Pity the many decent, honest politicians seeking the Common Good, who, because of the BREXIT debacle, will fall under a blanket condemnation of the “political elite”. We now know where their colleagues’ choice of personal ambition before national interest has taken us. A combination of magical thinking and lying has produced the most threatening political crisis in living memory: government and opposition hopelessly reduced to warring factions or a calculating inertia. The current conflict and confusion, political irresponsibility and incompetence, are a clear and present danger to democracy.
Once you start lying, falsifying and spinning, it is extremely difficult to stop. The latest lie derives from the previous falsification or spin. Take for example the claim that in our representative democracy, referendums are legally binding rather than advisory. The sovereignty of Parliament is the lynch pin of our form of democracy, so referendums cannot be definitively decisive; we are not a small Swiss canton governed as a direct democracy. One false statement leads to another. You end up hinting there will be riots in the street if there is a second referendum.
David Cameron on losing the 2016 referendum was not legally obliged to introduce legislation to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty leading to the UK’s future withdrawal from the European Union. He scuttled away leaving the task to Theresa May. She was temporarily delayed by the Supreme Court ruling that it required an Act of Parliament to empower her to start the process of withdrawal. So it was Parliament which, in March 2017, responding to the majoritarian 17.4 million who voted to leave, and not to the 16.1 million who wanted to remain, authorized the government to trigger Article 50. And it has to be Parliament who revokes their former decision – or, on the other hand, ratifies the lengthy Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on our future relationship with the EU. However in their present state of mind, Parliament is barely up to revoking the menu in the Members Dining Room.
Division plus deadlock is not an ideal context for a - second - referendum. The inflamed language of Tory speeches indicates a further attempt to confuse and misdirect the public. A second referendum, we are repeatedly told, would be a “betrayal” of the public. The people have spoken. Well, 17.4 million have spoken and 16.1 million have also spoken …and said the opposite. Thanks to a blizzard of misinformation at the time of the June 2016 referendum nobody had much idea where BREXIT was heading or what the consequences of leaving the European Union might be. Two years went by before the government thought it worthwhile to acknowledge the views of the 48% who voted to remain. Theresa May is now presenting her marathon negotiation with EU principles and house rules, her – preliminary - deal, as an attempt to heal UK divisions, and respond to some of the Remainers’ needs. But the agreement she brought home does not work as a compromise between factions in the Tory Party, the Opposition, the Lib. Dems, SNP, or DUP with whom she has also been negotiating. Hence the current deadlock.
In these dire Vegan times I must watch my language. But our carnivorous British and European ancestors might have described the choice of BREXIT in June 2016 as buying “a pig in a poke” i.e. unseen (a poke according to Mr. Google is a bag, from the old French poque). This caveat emptor about not buying big items until you can see the goods has remained common sense for some five hundred years. Having been sold a pig in a poke over two years ago, the British public has the democratic right to evaluate what they have subsequently found in the poke. So who is betraying whom here?
The overwrought reaction of Brexiteers to the simple proposition of a second vote is telling. From the mightily ambitious Jeremy Hunt, looking relatively good as Foreign Minister after Boris Johnson, we get warnings of civil unrest if there were to be another referendum. Why do they want to frighten the electorate out of an informed democratic choice now that we have a better understanding of what the different options entail?
Just imagine it. A disproportionate number of elderly and old people voted Leave and younger people voted overwhelmingly Remain. So will we see Zimmer frames clashing with police shields, mobility vehicles running down Remainers, pensioners manning barricades in seaside towns, bowls clubs storming Wormwood scrubs? But, as the ERG would be the first to admit, we are not French. Mayhem as the British response to being asked to advise our representatives in Parliament about whether we want them to ratify Theresa May’s agreement with Brussels or call it a day and seek to remain in the EU? I don’t think so. I would foresee cancelling some police leave in case of Right-Wing extremist violence. Though they don’t need No-BREXIT as an excuse.
Theresa May has a way out though she will probably soldier on pursuing Project Fantasy, seeking further EU concessions, and be humiliated. It is high time she delivered the speech I wrote for her, on 22 September 2018, free of charge, still available but sadly neglected, BREXIT: The End Game (www.ianlinden.com/blogs.html ). She will now need an extension beyond the end of March 2019 for her next move. Unfortunately, affairs are so disorderly there are no suitable chess metaphors left.
