Friday, July 29, 2005

Italy v. Terrorism

Italy will be the next target of terrorism. This is what 85% of italians believe according to Corriere della Sera, one of the most authorative newspapers. It is hard to refute this belief. Italy is one of the main allies of the USA in the war in Iraq. Plus, the recent attacks in Egypt seemed to be aimed at italian tourists.
This wave of fear has led the governement to put on the table a proposal of an anti-terrorists (decree) law, a sort of italian PATRIOT act. The bill seems to be at this stage a mere abstract proposal so far because of the disagreement between the opposition and the majority, and also within the majority as the Northern Ligue claims a tough anti-fundamentalist law.

Today, 29 July 2005, the government is likely to reach an agreement on its Italian PATRIOT act. Here are the main points of the act (In Italian; I will provide later an English version).

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The purpose of private television

In a book published in 2004, Patrick Le Lay, CEO of the biggest private television station in France (TF1) wrote:

TF1’s job is to help Coca-Cola, for example, sell its product. (…) For an advertisement message to be perceived, the brain of the spectator must be available. The purpose of our shows is to make it available: that is to say, entertain it, relax it in order to prepare it between two advertisements. What we are selling to Coca-Cola, is temporal space of available human brain.

(Les dirigeants face au changement, Editions du Huitième jour, Paris, 2004)

What is more amazing here? The fact that this is private television’s well self understood function ? That the CEO of such a company would be honest enough to make a completely realistic description of it? Or, finally, that a company can publicly assume such a function without losing a large number of spectators?

Antonio Molfese points out that Le Lay’s argument is not : 1/ that TV needs advertisement to live, 2/ that, as a private company, its purpose is to make profits which mostly come from advertisement. He is saying that the purpose of the company is to sell available human brain.

That is not necessarily in contradiction with 2/ as we can conceive that its purpose is to make profits and that the best way to do it is selling mushy brain space. In that case, profit is the ultimate goal while, mushy brains is the instrument.

However, that is one possibility; the other would be that mushy brain is the ultimate goal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Britain: The Brand

It was with a sense of incredulity that I read in today's Guardian that VisitBritain, the government QUANGO ("quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation") charged with the task of attracting foreign tourism to the country had laid on a special breakfast for the UK's first ever "delegation of official Chinese tourists", telling them that what they would be enjoying during their stay would be "Britain: The Brand". Quite apart from the startling rhetoric of this assertion (we will not show you "authentic" Britain, but rather Britain the Commodity. This is certainly a new direction in tourism strategy; we can only wonder what the Chinese made of it), my sense of disbelief was awakened by the contents of the "goody bag" offered to our guests in order to cement the desired image of "Britain" in their minds. It contained:

1 x Harrod's carrier bag
1 x can of London's Pride beer
1 x cuddly lion (?)
1 x CD of Chicago - The Musical (??)
1 x mug

I doubt even people from London will recognise themselves or their country much amongst that lot. I know, I know; a well-balanced Scotsman is one with a chip on both shoulders. Still...

Monday, July 25, 2005

Update on London Tube Shooting

A quick update to my post below. The Guardian has an interesting, if brief, leader on the subject today, which illustrates nicely just how many questions remain to be asked about this shooting, and just how the evidence doesn't seem to add up. Firstly, it now seems that De Menezes, the victim, lived in a block of flats under surveillance - not a "house", as originally indicated. Also, he took the bus, accompanied by the policemen, to the tube station - yet they chose not to challenge him at this stage. Perhaps an odd decision, given that some of the recent bombings and attempted bombings have been on buses.

Certainly, we need to know more before condemning the officers involved; most importantly, to what extent they were acting on the evidence in front of them, and to what extent they had prior (if, apparently, deeply flawed) intelligence stating that De Menezes was a suicide bomber. The investigations (both internal and external) must deal with these questions fully and frankly - and not hesitate to put the matter to criminal trial if, as seems quite possible, the facts warrant such a course of action. In the meantime, we can but agree with another writer in the Guardian, who notes:

The dominant mood that we are better safe than sorry is understandable. But after Friday's incident we are left with one man dead, nobody safe and everybody sorry. If there's one thing we've learned over the past two years, it's that a pre-emptive strike with no evidence causes more problems than it solves.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Counter-terrorism and the right to life

A chilling example of how terrorist attacks can allow normally high standards to slip to unacceptably low levels - indeed, perhaps to the level of the terrorists themselves - has been provided by the recent killing by plainclothes policemen in London of a Brazilian man on the tube. The man left a house that the police had under surveillance for suspected links to terrorism; this, coupled with the facts that he was wearing a large jacket on a warm day and that he ran when the police ordered him to stop and drew their weapons, seems to have been the only evidence available that the victim presented a threat to the public (would it be overly cynical to suggest his darker skin tone also had a part to play?). Circumstantial in the extreme.

