was bearing a six-pack of Nigerian Guinness as a gift. I graciously accepted.
This transaction could be construed as a bribe. Mr.Onyeme had struggled with the course and I expected him, at best, to get a borderline pass. He probably expected the same. But the six-pack was a bad choice. Nigerian Guinness tasted sweetish to me and looked like brown Windsor soup. I would go to considerable lengths to avoid it. In the event the examination board awarded Mr. Onyeme his degree without my help. His school-teacher salary would rise. The school fees of his children would be paid. In the round a good result but giving a sight of the tip of an iceberg that sank a country’s development despite, or possibly because of, its oil wealth.
Several years’ experience of corruption in Nigeria now prompts the question whether Britain, twelfth from the virtuous top in the Transparency Corruption Index, but dropping points in the last three years, might be too complacent about risking its reputation for probity. In a predominantly service economy respected for its diplomatic, legal, educational and financial services, probity matters. The behaviour of government has consequences and can destroy a country’s international reputation remarkably quickly.
Take as an example our Housing, Communities and Local Government Minister, Robert Jenrick, and the recent saga of Richard Desmond’s £1 billion property development at Westferry Printworks challenged by the Council in London’s Tower Hamlets. To avoid the Council’s £45 million community benefit levy - for health and education – the Minister, lobbied by Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner, needed to approve the project before 15 January 2020. On 14th. January, overruling his own civil servants and inspectorate, Mr. Jenrick granted this permission. Two weeks later Mr. Desmond donated the very modest sum of £12,000 to the Conservative Party, in proportion to his reward the equivalent of a six-pack of Guinness. The lobbied Minister should have recused himself. When the story broke in June, Jenrick was obliged to reverse his approval because, in his own words, it looked ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’. He was not sacked nor does he shun the glare of publicity. On the contrary he comes in third or fourth in the batting, read obfuscating, order of ministers led by Mr. Gove on the BBC4 flagship Today programme.
The question whether such behaviour, and tolerance of such behaviour, heralds a general onset of corruption in government became particularly pressing in March and April when, during the first wave of the COVID pandemic, there were shortages of PPE for frontline medical staff. While several European countries began to initiate PPE procurement procedures in late January 2020, it was a month before the British government, in panic mode, set to. Tendering, following the normal rules for getting good value for public money, went out the window and, according to the Treasury, £15 billion was – wastefully - spent on supplying PPE to retrieve the situation. A special pathway was set up for Cabinet Office and VIP contacts – read friends and associates of Tory peers, MPs and councillors - to submit proposals for multimillion contracts. The Good Law Project, a not-for profit membership organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public, is seeking a judicial review and litigation in the absence of any official enquiry into negligence or corruption. They cite remarkably that three of the biggest PPE contracts awarded were to a pest-control company, wholesale confectionary company and a private fund operating out of a tax haven.
Prodigious public spending provides governments with enhanced opportunities to benefit their friends and supporters. Alongside the pressures created by government indecision, the ideological drive to outsource responses to the COVID crisis when there were already competent local public authorities available, opened up another door to the Tory ‘chumocracy’. Isn’t it problematic that an individual can move seamlessly via the Department of Justice from a key position in a company such as SERCO, awarded a whopping Track and Trace contract, to become a Minister of State for Health? Aren’t the perennial Tory fundraisers, private dinners, sustaining a host of questionable relationships and creating potential conflicts of interest, the intricate foreplay to potential corruption? And what does it say about our society when consultants to SERCO’s Track and Trace, drawn from the corporates, are paid up to £7,000 of public money a day, while newly qualified nurses start risking their lives in the NHS on £23,000 a year. How long can our public services survive such dystopian priorities?