And spare a thought for those MPs who also want to do the right thing for their country and constituents but struggle to understand what that might be. Project Reality would be a start: seeking the people’s advice through a people’s vote, asking them to choose between the EU-Theresa May Withdrawal Agreement or remaining in the European Union, recognizing we are reduced to choosing the least bad of the ways forward.
Red Notices, the requests made to governments through Interpol for the location, arrest and extradition of named individuals, were in the news this November. Ukrainian born Alexandr Prokopchuk, a Major-General in the Russian police who had led the Russian National Central Bureau of Interpol (MIA) since 2011, failed to get the top job as President of the international police organisation. During Prokopchuk’s time as leader of Interpol’s Russian office, Russia was a profligate user of Red Notices, targeting for example Bill Browder and other opponents of President Putin.
Prokopchuk studied Romance and Germanic languages and literature. So the selection committee were not worried about his talents as a linguist when they appointed a South Korean, Kim Jong Yang, Interpol Vice-President for Asia, as the new international chief.
This comforting little news story with a happy ending brought Red Notices into focus for many people, who, like me, had never heard of them. They are generally a good idea for dealing with criminals who flee across borders. But on closer scrutiny these Notices turn out to be popular with dictators who use them to harass dissidents and their political opponents who have fled abroad. Compared with polonium poisoning and chemical nerve agents, Red Notices seem quaintly legalistic and almost benign. But they can result in individuals innocent of any crimes, save opposition to tyranny, going to jail at home, or worse.
This is not the whole story. Before an arrest can take place, the government receiving a Red Notice, its Interior Ministry, must approve the request – in UK that is the Home Office and the term used is “certify” as in certify there is a case to be heard. Several months of judicial proceedings can follow before the case goes to court to decide whether the Notice complies with internationally agreed Interpol rules, for example, that the Notice should not be politically motivated. It takes two to tango, the host country and the country issuing the Red Notice. And when T stands for Terrorism and Turkey as well as Tango the stakes are high.
As Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State from 1997-2002, once said referring to terrorism “whenever the United States wages war on an abstract noun, it gets into difficulties”. After the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey in which over 300 died, sticking the terrorism label on opponents and dissidents became stock-in-trade for President Erdogan.. None have suffered more than members of Hizmet, the international Islamic Gülen movement, followers of Fetullah Gülen whose modernising writing and teaching is very far from hate-speech, incitement to violence or promotion of terrorism.
Hizmet was branded a Terrorist Organisation, FETO for short, by Erdogan. Massive purges of alleged Gülen followers from all walks of life followed. The movement’s emphasis on education alongside piety had resulted in Gülenists moving into positions of influence in Turkish society, forming an alternative power-base to Erdogan’s ruling AKP Party. Some followers had joined the coup which seems in retrospect to have been a secular-led. This gave Erdogan the opportunity to wipe out what he saw as a significant organised internal opposition. Tens of thousands of Gülenists have lost their jobs, and/or been imprisoned or forced into exile, their families persecuted. Teachers in Gülen schools outside Turkey have been abducted, others have received death threats. The purges have swept up many people beyond Hizmet. The main groups targeted are lawyers, civil servants and journalists as well as police and military. Association with the Kurdish insurgency in the south-east provides a further charge levelled against journalists.
So Turkey has been seeking the extradition of HIzmet members from the UK. Most recently, and prominently amongst them, are Hamdi Akin Ipek, a media tycoon, owner of Koza Holdings, Talip Büyük who managed the Gülen movement’s Fatih Colleges, and Ali Çelik, head of the Gülen-linked Bank Asya. In late November this year, Judge John Zani rejected the case for their extradition from the UK on grounds that the application was politically motivated. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), representing the Turkish government in British courts, are now taking the case to appeal. Even if Turkey’s applications fail, the subjects of Red Notices will have endured months of exhausting uncertainty and anxiety.
The point of the story is not simply that Judge Zani is upholding the rule of law over the political advantage the UK might gain by obliging Erdogan, a NATO ally and strategic trading partner. The real issue is this: do the Crown and people of this country really wish the CPS – whose time and staff we pay for - to represent a government which engages in human rights violations to a prodigious extent? The same might be asked of the Home Office which, when it certifies Turkish Red Notices, triggers the arrest of the named person, causing at the very least six months of legal costs, bail proceedings, anxiety and a life on hold. This is a remarkably effective way of harassing Turkish refugees who are under the supposed protection of the UK government. Some of them will, in addition, be receiving death threats and loss by confiscation of their, and their family members’, homes back in Turkey. Britain needs to re-read its international obligations to protect refugees.
