Thursday, 30 October 2008

The World Will Not Change Overnight

With the US presidential election seemingly all over bar the shouting (and perhaps the Bradley Effect), the whole of this side of the Atlantic seems to be convinced that the world will be a better, more cuddly place by about 10am next Wednesday. The sad news for those desperate to be rid of Bush is of course that he is in office till January. The USA has never adopted the approach of British politics where a losing prime minister's stuff is being packed up by the removal men even as they make their concession speech.

I have to say that I think the nation suffers a little for this anticlimax. A new president, elected on a surge of hope, whether it be Democats hoping for less bombast from Obama, or Republicans desperate to distance themselves from W's brand of big government, bedroom policing conservatism, is left with nothing to do but sit and wait for 2 months. Meanwhile W remains president in name only. What foreign government wants to deal with a man who has no real power to make long term arrangements.

And a word to all those Americans who moan when the rest of the world takes an interest , or even join the campaigning in the race. You guys coined the phrase "leader of the free world" and you are right. Where America leads the rest of us have little choice but to follow. We aren't powerful enough to lead and most US policy doesn't allo for getting out of the way. So by all means ignore our opinions, but don't criticise us for holding or expressing them.

As for the result of the election, I will be fairly happy either way. Obama will hopefully be a break, for at least 2 years until the next election cycle starts, from the kind of conservatism that is worse than socialism, that intrudes into the personal, social and moral with overbearing legislation. McCain meanwhile is the only person in the entire race, including both sets of primaries, to have categorically said that torture is always wrong. Hint for the others, Torture is un-American, that's why your constitution bans it.

So all I can say to Americans is go to the ballot and make a choice, there are actually two good candidates. But please try to choose for some logical reason, not age or looks or colour, not the stupid and vindictively made claim that Obama is a muslim, not the record of a past president. Try to do what most of us, wherever we vote, forget to do in an election, vote for somebody, not against them.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

1252 Killed in Global Slaughter.

Over 1200 people were killed in the last year by their governments. That figure doesn't include genocide, or malicious or incompetent mal-administration such as that in Zimbabwe. That was just the figure of those put to death through capital punishment. The figures reported by Amnesty international make grim reading, especially if you are a proud American. The leading countries in the world for executions are places where political and social freedoms are curtailed to the point of non-existence, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. So what is the USA, one of the world's greatest democracies doing up there in the top 5?

To be fair to them, the USA comes in a rather distant fifth, with a mere 42 compared to Pakistan's 135 in 4th, and miles behind China's estimated 470. And at least the list of capital crimes in America is limited to the most serious. In Iran last year a man was stoned to death for adultery, In North Korea one was shot for, among other misdemeanors, making international phone calls. However justice is not always thorough, even in the USA. Amnesty raise the case of Michael Richard, who was executed in Texas after a court house refused to stay open just an extra 15 minutes to file his appeal.

Regardless of the procedural pettifogging, or the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the crime, today's figures horrify me. People have died, and they have been killed in the name of justice. This is a concept I can't quite grasp. What gives people, even in the name of "The People", the right to take human life? Nothing in my understanding.

Two main arguments are made in support of capital punishment, and to me they both ring hollow. First that the death penalty acts as a deterrent. If this were true then those states with the death penalty would have the lowest murder rates in the USA. This is not the case, and indeed many countries around the world that have abandoned capital punishment have lower rates for capital offences now than they did before the abolition; killing the criminals is not a deterrent. Second that it provides justice. This seems fallacious to me, justice for whom? Are we really setting out a sensible basis for our society if we say, "it is wrong to kill people, so we are going to kill you"? It sets the entire edifice upon a contradiction. So if it is not deterrence, and it is not justice, then all it can be is revenge. If you are religious, then vengeance is surely the realm of God alone. If you are not religious then tell me where the logical sense is in attritional killing.

The list of those countries still actively carrying out the death penalty is a list of banana republics, brutal dictatorships and oppressive despotisms. The USA is none of these, it does not belong on that list. Only the American people have the power to take themselves off that list, so think about it, if you are American; is this the kind of company you want to keep?

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Threat To The British Way Of Life

Jaqui Smith, the British Home Secretary, seems desperate to introduce 42 day detention without trial for terrorist suspects. This is the same government that bangs on incessantly about "Britishness", and they seem entirely to misconstrue the very nature of being British. Despite the calls from Whitehall for lessons, tests and pledges in schools, being British is not about things we do. The core values of Britain are those things we do not do. We do not rig elections. We do not torture people, and we do not imprison people without fair trial. This is not some new-fangled right, it has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, or the UN Charter. This is an ancient right, Magna Carta was first sealed in 1215, the latest version dates from 1297, 2 articles remain in force. One of these is article XXIX which states:
"We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."
Nowhere does it say "except for certain crimes", there is no wriggle room in the phrasing of "any man" to say "apart from those who look a bit Arabic".

Not only is the right to a timely trial ancient, the need for it is enforced by what happens when it breaks down. Elizabeth I and James I's persecution of catholics and protestants respectively kept England in a state of turmoil and near-revolution, Oliver Cromwell's disdain for these rights in Ireland were the cause of death and hatred that would last hundreds of years. More recently British governments suspended these basic rights to deal with the very real threat of Irish Republican terrorism. Internment was a disaster and a rampant recruiting poster for the IRA, Diplock courts were little better. The true success of dealing with terrorism came only through fair criminal trials, and political reform.

A small number of imams are preaching to a disenchanted youth, afflicted mainly by urban poverty and racism and labeled failures by failing schools, that the west, and their own government is out to get them. By denying basic rights to members of these communities we build a case for these pernicious preachers of hate. The problem runs deeper than this; as a nation we oppose human rights abuses in Burma (Myanmar), we demand rights for the oppressed Tibetans, and call for human decency in Darfur. If we ourselves cannot guarantee within the United Kingdom the rights we have so often fought for around the world, we are nothing but a nation of loud-mouthed hypocrites.

There is here and now, as there was in 1971, a genuine terrorist threat, the figures quoted by the Home Secretary of the numbers under surveillance are real (however they are not new, having been announced by various security chiefs at times dating back to 2006). However just as in 1971, to deal with this threat to our traditions by suspending those traditions is to give succor to terrorism. The threat must be countered without losing our decency, by allocating more resources to the security services, by allowing the use of properly obtained (i.e. with a warrant) phone tap and other intercept evidence in court, and most importantly by producing evidence and allowing fair defence.

So if you live in the UK take a stand NOW. Write to your MP, lobby members of the House of Lords, point out to them the great traditions of British justice, and the threat that comes from abandoning those principles; say to them "this is something that I will not do and I will not let you do it in my name". Ask them to vote against this bill when it comes before them. Only if we have British action for justice in Britain do we have any right to call for Global action for justice in Darfur.

And wherever in the world you are, take the same stand, don't let fear and hatred triumph over the rights that you and past generations have struggled for. If we do then we risk permanently disfiguring the beautiful freedom we enjoy.