17 June, 2008

Hamas, Israel, and the European Union

I have been reading lately that Israel and Hamas have agreed a truce. However, I have also read that Israel decided to start the truce by killing six Palestinian militants, leading a Hamas spokesman to vow revenge. So which is it guys, truce or war?

In other news, the European Union is apparently about to upgrade its ties with Israel. In some notional sense, EU links to Israel are tied to Israel's human rights record, but the EU never feels that actions by Israel (such as, you know, killing people or building walls through their country) warrant any invocation of penalty clauses. At a time when even the USA's Condoleeza Rice is making vague noises about Israeli settlement expansion not being such a good idea, the EU is happy to deepen its links to that country.

15 June, 2008

Ireland's Berlusconi?

As you know, the Lisbon Treaty has been rejected by Irish voters in a referendum. This has happened despite the treaty being backed by something like 90% of the members of the Dáil, Ireland's directly elected parliamentary chamber. European treaty referendums have always seen a higher proportion of No voters than votes in the Dáil. This disconnect is even more apparent now that the treaty has been soundly rejected in a referendum with a relatively high turn-out.

One thing that was suggested about the No vote on Thursday was that people were expressing their distrust of the Irish political establishment. This may well be the case, and even if people voted on a careful weighing up of the proposals contained in the treaty, you would have to think that No voters must be somewhat dissatisfied with a political establishment that has solidly endorsed Lisbon. Ireland is, however, parliamentary democracy, and it was only last year that the Irish electorate voted in the people they now so distrust. It could be that events since the election have led to a massive erosion of trust in our political elite. My suspicion, though, is that a great many people do not really see elections as having anything to do with producing a government. Ireland has a constituency-based electoral system. My feeling is that many Irish people vote for local characters they either have a fondness for or whom they think will bring in cargo for the area or for them personally.

Lisbon's failure nevertheless suggests a considerable degree of dissatisfaction with Ireland's political elite. It may be that the country is ready for someone to tap that dissatisfaction. If that someone could make people register that it is in their power to remove the political elite, then it would be possible to mount an insurrectionary electoral campaign that would shatter the established pattern of Irish politics.

Declan Ganley of Libertas is surely the person best placed to ride the tiger. There were other players in the No campaign, but they were from fringe political movements that do not look like credible challengers for the political big time. Libertas, though, look like a political party in waiting, and it is striking how some of their posters seemed to campaign against the establishment ("Don't Trust Them!") as much as against the treaty. Ganley seems not to have ruled out the idea of running for public office, so maybe we will next year be seeing Libertas try to establish an electoral base.

People tend to think of populism as something you get in funny Latin American countries. However, many European countries have in recent years seen the emergence of populist parties led by charismatic leaders railing against the cosy consensus that dominates their countries' political life. These populist movements have enjoyed different levels of success in different countries, but in several (including Poland, the Netherlands, & Austria) they have spent some time in government. In Italy, meanwhile, such a party is now the dominant party in that country's governing coalition. It is perhaps not for nothing that, writing in yesterday's Irish Times, Stephen Collins wrote of Declan Ganley becoming the "Silvio Berlusconi of Irish politics".

I am not entirely sure that Ganley's political prospects are quite so good. My impression is that populist challenges work best where a leader can easily affect a direct relationship with the electorate. This is easy in the kind of presidential systems they love in Latin America, where people can directly vote for the populist leader. It is also something you might see in countries with parliamentary government where the electorate votes for a nation-wide list that the leader can head. It is a bit more difficult in constituency based parliamentary systems. In such countries, a populist leader has to find credible candidates to run in the constituencies, and faces always the possibility that their party cohorts may put down local roots and not function loyally as their creatures. Ireland's electoral system therefore provides some institutional blocks to Ganley's sweeping to political power.

14 June, 2008

Ethiopia Accused

The Guardian reports that Ethiopia has been accused of committing vile war crimes in an attempt to quell an insurgency in the Ogaden regime in the east of the country. Crimes against humanity including murder, mass rape, and torture have reportedly been used by the Ethiopian authorities, who are trying to crush an insurgency by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Unlike the rest of Ethiopia, the Ogaden is inhabited by ethnic Somalis, who may feel more kinship with their fellow Somalis in Somalia or Somaliland than with the inhabitants of Ethiopia's central highlands. My understanding is that the territory was acquired by the Ethiopian state during the late 19th century Scramble for Africa. Emperor Menelik II successfully played the European powers off against each other, defeating an Italian invasion force with arms supplied by the French; the Italians gave the Ogaden to Menelik so that he would not press on and invade their coastal colony of Eritrea.