I do not assume that all the targets of Turkey’s Red Notices are saints. But trumped up criminal charges often form part of the harassment game. And British government is perfectly well aware of these tactics.
Here is a very simple question. If the politically motivated use of Red Notices by Putin and the Russian government was so reprehensible it warranted a well-run campaign against Major General Prokopchuk’s appointment to President of Interpol, supported by the UK, then how come the Home Office is certifying politically motivated Notices from Erdogan and the Turkish government?
Answers on one side of A4. Bonus marks for explaining how this treatment of refugees is compatible with British values.
The illicit proceeds from human trafficking and exploitative labour crimes in 2018 are estimated at $150 billion (up from $32 billion in 2011). Sexual trafficking provides a significant part of these proceeds, $99 billion, going into the hands of criminal gangs. The dark underside of globalisation, the trade has been the subject of both documentaries and thrillers. But what is far less well known is the extraordinary role nuns, Women Religious, have played in caring for its victims and combating it.
I was recently privileged to interview Sister Imelda Poole, about her experience of working with trafficked women. But before watching, you may need a few acronyms and words explained.
CARITAS - the international arm of the Roman Catholic Church for aid and development with branches in different countries. CAFOD - the UK branch of CARITAS. CIIR - the Catholic Institute for International Relations, an independent radical organisation founded during the Second World War. Conference of Religious - the national body for men and women Religious. Congregation - a particular association of men or women Religious (Sister Imelda for example belongs to the English congregation of the IBVM, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Loreto or Mary Ward Sisters, who share Ignatian Spirituality with the better known Jesuits. Currently 23 different congregations in England and Wales have members engaged in anti-trafficking, over half providing properties for safe-houses and shelters).
Here is Sister Imelda explaining what brought her into this work....
Sister Imelda was then profoundly influenced by meeting trafficked women awaiting deportation in an Italian detention centre . She describes what sexual trafficking means for its victims. Sister Eugenia Bonnetti, mentioned below, is a founder of the movement to combat trafficking in Italy.
Work in Albania gave her considerable experience of the criminal gangs that flourished in post-communist countries. Many of these have found human trafficking safer, so more lucrative, than the drugs trade. The gangs operate across borders. But this is also true of Women Religious whose congregations are found in many different countries.
An important part of the mission of Women Religious involved in combatting sexual trafficking is setting up and maintaining Shelters for women who have escaped their traffickers. This has become an ecumenical effort in the UK involving the Salvation Army as an important partner. Below she describes the formation of the Medaille Trust which cares for trafficked women in a number of Shelters in the UK.
* CLARIFICATION: The founder of the Medaille Trust is Sr. Teresa Ann Herrity, a Sister of St. Joseph, living with her comunity in Newport.
In the video footage, we mistakenly named the Founder of the Medaille Trust as Sr. Teresa Helm, who was in fact a key lay worker in Chigwell, Surrey, UK. Sadly, Teresa is now deceased.
After pioneering work combating sexual trafficking in Europe, Women Religious successfully engaged the Catholic hierarchy in their mission. This engagement went up to the level of the Pope and Vatican with meetings in Rome and is now an international movement, (see santamartagroup.com which includes police and www.renate-europe.net which is a network of Religious in Europe). I discuss with her the tension between protecting trafficked girls suffering from trauma and the police's need for the girls to testify in order to obtain convictions.
Finally we discussed what impact this work, which many would not associate with nuns, had on her religious life. In a moving personal testimony, at times struggling to put her experience into words, she places it squarely in a tradition of Christian spirituality.
Thanks to Steve Pierce, Oxford Film Shed, who filmed and edited a long interview, Edmund Ross who embedded the clips in my blogsite, and the Las Casas Institute, Blackfriars, Oxford, (https://bfriars.ox.ac.uk/study/research/Las-Casas-Institute-for-social-justice for more of the interview) who invited Sister Imelda Poole to Oxford. And, of course, to Sister Imelda herself.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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