The police have since confirmed that the victim was completely unconnected with the recent terrorist attacks in London.

Even more surprising, if eyewitness accounts prove to be accurate, is the manner of the execution. These state that the police first pushed the victim to the floor, before shooting him five times (in the back). It seems, then, that they had him under their physical control, outnumbered and on the ground, and still felt that five bullets were necessary to ensure the safety of the public. Certainly, we must not forget that the job of the police in such circumstances is fiendishly difficult, as crucial judgement calls must be made within a split second time frame. And, as the Independent notes, their actions in this case were fulyl in line with the rules laid out under "Operation Kratos", Scotland Yard's strategy for dealing with suicide bombers. However, on this occasion they seem to have got it badly wrong - resulting in the public, extra-judicial execution of an entirely innocent man.

This, it seems to me, is the best conclusion that we can reach on the facts as they are available to us at present. Certainly, the police may be justified in taking violent action, even if the victim turns out to be innocent, if only the grounds for suspicion are strong; where they proceed to kill the suspect even when they apparently have him under control, they must be absolutely watertight - not simply that the man is a terrorist, but that he is capable of performing an act of terrorism that only his immediate death can avoid. Such watertight gorund for suspicion at least seem to have been wholly absent from the present case.

Another interesting facet of this incident has been the political rehtorics of blame. Only days after senior government figures dismissed as absurd (even as dangerous) the idea that the illegal war in Iraq had anything to do with the London bombings, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston (a Labour Party member) argued, in response to the shooting on the tube, that:

The police acted to do what they believed necessary to protect the lives of the public... This tragedy has added another victim to the toll of deaths for which the terrorists bear responsibility.

We will, according to this, be accepting no responsibility for anything on any grounds. The Metropolitan Police, however, have done so, noting their "full responsibility" for the incident and expressing "deep regrets" to the family of the victim:

We are now satisfied that he was not connected with the incidents of Thursday, 21 July 2005... For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy and one that the Metropolitan Police service regrets.

It may not, however, be a tragedy; it may well be a crime, and we need a full, public criminal investigation in order to establish this. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of turning running away from the police - for those of "different" skin colour at least - into a capital offence; and worse, one in which no right to a hearing, fair or otherwise, exists.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Bush seeks to retain "right" to treat detainees in a "cruel, inhuman and degrading" manner

The Washington Post reports today that Bush is threatening to veto a bill sponsored by Republican Senators that aims, amongst other things, to ban members of the U.S. Military from engaging in the "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, fearing that it may interfere with his ability "to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack." This language obviously recalls both the U.N. Convention against Torture (which the US has ratified), and also the War Crimes provisions of the Rome Statute of the ICC (which, of course, it hasn't). The latter, at least, is something of a red herring in this case, or at best a brick wall; the War Crimes provisions in Article 8 of the ICC Statute, of course, refer to the Geneva Conventions - precisely the treaties that the US exectuive strenuously denies are applicable to the inmates of Guantanamo. It is not, however, unreasonable to observe that, in conducting the "war" on terror, Bush seems quite prepared to resort to war crimes.

However, it may (to the naive, at least) seem surprising that America seeks to retain the right to perform actions contrary to an international treaty to which it is a party - the long title of which, after all, is the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. They have, however, made a number of reservations to the Torture Convention, including one to the effect that Article 16 (which deals with lesser forms of cruel and inhuman treatment than torture) was only binding on them to the extent that the acts involved were already prohibited by 5th, 8th and/or 14th ammendments to the US Constitution (of these, the 8th seems most salient). Its international legal obligations in this regard are thus, under this Convention at least, no greater than its domestic ones.