More recently, the Ogaden has seen conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia, with the latter trying unsuccessfully to wrest it from Ethiopia in a war in the late 1970s. It is possible now that tensions in the Ogaden are linked to Ethiopia's current occupation of Somalia, with the ONLF possibly receiving aid from or acting in sympathy with the Somali opponents of Ethiopia. Another potential source of support for the ONLF is Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia fought a border war in the 1990s. Eritrea has been linked to the Islamist Somalis against whom Ethiopia is fighting, and also with the mysterious Oromo Liberation Front, who have set off a number of bombs in Addis Ababa recently.

Whatever the source of the Ogaden insurgency, the Ethiopian state seems determined to crush it in the most draconian fashion possible. Aside from concerns about human rights violations, the fear must be that this kind of extreme response may crush the rebels in the short term but at the cost of so undermining the Ethiopian state's legitimacy that the Ogaden people increasingly embrace separatism. The Derg regime that preceded the current one was ultimately destroyed by regional insurgencies; the same could be the fate of the current leadership, if they do not play their cards carefully.

One area in which the ruling party in Ethiopia have played their cards well is the arena of international relations. In these troubled times, it always pays to cast yourself as an enemy of Islamist terrorism, and that is just what the Ethiopian government has done. The Islamic Courts movement in Somalia against which Ethiopia is fighting is certainly Islamist, but their relationship to international Islamist terrorism is tenuous to non-existent. Nevertheless, the USA seems to have adopted Ethiopia as its new friend in the region, which may be why stories of atrocities committed in the Ogaden are not receiving that much coverage.

In the interests of fairness, I should mention that the Ogaden National Liberation Front also stand accused of human rights abuses. In saying that the Ethiopian state appears to have committed ghastly crimes against the Ogaden people, I am in no sense saying that the ONLF are a fine bunch of fellows.

If you want to read my sketchy background notes on Ethiopia, click here: Ethiopia background

Here is an article in the Guardian about Ethiopian human rights abuses in the Ogaden: Ethiopia accused of war crimes to quell insurgency

And here is the Human Rights Watch report: Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia’s Somali Region

Don't Hold Back!

Henry McDonald and Ian Traynor, writing in the Guardian:

"The no vote was boosted by concerns over sovereignty, possible tax harmonisation, neutrality, and fears that the treaty could erode Ireland's abortion ban, all issues that analysts say are fatuous."

The Enemies of Lisbon

If you have been following me around the Internet, you may have seen something like the following before. It is my attempt to categorise the different campaigns against the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland. One of the interesting things about the referendum campaign here was how there was no unified movement against the treaty, with a variety of groups running often contradictory campaigns. This seems to have proved a surprisingly successful strategy, with the claims of the different organisations striking chords with different people.

So anyway, here they are. I am assuming that the campaigning groups actually believe the claims made about Lisbon in their literature. With the exception of the pro-business rightists, the other strands of opinion have opposed every previous EU, EC, and EEC treaty.

Nationalists: People who oppose any diminution in Irish sovereignty. At the more hardcore end, these people proposed reconstituting the EU to such an extent that it would no longer exist, while others seemed like they would be happy if at least one member of the EU Commission was permanently from Ireland.

Leftists: People who oppose Lisbon for fear that it might erode workers' rights, lead to the emergence of an EU army (possibly linked to NATO), enforce privatisation of everything, etc. These people often oppose the EU generally as a rich man's club, and many of them would prefer to replace the currently constituted EU with some kind of international socialist federation.

Catholic Conservatives: People who fear that the Lisbon Treaty will lead to the legalisation of abortion. At the wilder extremes, some of these people suggest that Lisbon might lead to an enforced China-style one child policy or that we would all be forced into homosexual marriages.

The Pro-Business Right: People who fear that the Lisbon Treaty will lead to harmonisation of corporation tax across Europe (thereby diminishing Irish competitiveness etc.) or that it will smother business in red tape bureaucracy. These fellows are an interesting novelty in Irish terms, and this is the first EU referendum campaign that has seen them. However, figures within the Progressive Democrats have made vague rumblings against EU over-regulation over the last number of years, so the emergence of ths strain should not come as a total surprise.