From his days as Mayor of London, Mr. Johnson’s approach to conflict of interest has been shown to be, shall we say, casual. Impunity is the handmaid of corruption. But when it comes to his supine coterie Johnson doesn’t do resignations or sackings, and unlike Mrs. Thatcher, doesn’t do God. “Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage”, she told the congregation of St. Lawrence Jewry in March 1978. That’s a warning the libertarian Tory back benches might heed. When breaching international law and treaty becomes part of our negotiating toolkit, you wonder in what sense the Prime Minister is still leading a Conservative Party defending conservative values.
We have too long been watching the misuse of public power with its predictable reputational consequences. It is misplaced complacency to believe we are not wandering down the road to corrupt government.
See TheArticle 4/01/2021
Just over five years ago, in Paris on the evening of Friday 15 November 2015, in three simultaneous attacks terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam killed 130 French citizens. Ninety died and a hundred were injured at a rock concert in the Bataclan theatre, several died outside the Stade de France where France and Germany were playing a friendly football match and others were maimed in attacks on cafés. Only eleven months had passed since another Da’esh-inspired group attacked Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket taking seventeen lives.
Then came a wave of ‘lone wolf’ atrocities, the worst in 2016 when a 19-tonne truck ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Nice seafront killing 86 and injuring 458. Since November 2019 there have been ten such further attacks some at random, others aimed at Christians, priests and a schoolteacher. France feels that it is a nation whose very identity is threatened by these assaults on its way of life. Over seventy mosques and their sources of finance are now under investigation. In November 2020 President Macron re-affirmed in speeches that laïcité, a radical form of secularism, is the essence of French identity and that the Muslim community must conform to a ‘Charter of Republican values’. But what precisely are these values, and when does laicïté begin to erode the right to religious freedom? And is laïcité as the definition of French identity a solution to the problem of terrorism or a provocation? All questions Christians have reasons to be interested in hearing answered.
“All my life I have held a certain idea of France.” “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”, wrote General Charles de Gaulle in the opening sentence of his first volume of war memoirs, (The Call) L’Appel:1940-1942. The General, reflecting his own heroic martial virtues, was always preoccupied with grandeur. So President Macron’s somewhat grandiose deportment and attempts to muster the French people around the Republican flag against terrorism, is not unprecedented. But he can’t reinvent himself as De Gaulle any more than Johnson can reinvent himself as Churchill. Macron needs his own idea of France. And what he needed was at hand: ‘Republican values’ and laïcité as the backbone of French identity.
A few years ago, at a government interfaith conference in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, I gave a well-received talk which gently suggested that banning the head-scarf, hijab, in State schools was a bad idea. Towards the end of lunch I was informed that the French Ambassador wanted to speak to me. I was escorted to her table where she delivered a long harangue on the oppression of Muslim women. According to the Ambassador Muslim women were oppressed by Islam and did not wish to wear the hijab. Laïcité liberated Muslim women and was civilization’s answer to backward religious practices. No ifs or buts, no room for dialogue or nuance. I’d just encountered ‘une certaine ideé de la France’. A rather different emphasis from de Gaulle’s but foreshadowing Macron’s.
France’s population contains Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority. The Pew Research Foundation puts the number of Muslims in France, mainly from the North Africa but also from the Middle East, at c. 6 million which makes them 8.8% of the population (the CIA estimate is between 7-9%). Of these about 100,000 are converts. Some 76 mosques are due for government inspection and 18, some of which should have closed, will be shut down.
In France the hijab is the subject of long running controversy. President Chirac extended an existing government ban on all wearing of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ in State schools to every secondary education establishment and this was quickly voted into law in March 2004. In 2010 full length Burqās and face-concealing Niqābs, which barely left wearers’ eyes visible, were banned from public places. In August 2016 the Mayor of Cannes opened up a beachhead in the apparel-wars with a ban on burkinis, body- concealing swimsuits, a ban upheld by the French Council of State which presumably viewed them as un-Republican and a symbol of separatism. Criticism of this ruling from non-Muslims has been ineffectual.