Some interesting issues arise nonetheless. Firstly, although it is certainly true that Article 5 of the Convention compels states to "take steps to establish jurisdiction" over acts of torture when, amongst other things "the alleged offender is a national of that State", Aritcle 16 (1) - which deals with cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment - establishes what appears to be a significantly lower level of obligation. In relevant part, it reads simply that:

Each State Party shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article 1, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

The precise legal status of US jurisiction over Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is, of course, the subject of some controversy; particularly, as Scott has noted, over the habeas rights of the detainees. However, as the Supreme Court noted in Rasul,

By the express terms of its agreements with Cuba, the United States exercise "complete jurisdiction and control" over the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and may continue to exercise such control permanently if it so chooses.

This seems fairly clear; it would be hard to argue that Guantanamo was not under US jurisdiction in the sense of Article 16 of the Torture Convention, and that the US thus, by refusing to "undertake to prevent" cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in that territory is in breach of its international legal obligations; not merely under the Torture Convention itself, but under customary international law, if the many voices (including, significantly, the UK House of Lords in the Pinochet case) claiming that the treaty rules now represent norms of custom are to be believed.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Depressed France celebrates national day

Last week, the 14th of July, it was France’s national day. A sad day if you were listening to the dominant media. More like the birthday of a middle-aged woman who refuses to say her age than the celebration of the Nation. The Nation is, they say, depressed. How can that happen? How does a Nation have feelings? I don’t know but apparently it does, like you and me. This Nation, they explain, is depressed because in all fields that count, its performances are ridiculously low. The French artist have lost their imagination, the politicians lie more than ever, our industry is not productive, our workers don’t want to work, our philosophers are all dead (recently, the last one, P. Ricoeur), even the National football team is having a hard time qualifying for the world cup in Germany and to top it off, London rather than Paris, was awarded the Olympic games. It isn’t all, the People, the very earth of the Nation, are depressed too… depressed and depressing! Or so they say. Politically they are drawn on one side by utopic Trotskyists and on the other by far right fascists. They look to the past rather than the future, thus refusing the Eur Constitution. But most of all they are responsible for the dramatic results of the economy. Like all the European People, they don’t consume enough. Bad citizens, bad consumers who won’t buy, buy and buy more: a new car, the latest close, and the indispensable goods that fill our beautiful supermarkets (the national pride, those supermarkets that colonise the world).

Even if you’re joyful and not depressed at all on a splendid summer morning, once you’re done reading the papers you want to go back to bed and sleep it off.

The 14th July comes around in that pathetic context. But I don’t care, I know that this “Nation” they’re talking about doesn’t really exist and I’m glad people don’t consume so much crap. Plus, it’s the Tour de France, I’ve got the day off and I’ll get to watch those heroes climb beautiful mountains. However even on the Tour de France, that Nation (I’m beginning to think that maybe it does exist…) is depressed. The commentators are telling us so. Because, on top of all the rest, not one single Frenchman has been able to secure a stage win. During the whole afternoon they are almost praying for that to change on national day. So when David Moncoutié, leaves his companions behind and seems about to make their dream come true, they lose their grip. We hear roosters, see national flags and are told how the National Pride will be restored, they almost sang La Marseillaise. You’d think the Nation itself was pedalling to victory.

I wasn’t depressed at the beginning of the day but now I am. If it wasn’t bad enough being forced to believe that the Nation exists and finding out that it has feelings, I’m afraid above all to learn, the next day, in the papers, how that lunatic individual’s mood can change just because David Moncoutié beat Armonstrong.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

UK soldiers to stand trial for war crimes

Three British soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment are to stand trial for war crimes, following the death of a detainee under their custody in 2003. The men in question have been charged with "inhuman treatment"; other men have been charged with manslaughter and negligent performance of duties, but the former crime is the only one that comes under the heading of "war crimes", under the International Criminal Court Act of 2001. Article 51 of that Act explicitly incorporates the crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC into English and Welsh law, and extends jurisdiction to acts committed "outside the United Kingdom by a United Kingdom national, a United Kingdom resident or a person subject to UK service jurisdiction".

