31 October, 2009

Sad Tony's EU Fail

Tony Blair's attempt to become EU President has failed. President Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany seem to have decided that they were never really in favour of his candidacy, leaving Gordon Brown and Italy's charming Silvio Berlusconi as Blair's only serious backers; Ireland's Brian Cowen had also lent his support. Tony Blair can now go back to his day job of sitting on boards of companies and giving speeches to American neo-cons. In his spare time he will be able to continue his good work bringing the Israel-Palestine conflict to a conclusion.

I am starting to wonder if this President Blair thing was all some kind of complicated joke. In retrospect, how could he ever have been a serious candidate? Aside from his being a cockfarmer, he headed a euro-sceptic government that kept Britain out of the Euro and negotiated opt-outs from everything for his country. This hardly makes him an attractive person to take on the job of being Mr EU.

19 October, 2009

A flawed and one-sided post about Israel's Gaza campaign

Do you remember last January, when the Israeli army was once more blowing up everything they could in the Gaza Strip? At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether war crimes had been committed. Partly this arose from the Israeli army's indiscriminate shelling and the targeting of Gaza's infrastructure as a way of punishing everyone there for the actions of militants who fired rockets over the border. There were also reports of instances where Gazan civilians were herded into buildings by Israeli soldiers, only for these buildings to then be shelled. It was also suggested that actions by Hamas and other militant groups (firing un-aimed rockets at Israeli towns) were also contrary to the laws of war.

A United Nations fact finding mission, headed by Richard Goldstone, looked into the accusations of war crimes. Goldstone's team found that there had been extensive war crimes committed by Israeli forces, and recommended that the perpetrators be indicted for trial by an international court. The report also mentioned human rights abuses by Hamas and the other militant groups operating in Gaza, but the main thrust dealt with crimes by the Israelis.

Normally, when a UN report identifies people as having committed these kind of crimes, the wheels of international justice start turning, and people who have been accused of doing bad things find themselves on their way to trial in the Hague or before some other international tribunal. That is what happened with previous investigations with which Goldstone was involved. In this case, however, something different happened. The United States of America, and other allies of Israel (notably Germany and the United Kingdom), dismissed the report as flawed and one-sided, and procedural rules were used to prevent the report coming before the UN Security Council.

For many years now it has been the case that whenever some respected body issues a report on human rights abuses have been committed by Israel, the USA leaps in to condemn the report as "flawed" and "one-sided". Only Israel seems to receive this kind of protection, and when the same bodies issue reports on human rights abuses by other actors, the USA is happy to see them trigger an international response. That the new administration of Barack Obama is continuing in this tradition is depressing. It suggests that behind his shiny rhetoric, his government is continuing the same morally bankrupt policies of Bush and Clinton.

One argument that has been expressed for burying the Goldstone report is that it would set back the peace process if Israeli officers (and politicians?) find themselves in danger of arrest for war crimes. The idea here is that it is better to choose peace over justice, and to forget past crimes so that Israelis and Palestinians can move forward to a peaceful and happy future. This kind of argument might have some purchase in other conflict situations. In the Israel-Palestine situation, it is nonsense. There is no credible peace process at the moment. Furthermore, there is unlikely to be one until the USA demonstrates a willingness to rein in Israel. If the USA remains intent on sheltering Israeli criminals then it cannot hope to broker any kind of settlement.

Some more links:

Prospect of war crimes trials in Middle East alarms US diplomats (Irish Times, 30/9/2009)

Goldstone defends UN Gaza report (BBC, 30/9/2009)

Abbas seeks vote on Gaza report (BBC, 12/10/2009) The USA had leaned on Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, getting him to support the shelving of the Goldstone Report. As can be imagined, this played very badly within Palestine. In an effort to not look like a complete pawn of the West, he has now called for the UN Human Rights Council to vote on the report.

13 October, 2009

Turkey's Ironic Peace Statue

Here is a more human interest story about the Armenia-Turkey peace process. It is about Naif Alibeyogluin, the former mayor of Kars, in Turkey, who decided to build a monument to peace, showing two stylised figures on the brink of shaking hands. Although Kars is in Turkey, local geography means that when floodlit at night the statue is visible across the Armenian border, 40 kilometres away. The statue is meant to symbolise the Armenian and Turkish peoples overcoming their troubled past and joining together in friendship.

The fact that Mr Alibeyogluin is the former mayor of Kars is significant. Many people in Turkey are unconvinced by the desirability of friendship with Armenia. Local politician Oktay Aktas of the National Action Party asserted that one of the figures has their head bowed – taking this as signifying Turkish guilt over the Armenian genocide, an event that Turkish
law says never happened. Mr Aktas sees the statue as indicating an Armenian desire to take over eastern Turkey, and has vowed to demolish it. In recent elections, Mr Alibeyogluin found himself sidelined by his own Justice and Development party, with someone else taking the mayoral title.

The future of Mr Alibeyogluin's monument to peace remains uncertain.

see also

12 October, 2009

Turkey, Armenia, and the Armenian diaspora

Armenia and Turkey are two countries that have long had a fractious relationship, largely arising over the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which the Ottoman Empire massacred over a million ethnic Armenians. Recently, there have been moves towards some kind of rapprochement between the two countries. I do not know the details of the engagement between them, but it is interesting to note that the Armenian diaspora community (many of whom are descended from survivors of the genocide or of people who were expelled from Anatolia during it) seems to be very against the rapprochement.