Weirdo Conspiracy Theorists: People who fear that the Lisbon Treaty will lead to people being forcibly barcoded as part of some creepy 12-foot Lizard New World Order project. In fairness, this campaign amounted to one TV interview with Jim Corr and a couple of crazy posters fly-posted around central Dublin.

Not obviously present in the current campaign were racist nutters urging the rejection of the treaty on anti-immigrant grounds (they had some presence in the second Nice campaign).

Some of these groups can overlap or share common ground. Pretty much any of the campaigns were able to use nationalist arguments. On the other hand, the leftist position does not easily combine with that of anyone bar the nationalists and (maybe) the weirdo conspiracy theorists.

In terms of which campaigns have had the highest profile, it looked to me like most of the posters up were of a straightforwardly nationalist bent, urging people to remember the dead heroes of Ireland's past struggles for independence and to reject foreign rule. Many of these posters were actually from the organisation Cóir, apparently a front for the anti-abortion group Youth Defence (itself apparently a front for Republican Sinn Féin, splitters from the Sinn Féin of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams). Many of them were also from the Libertas organisation of Declan Ganley. Ganley was probably the main face of the No campaign, with his organisation urging a No vote on nationalist and economic grounds, in particular opposition to tax harmonisation.

It is always hard to tell which kind of arguments had the greatest traction with voters. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of people were confused by the debate on the treaty, deciding that it would be wisest to vote against it. There also seems to have been a mood of disaffection against the Irish political elite (the people who were elected in last year's general election) and also against the European Union, characterised as a remote, faceless, and undemocratic institution. In contrast, it was never that clear the treaty had anything good in it that people should positively vote for; the Yes vote seemed primarily to be more based on encouraging a vague yes yes oh yes to Europe.

12 June, 2008

Iran: cut and thrust

Recently in the pub I found myself discussing Iranian politics with my old friend "Ken". The subject of that country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came up. Many people in the West assume that, because Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran, he must be in charge of the country. This is, of course, not true. The presidency is just one of several offices in which political power resides, with the posts of Supreme Leader and chair of the Expediency Council being other loci of influence. Ali Khamenei is Iran's Supreme Leader; his title is a subtle clue to the fact that he is the pre-eminent figure in the country's political structure. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, meanwhile, is the chairman of the Expediency Council, and is arguably also a more powerful political figure than the country's president.

In some respects, it is not too surprising that people in the West typically assume that Ahmadinejad is Iran's paramount leader. He is a far more public figure than either of the other two figures, and has attracted considerable notice in the world media for his somewhat buffoonish approach to diplomacy. However, all his talk does not change the fact that it is the Supreme Leader who controls the country's military and security apparatus, with Ahmadinejad not really being in a position to act on his big foreign policy talk. The media does not cover the intricacies of Iran's internal politics, so people miss that Ahmadinejad is not the actual leader of his country.

When I thought about it a bit more, though, I reckoned that people who have paid even the slightest attention to current affairs over the years have no real excuse for seeing Ahmadinejad as the supreme figure in Iran. Before Ahmadinejad, the presidency was held by Mohammed Khatami. Khatami was elected on a reformist ticket, but his programme was largely blocked by conservative figures in the Iranian state apparatus. Khatami's inability to overcome his opponents was widely reported in the Western media, so anyone had been awake during the Khatami presidency should now be wise to the relative weakness of that office.

One other thing about Iranian politics that people have more justification for missing is that Ahmadinejad is, like Khatami before him, something of a radical. He was elected on a populist ticket after appealing to the have-nots in Iranian society, people who feel that the country's current establishment are lining their pockets at the people's expense. One thing often said is that Ahmadinejad's inflammatory approach to international relations is designed to boost his popularity in Iran, where anti-American and anti-Israeli statements go down well. It also makes it harder for his enemies to move against him, as Iran's conservatives are wary of being seen to attack someone of impeccable anti-Western credentials.