This decision is to be applauded. Some may complain that the investigation has taken too long - at two years, it probably has - whereas others may bemoan the fact that they are to be tried before British courts martial, and not the ICC itself. Certainly, much propaganda mileage could have been got out of such a move - proof that the British are willing to take accountability before independent international courts seriously even for their own soldiers, and that the ICC is not simply an instrument of "victors justice". However, it probably doesn't make much sense to go down that road. Firstly, the crimes involved - although of a very serious nature individually - are probably on too small a scale to go before the ICC; certainly, if all such incidents were to be referred to it, the Court would very quickly become overwhelmed and unworkable. Also, only the crimes of "inhuman treatment" are considered war crimes, and thus as potentially under the ICC's jurisdiction: the ostensibly more serious charges in this case, those of the manslaughter of the detainee, would thus not be justiciable by the international tribunal, and would have to be heard separately. However, the three servicemen will become the first UK soldiers to be face charges of war crimes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

UK courts human rights

A conviction this week for grave human rights abuses comitted abroad represents a positive step in combatting impunity. Faryadi Sarwar Zardad was yesterday convicted in the UK for torture and hostage-taking committed in Afghanistan between 1991 and 1996. His conviction is the first of its kind in the UK (and possibly anywhere) - neither the accused or victims were UK nationals, and the acts did not take place in the UK.

The (in)famous Belgian 'anti-atrocity' law of 1993 allowed anyone to initiate war crimes proceedings against an accused who did not need to be present in Belgium, for specified crimes committed anywhere against anyone - in short, the law required no nexus to the alleged crime. The law was amended following international pressure - needless to say, States did not approve of such a threat to their sovereignty (the US for example threatened to move the NATO headquarters from Brussels).

The Zardad judgment is not yet available. However, the court most probably had jurisdiction for proceedings under the Torture Convention, so this is not an example of exercise of universal jurisdiction under customary international law. Neither is it an example of the exercise of universal jurisdiction in the strict sense, since the UK was under an obligation to prosecute or extradite Zardad under Article 7 of the Torture Convention. According to Judges Higgins, Kooijmans and Buergenthal in the Arrest Warrant case, the jurisdictional basis in cases such as this "is really an obligatory territorial jurisdiction over persons, albeit in relation to acts committed elsewhere." Obligation is the key word here. The UK was obliged to prosecute in the absence of an extradition request by Afghanistan, whereas Belgium had the discretion to issue arrest warrants pretty much at will under its 1993 law, hence indictments for Bush etc.

The Zardad case does not pose the same kind of threat to stability/sovereignty as the Belgian 'anti-atrocity' law, so is more realistic as a precedent. It is potentially evidence of States taking their international obligations more seriously. If the practice is followed, Zardad, although less radical than the Belgian law, could be a more significant in the long term for the enforcement of international law.

The London bombings and political discourse

There can be no doubt that, when terrorist attacks occur, the level and quality of political discourse on related issues change immediately. This is only natural: the urgency and fear that must characterise the aftermath of an atrocity can not but colour events, ideas and policies in a different light than the more abstract, ex ante concern for a blast that might not come. In some cases, it can even be a good thing, encouraging politicians to seek genuine compromise beyond the realm of petty points-scoring; certainly, cross-party agreement on serveral contentious issues of national security law and policy has been fairly rapidly forthcoming in the wake of what happened in London; the extent to which this should be applauded is, of course, a matter for the analysis of the detail of that agreement itself, and not the alacrity with which it was reached. However, in most cases, it would be hard to conclude that the quality of political debate is improved by the changed "psycho-sociological" conditions that necessarily acompany an actual attack.

This conclusion was confirmed yesterday in no uncertain terms. An independent thinktank on foregin affairs, Chatham House, published a series of brief reports on the topic of Security, Terrorism and the UK (available here). The first of these, entitled "Riding Pillion for Tackling Terrorism is a High-Risk Policy", co-written by one of the leading authorities on liberal state responses to terrorism, Professor Paul Wilkinson, has been met with much righteous indignation by the UK government. In the most critical passage, after noting that the general UK policies of "Prevention, Pursuit, Protection and Preparedness" are "eminently sensible", the authors go on to suggest that:

A key problem with regard to implementing 'Prevention' and 'Pursuit' is that the UK government has been conducting counter-terrorism policy 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US, not in the sense of being an equal decision-maker, but rather as riding as pillion passenger compelled to leave the steering to the ally in the driving seat. There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the Al-Qaeda network's propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, causing a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, and deflected resources and assistance that could have been deployed to assist the Karzai government and to bring bin Laden to justice. Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign.