In the middle of November this year, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), under growing pressure from Macron, announced its proposal for a National Council to vet foreign-born imams. Macron plans additional legislation to ban home-schooling, and to initiate training of imams in State controlled colleges requiring signing on to ‘The Principles of the Republic’. His target is ‘separatism’ and thus taqfiri brands of Salafi and Wahabi thinking and behavior - disavowal and rejection of all who do not share their excluding Puritan ethic - which he seems to see as a precursor to, and breeding ground for, terrorism. All this is laïcité in practice. This is not the procedural secularism, the separation of Church and State, of the USA. And it’s not secular Britain with its established Church where very few would consider the Jewish kippa or a head-scarf or a cross an ‘ostentatious’ religious symbol – though occupational restrictions by employers involving wearing of crosses have been upheld in court. The difference is that French secularism, enshrined legally in law separating Church and State in 1905, has become prescriptive and ideological.
But in September the French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, did attempt to formulate an inclusive female standard of dress ‘de façon républicaine’ (in a republican fashion) for State schools. He condemned both short skirts - indécence - and the wearing of hijabs by mothers accompanying school trips. The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution has left its trace in hostility to religion in the public domain with little acknowledgement that culturally the hijab for many Muslims is an expression of modesty just as much as longer skirts.
In France since 9/11 conflict over women’s dress seems to be in step with the growth of terror in the name of Allah. And it is an easy jump to the assumption that ‘conspicuous’ religiously approved clothing is somehow a link in a causal chain leading to violence, as well as being a breach of laïcité undermining the foundations of the Fifth Republic. Such a view may indeed coincide with the social perceptions of French governments. But not with the perceptions of France’s disadvantaged and increasingly alienated Muslim communities, who are daily bombarded with extremist recruitment material on-line, and who protest against their government’s hardline laïcité.
Such a preoccupation with controlling female dress does not easily admit to reasoned distinctions. Seeing the face of a person is a major part of human communication, not just a security concern. In this sense the niqāb and burkā which seclude and exclude women – unlike the hijab - are anti-social and might reasonably be considered a direct challenge to French values, more a form of what Macron calls ‘separatism’ than an expression of modesty and human dignity. France’s adopted Lithuanian Jewish philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995), a champion of dialogue, symbolically grounded his idea of ethical human relationships in face-to-face encounters.
The major problem with Macron’s approach is that it does not appear to be evidence based. First, ‘separatism’ is common to all three Abrahamic religions: the Amish, the Jewish Haredi as well as Salafis. It is a response to seeing the world as sinful and a source of potential moral contamination. The vast majority of Salafis are peace-loving and pious. Indeed, because they can talk the talk and walk the walk which has taken a tiny minority into violence and terrorism, some are notably good at de-radicalisation. Some of the first assassinations undertaken by Boko Haram in North East Nigeria were Salafi scholars who opposed the movement’s violence and were seen as an immediate threat. Second, recruitment to jihadism in France takes place predominantly through relationships within families and between friends often in particular banlieues or small towns. If the UK is anything to go by 40% of those recruited have suffered from some form of mental illness. It is often because they have little of the Qur’anic knowledge that might have accrued from mosque attendance that many can be duped. Violent criminality is given a ‘glorious’ religious legitimation. This makes recruitment via social media, manipulating emotional reactions to videos and Qur’anic verses out of context, that much easier.
Britain’s Muslim communities, unlike France’s, trace their roots to the Indian sub-continent and Britain’s approach to cultural differences, multiculturalism, has been less doctrinaire than France’s. But we have had our own tragedies and agonizing failures, the 2017 Manchester bombing in which 22 died still has the power to shock. So we can readily and deeply emphasize with our friends across the Channel. Multi-culturalism is no panacea. There are dangers of social division of tolerating what should not be tolerated. But because, at least in this respect, we aren’t deducing counter-terrorism policy from a rigid set of ideological principles, we are able to see what works and what doesn’t, and, at best, adjust policy to changing circumstances. France’s tragic losses suggest that the answer to the failures of laïcité is not more laïcité.