Armenia's president, Serzh Sarkisian, has felt obliged to tour the Armenian diaspora, in an effort to head-off opposition to his Turkish policy. His success in this endeavour seems to be a bit mixed – earlier this week he had to be shielded by Lebanese cops from angry Lebanese-Armenian demonstrators. I do not know what exactly in the Armenia-Turkey engagement the diaspora are objecting to, but I find it interesting that the Armenian president finds it worth his while to try to secure the exile community's support for his policy. I am assuming that the Armenian diaspora does not get to vote in Armenian elections, but it still seems to be important for him to engage with them.

I am not sure if there has been any general research done on the role of diasporas in conflict situations. The other obvious one I can think of is the role of the exile Palestinian community in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I understand that ethnic diasporas have been important factors in the Sri Lankan and Aceh conflicts. Working from first principles, I can imagine a strong diaspora to be a major complicating factor in the search for a settlement. On the one hand, they have relatively little to lose by the continuance of a conflict, while oftentimes they are not going to gain anything by its resolution. Diaspora interests will often diverge from those of the non-exile community, so a settlement that works for one community could not be acceptable to the other.

That is not to see diasporas as "bad", or as groups that have to be marginalised or blocked if a conflict is to be settled. If they are in a position to block settlements, then they should be engaged with as another actor in the conflict. Maybe it would be best to break the fiction of their sharing an identity of interests with the home community, and instead give them some kind of separate representation at negotiations. This might depend on the specifics of any conflict.

Stop press: Armenia and Turkey today signed an accord, though they were unable to agree a statement on it.

some random links:


Lebanon Armenians angry over planned Turkey deal

Armenians anxious over Turkish plan

07 October, 2009

Europe's Malaise

Ireland voted last Friday to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, having voted last year to reject it. My understanding is that Ireland is the only country that has voted on the Treaty, with tradition and constitutional quirks here meaning that we always get to vote on EU treaties that other countries nod through their national parliaments. One problem, of course, with referendums is that you can never be quite sure that people will vote the right way; this is the second time that the Irish electorate have not played ball, and the second time they were then obliged to troop out and vote on the issue again. Whatever about the substantive issue of whether the Lisbon Treaty is a good idea or not, the whole process leaves a nastily undemocratic taste in the mouth. What is the point of voting on something if only a Yes vote is accepted?

When Ireland voted against Lisbon last year, there was a suggestion in some quarters that we had become a nation of ingrates – trousering the EU cash that had lifted the country out of penury only to stick two fingers up when the organisation tried to streamline its decision-making procedures. There might be something to this, but it ignores one crucial fact – the poor track record of EU treaties at referendums in other countries. Whenever the citizens of EU countries are given the opportunity to vote on any EU treaty, or the EU constitution, they have a marked tendency to vote No. If rejecting EU treaties is a mark of Euro-scepticism then the Irish people are no more Euro-sceptic than anyone else.

Too much can maybe be read into people's willingness to block EU treaties. Oftentimes the public seems to vote on the basis of things that have nothing to do with the treaty at hand – last time round, some Irish people rejected Lisbon out of a false belief that it would institute conscription here, while some French voters reputedly voted down the EU Constitution in 2005 thinking that it would lead to Turkey joining the Union. But still, the willingness of people to vote against EU treaties based on things that are not in them betokens a fundamental lack of trust in EU institutions and their leaders. This is a serious problem, but I am not sure what can be done about it.

One thing that is sometimes thrown out about the EU is its lack of democratic accountability. This argument is somewhat overstated – it is often said or implied that some shadowy Elders of Brussels make all EU decisions, when the main EU decisions are taken by the Council of Ministers or the European Council. These both comprising people who represent the governments that took office in the member states after democratic elections. Many of their decisions have to be approved by the European Parliament, but that body is an interesting example of how a body can be directly elected and yet still have little or no democratic legitimacy. With the European Council and Council of Ministers, we are looking at people who got where they are as a result of elections, but is still a bit remote from the public will.

One example of how remote the EU decision making apparatus is from the public is the case of a new office created by the Lisbon Treaty – the president of the European Council. The actual powers of this office have been left a bit vague, and the president's main role will be to chair Council meetings (as is, the chair of the European Council rotates every six months). It has been reported that the favourite for this new office is none other than Tony Blair. This is, frankly, an astonishing development. It defies all common sense that Bush's warmongering sock puppet should be given any role by the European Union, let alone one that could lead to people calling him the President of Europe. There is, furthermore, Blair's status as the former head of a rejectionist government who refused to join either Schengen or the Euro. Yet, it is not clear at all how concerned European citizens could go about blocking Blair's accession, or how they could vote to prevent it.

Again, it is difficult to see institutional changes would make things better here. A directly elected president of the Council would be a bad idea, and would in any case piss off those people who moan about the EU going all federal on us. If the president of the European Council does nothing more than chair council meetings then arguably the members of the council should be the ones to pick who holds the office, as they are the ones who have to put up with their choice. But it still seems outrageous that Blair could end up with such a prestigious EU post, even if it is not clear what institutional changes could prevent it. This is maybe the problem with EU institutions in a nutshell – their faults are obvious, but what would improve them is less so.