These remarks take on more significance when considered in the light of the report as a whole, much of which focuses on the skill and experience of the UK armed forces in dealing with domestic terrorism. And the report can hardly be said to be critical of the fact that the UK has taken a "leading role" recently in the fight against international terrorism; quite the contrary, in fact - the only criticism in this regard is aimed at the relatively laissez-faire attitude to the promotion and funding of terrorism in the Middle East in London during the nineties. The report thus makes, in a tone that certainly doesn't smack of disapproval, the utterly commonsensical observation that:

The UK is at particular risk because it is the closest ally of the United Staes, has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and has taken a leading role in international intelligence, police and judicial cooperation against Al-Qaeda an in efforts to suppress its finances.

The criticism, then, is emphatically not that the UK has taken strong action against international terrorism (as anyone familiar with Wilkinson's work should know immediately); rather, it is the manner in which this action that has been taken, the manner in which decision-making power has been surrendered, that comes under (fairly moderate) attack.

All of which makes the unsophisticated, even shrill, response from the UK government particularly disappointing. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, professed to be "astonished that Chatham House is now saying that we should not have stood shoulder to shoulder with our long-standing allies in the United States" (Cowards!) and that "The time for excuses for terrorism is over" (Appeasers!). Perhaps even less helpfully, the Defence Secretary John Reid then weighed in with the following contribution:

The idea that somehow by running away from the school bully, then the bully will not come after you is a thesis that is known to be completely untrue by every kid in the playground and it is also refuted by every piece of historical evidence that we have.

This is lazy, lazy thinking; too lazy, I am afraid, for such obviously intelligent men. The unfortunate conclusion can only be that these responses, and others like them - designed, as they are, to put a stop to reasoned debate and critique through shrill finger-pointing and crass reductionism - must be judged on that particularly unpleasant propaganda scale that runs from the downright dishonest to the cynically manipulative. Take your pick.


... for things having been so slow on here over the last couple of weeks. We have not yet learned how to stagger our holidays (particularly difficult, unfotunately, when we are going on them together). Hopefully, normal service should be resumed from here on in.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


The UN Security Council reform debate has resurfaced this week with Brazil, Germany, Japan and India introducing a draft resolution before the General Assembly proposing an expansion of the Security Council from 15 to 25 members. 6 of the 10 new seats would go to permanent members, although with no veto power.

The US announced on Tuesday that it believed any vote on reform just now would be too divisive. More worrying perhaps is the prospect of the resolution being passed. Since Security Council reform has been mooted for so long, the danger is that such expansion would be seen to end the debate. Turning reform into a numbers game not only risks making consensus near-impossible. It also ignores fundamental problems, and misses an opportunity for more meaningful reform.

Why not do away with the veto altogether? The most debilitating problem for the Security Council has been use of the veto. Not the non-existent 'unreasonable veto' of France in the Iraq fracas, but more the vetoes used to paralyse the Council during the Cold War, and preventing effective action to tackle violence in the Middle East (to name two obvious examples). Or if the veto stays, why not make it a collective veto as suggested by some? Or a system of negative consensus? The draft resolution contemplates delaying 15 years before any decision on whether to even grant the proposed new permanent members a veto.

Or what about doing away with permanent members altogether? The other main criticism levelled at the Security Council has been that it is not representative. Japan and Germany have at least as much (if not more) of a claim as France to permanent membership on the basis of political and economic clout. And the inclusion of Brazil and an African country would introduce more global representation. But why not take the subjectivity out of the equation altogether and remove permanent member status? In an organisation, and within a legal system, based on sovereign equality, doesn't such an approach make sense?

Obviously reform will be very difficult to effect, ultimately requiring amendment of the UN Charter (and so giving the current P-5 veto power). But surely they could have done better than this?

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Restitution of Property

In many East European countries, post-Communist governments enacted legislation that partially gave back property to its pre WW II owners. This blog entry will not concentrate on the legal modalities of such restitution rather it will focus on its philosophical background.

The main rationale of property restitution is that post-WW II communist regimes, through the nationalization process, deprived the rightful owners of their property in a illegal manner. Some democratic regimes, as post-WW II France for example, also introduced progressive tax against those who gained wealth between 1939 and 1944. communist regimes indiscriminately nationalized property from all those whose property exceeded certain proscribed limit.