And so to current events. Brian Ulrich on American Footprints reported earlier this week that Abbas Palizdar, a parliamentary ally of Ahmadinejad, has recently made various allegations of corruption and malpractice (extra-judicial executions, that kind of thing) against figures within the country's establishment. >He (Palizar, not Brian Ulrich) has since been thrown into jail on charges including "spreading lies and disturbing public opinion". Palizdar's actions could represent an early move of Ahmadinejad's campaign for re-election or an attempt by the president to discredit his opponents in the unelected part of the state's power elite. This could play in a number of ways. It was when Khatami's allies attempted an anti-corruption drive that the Iranian establishment moved to effectively neutralise his presidency.

06 June, 2008

No More Tourists

The ongoing desire of the US government to solve the problem of foreign tourists have led to an interesting new initiative. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has revealed proposals to make would-be tourists from EU countries submit an online questionnaire 48 hours before their travel date. This will apply even to countries with which the USA has visa waiver programmes.

More: Chertoff: Register visa waiver visitors

Where I heard about this: The official architecture of paranoia

04 June, 2008

Gordon Brown - please do not send Hicham Yezza to be tortured in Algeria

I know Gordon Brown is a close reader of Hunting Monsters, so perhaps a plea from me will soften his heart.

Hicham Yezza is an administrator working in Nottingham University. He is currently due to be deported to Algeria, over some not entirely convincing immigration faux pas he may have committed. The real reason he is being deported is that he helped a Nottingham University student, Rizwaan Sabir, by printing out a document for him. The document was downloaded from the website of the Central Intelligence Agency, and purports to be a training manual for Al-Qaeda. Some busybody in Nottingham University saw the document being printed, noticed that Mr Sabir and Mr Yezza both have foreign sounding names, and did what any decent person would do, calling in the police. They unfortunately discovered that Mr Sabir is a student of International Relations who is writing a dissertation on the methods of Al-Qaeda. Just to be on the safe side, the authorities are deporting Mr Yezza, but cannot do so with Mr Sabir, as he appears to be a British national. Mr Yezza is originally from Algeria, a country where they typically torture anyone who might conceivably have anything to do with political Islam, and his prospects are rather grim should he end up there.

Just on the off-chance that anyone reading this is considering a university in which to study International Relations, it might be a good idea not to go to Nottingham, if you think that Islamist extremism might be one of your areas of study.




Deportation plan to be reviewed (BBC)

02 June, 2008

Some Links

In lieu of a substantive post, here are some links:

International Development

My old friend and quaffing partner "wwhyte" discusses international capital flows, based on a chunky PDFed article by Brad DeLong to which he links. With the US economy in trouble, there could be net capital flows to Third World countries. This may or may not be a good thing. Actual capital investment (you know, money coming in to build productive resources etc.) can often be the kind of thing less developed economies need. Hot money (fast moving liquid cash) and portfolio investment (purchasing of shares and bonds) can however be problematic in such environments, as they create instability in a system unable to manage it.

d'Hondt or D'Hondt

Matthew Søberg Shugart ponders The Great Debate – how do you spell the name of the guy who invented the d'hondt system for seat allocation in proportional electoral systems. Like most people in Ireland, I first became aware of d'hondt in the context of government formation in Northern Ireland. During the years of peace process & political paralysis, there kept being a lot of talk of "triggering d'hondt", meaning that the parties would get an allocation of the places in government based on their representation in the Assembly. They then picked the government positions one by one; I'm not sure if d'hondt covers this.

A Sensible Path on Iran

Zbigniew Brzezinski and William Odom talk about Iran, arguing that the more pressure the country is put on, the more likely it is to develop nuclear weapons. This is hardly an orginal argument, but it is well-stated here. Brzezinski & Odon also discuss countries that gave up their nuclear weapons programmes, typically without external pressure. I suppose part of what makes this all interesting is its broadly Realist bent, and its sense of the limitations of US power.

Fringe Thoughts

The brainy sociology blog of people I know. Sociology is an interesting discipline… looking at it from the outside, it all seems very leftist. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it might marginalise sociology somewhat. I wonder are there any right-wing sociologists (by which | mean not Nazis but people who aren't leftists - you know, people do not believe in the desirability or possibility of radical social change).

I am basically revealing my ignorance of sociology here, as I have not really engaged with it since I left it behind for the questionable benefits of political science and economics. I don't even know what sociologists argue about with each other. Maybe they have transcended disagreement.