From a strictly legal positivist-position it is difficult to argue whether such action is illegal, since one can argue that the communist regimes did not build their respective systems in continuity with the old bourgeois regimes. From a moral point of view it is difficult to firmly assert that such action is right. One can agree to the fact that forceful nationalization is not the way to achieve substantial equality (relative equality of wealth) in a society. Nevertheless, communist regimes drew legitimacy from a revolutionary morality that aspired to correct injustices of the past, from their point of view nationalization was morally right. The goal of this blog-entry is not, however, to establish whether such actions are moral or not, rather its goal is to concentrate on the morality of property restitution by the post-communist regimes.

From a practical and moral point of view it is very difficult to balance between the claims of the current owners and those of the previous owners. Take for example a piece of land or a building that previously belonged to a person A, in 1944 communists nationalized his building and allowed several families to move in, in the mean time, the inhabitants of various flats changed so that we have a situation where present owners or tenants (depending on the country) do not have anything to do with initial nationalization. How is the state to decide in this particular situation, usually utilitarian considerations prevail, the claim of 40 voters is stronger than the claim of 1 voter. Should the state go against such democratic logic and try to push forward the logic of restitution with no compromise: I believe not and this is for two reasons: first, pragmatic (democratic) reason was already expressed the other is moral.

Almost every revolutionary abrupt change of regime tries to indulge into social engineering of some sort and takes away property from some and gives it to the others, why is the democratic post-Communist regime to correct injustice inflicted to the property owners by the Communists, they could look further back into the past. Such action is however, bluntly socially damaging. The only moral merit of restitution of property is that it can potentially bring back the social equilibrium, disturbed by the violent revolutionary take over of power, the only way to establish whether such action is wanted by the great majority of the society is the democratic rationale, thus the post-Communist governments are to implement property restitution laws in the way desired by the majority of the population, if necessary through a process of referendum.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

the abstract citizen and the consumer

The traditional French republican ideology requires that individuals be perceived by public institutions as citizens. No less, no more. Thus, the State and all other public actors should not give any recognition to identity factors such as regional or foreign culture, race, religion, sex, place of birth etc.

This model of an abstract citizen was born during the French revolution in reaction to the hierarchised society of the Ancien Regime. The dominant intention was certainly to bring about a form of broad social equality. But notwithstanding these intentions, the abstract citizen turned out to be Parisian, white and Christian, Jewish or atheist. Of course all individuals don’t meet theses standards and for those who don’t it’s much harder. Getting elected is much more difficult, exercising religion is much more complicated (fewer places of cult, no religious vacation days...); even when buying stamps at the post office, it is often the case that the civil servant reminds them that they aren’t a sufficient abstraction of a citizen. The kind of republican equality underlying this concept of abstract citizenship is traditionally a left-wing idea. Thus the French left-wing has always refused to introduce policies of affirmative action. The French right-wing has also become republican during the 20th century and they refused affirmative action as well, until now. Sarkozy, possibly the most populist and racist main-stream politician that we’ve had under the 5th Republic is in favor of establishing such policies. How strange does that sound from the US?

In the private sphere the citizen turns into the consumer. But since there hasn’t been a revolution in this sphere, the consumer is not abstract; he’s got a face, a skin color, a religion, an accent and a culture. But guess what? They match those of the citizen. This white, Christian, Jewish or atheist, Parisian consumer is all over TV and on the too many commercial advertisements that pollute the streets of this country. You would think that black people don’t buy close, that Muslims eat pork and that we all live in Paris.

TV and real-life are parallel worlds that in this case have nothing to do with one another. In the metro for example, which is so full of commercial advertisements that it makes me want to puke (excuse my French), if your eyes shift from the typical consumer on the wall to the real life people around you, you’ll think there is a mistake, that the geniuses that plan the commercial campaigns are missing something.

Recently the mechanisms of the market started to overturn the discriminatory reflexes of the private sphere. Some people realized that discrimination was causing financial losses as whole portions of the population were not concerned by their campaigns. Now the main distributors of meat is commercializing hallal steaks, one of the main chains of hair dressers is opening exotic salons (sic) where blacks can get their hair cut properly. On TV we’re starting to see black and Arabic people commentating the news; on the walls of the metro and on TV, some are selling such things as glasses. Even better, it now happens that in movies some are just there as “the abstract citizen” as opposed to the juvenile delinquent, the dancer, the rapper or the gifted athlete.

I must say that as a left-wing partisan I feel there is something a little strange with the idea that Sarkozy and the mechanisms of the market will, in part, save us from our racist left-wing republican demons. The capitalist republic works in mysterious ways...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Padanian Animals are back

Today, the Italian President of the Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, delivered a very pro-european speech in front of the European Parliament. While he was prasing the euro as an achievement of the Union, some member of the Northern Ligue, the secessionist party of the North of Italy, interrupted him shouting against the Euro and Europe and waiving their padanian flags. After some moments of tension, they were accompanied out of the parliament.

Padanian animals are back. It is a dying animal, which would make use of the dirtiest strategies in order to attract attention on its stinking corpse.

The context can help understanding the reasons of this behaviour. National elections will be held in April/May 2006. The Northern ligue has customarily attacked the central Roman government to win votes in its electorate. Being in a governmental position at the moment, this strategy cannot work very well. Thus, the main target has become the European Union, and in particular the Euro.

Attracting a deeply xenohobic and ignorant electorate from the wealthy North, North-East, the Norther Ligue is a deeply populistic party, which resorts to violent and vulgar attacks.

As said before, padanians are dying animals. Their charismatic leader, Umberto Bossi, had last year a debilitating stroke, which keeps him away from the political scene. Likewise, the head of their coalition, Silvio Berlusconi, is in a very weak position after five years of disastrous ruling. Berlusconi himself promised few days ago a campaign of personal attacks and insult against the left.

This is the first of many populist, demagogic, events that will take place between now and the future elections. And it is higly regrettable.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Olympic Competition v Political Competition

In Shangai, Paris and London are fighting their last battle in order to secure the organisation of the Olympic Games 2012. Once again, France and UK are face to face, few weeks after the crisis of the European Constitution.

While the competition for the Olympic games is healthy and just, the competition on the prevailing model for Europe is not. Few weeks ago, I praised Tony Blair's speech in front of the European Parliament.
I still agree very much with him that Europe should take concrete steps to go down the economic reforms as set by the Lisbon agenda. Projects for Europe are not lacking, what lacks is an efficient implementation.

What Blair did not mention, however, is the need of reform of European Institutions. As Tocqueville noticed in 1845, writing about his experience in the Swiss Confederation, the weakness of this country [Switzerland] lies in the weakness of its confederal executive, unable to command over its cantons. I think the same can be said for the European Executive, which is now in a position of stagnation and weakness.

According to Tocqueville, the reason of that weakness were to be found in the Federal Law (the federal pact) of 1815, which was an international treaty rather than a Constitution; this pact was regarded by the small cantons as the intangible guarantee of their sovereingty, and by the bigger States surrounding Switzerland as the rigid contract that could be more easily broken in case of a litigation with the small confederal country. Even from this point of view, a parallel could be drawn with contemporary Europe, when regarded from the global perspective.

Toqueville believed that the Swiss federal system could be reformed, instead of turned into a unitary state, as many claimed. History tells us that in 1848, after the civil war of the Sonderbund in 1947, Swiss managed to give itself a proper federal constitution with a strong executive that managed to keep together its different cantons.

Today Europe needs a proper Constitution, with a strong executive able to keep together its parts. The reasons of its crisis can be found in its weak and divided executive. National interests keep prevailing over European integration. This should not be the case, and Tony Blair, as head of the European Council, should act in the name of Europe and its interest.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The USA and Italian Sovereignty

A quick update on Lorenzo's post below, concerning the alleged involvement of the CIA in the extradjudicial kidnap and deportation to Egypt of the Milanese Imam, Abu Omar. Berlusconi's government has explicitly denied any prior knowledge, let alone authorisation, of the operation, referring in the process to reports in the Washington Post (see here - registration required) and other US newspapers to the contrary. Although the Post also (conveniently) suggests that both governments had agreed to deny all knowledge should information of the operation become public.

The Italian government has expressly refuted the allegations contained in that article. If true, it is very clearly a violation of international law, with echoes of the manner in which Adolf Eichmann was captured on Argentinian territory by Israeli special forces. Israel and Argentina, however, were able to sort out their differences diplomatically, and as such the Israeli courts felt no need to entertain the question of the effect of the illegal kidnap may have had on their jurisdiction to hear the case. The international legal wrong had been settled "out of court", as it were, and was thus held to be of no bearing in the case. Scant consolation, certainly, to the kidnapee, but probably legally sound; the relevant international duty is, after all, owed by states to states in terms of respect for sovereign equality, and not to individuals in terms of a right not to be kidnapped.

The US supreme court has, on the other hand, dealt with the issue, in its judgment - viewed by many as deeply flawed - in the (in)famous United States v. Alvarez-Machain case in 1992. Here a Mexican doctor, accused of using his skills in order to prolong the life of a US DEA agent who was being tortured by drug cartels, was kidnapped with the complicity of the US authorities and brought to the States to face trial. He claimed that the illegal manner of his arrest and deportation, coupled with the involvement of the US authorities, meant that the US courts lacked jurisdiciton over him. The Supreme Court rejected this, holding essentially that the manner in which a suspect is brought before them has no effect on its jurisdiction to hear the case. Alvarez-Machain was later acquitted.

There are, of course, significant differences as well as parallels between these cases and that of Abu Omar. Perhaps the most important of these being that both Eichmann and Alvarez-Machain were abducted with a view to placing them on very public trial. In the case of Omar, on the other hand, the rationale seems to have been quite the opposite - to take someone away from the public eye and from any possibility of a trial. Add to this the allegations of torture - prohibited both by treaty and custom, and veiwed by many as having crystallised into a peremtory norm of international law - that routinely accompany instances of "extraordinary rendition", and the issue of the potential jurisdiction of any court becomes murkier still. This, of course, is purely academic, as it seems that a trial was the very last thing on the minds of the CIA officers involved. Interesting to note, however, that the Milanese magistrate has complained that Abu Omar's kidnap has been a serious setback for attempts to combat terrorism in Italy, where he was under more conventional forms of investigation and surveillance for his alleged involvement in terrorism.

Again, however, the international legal question may quickly become of little practical import, if it is not already so. Meetings between Berlusconi and the US ambassador have resulted in some very formulaic pronouncements concerning the "full respect now and in the future" for Italian sovereingty on the part of the US. Reading these, it seems most likely that the Italian government plans not to make too much of a fuss over the incident, much as happened in the Eichmann case - although some opposition politicians have pointed out the absurdity of accepting US assurances that they have always fully respected Italian sovereignty and will continue to do so, in the light of the nature of the specific allegations. More importantly, however, the scope of public international law has widened considerably since the Eichmann incident. No longer are duties owed only between states; many now argue that individuals (thanks, in large part, to the importance of international human rights law) now have a limited subjectivity in the international legal system. If so, such blatant violations of the central rights to due process, not to mention the serious allegations of torture, must in themselves make the US liable under international law, regardless of the acquiesence or otherwise of the Italian government.

A moot point, of course, when evasion of the law and legal processes was the entire rationale for the operation in the first place...

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Spain, Gay Marriages and Constitutional Dilemmas

Today, the Gay Pride in Madrid will celebrate the new statute permitting gays and lesbian to marry (the act of parliament will be enforced starting from toomorrow).

Even if I join in the celebration for what looks like a victory for the homosexual community, I still have some reasons to doubt that the decision taken is not fully satisfactory.

Many arguments have been raised by the opponents to this statute. Most of them are spurious, but some should be taken more seriously in order to placate, and eventually eschew, the polarisation of the spanish society.

Spurious arguments include those pretendedly in favour of children's rights, and those that claim the existence of a natural right to marry exclusive to heterosexual couples. Firstly, children's rights do not command that their parents should be of a given sexual preference. The min virtue required for adopting is economic well-being and emotive stability. These two qualities may very well be present in homosexual couples and absent in heterosexual ones. What is more important from the point of view of adoptable children is that the bigger the number of potential (guaranteed) adopters, the better for them. Their 'choice' is between poverty and well-being, they don't really look at the sex of their parents.

Secondly, the argument based on the idea of a natural right is equally spurious. In a lay society, we are not bound by arguments such as 'God has imposed that a man should be with a woman.' Nor is there any reason to believe that science tells us that the only natural union is that between a man and a woman.

Having said that, some problems remain. It is safe to argue that historically in most of our societies marriages concerned the union of men and women. Marriage is a religious institutions, which the State has espoused in order to organize its society. Instead of extending marriage to all categories of person, a wise secular state should give up the control of the symbolic role of marriage, and leave it to the church. A healthy secular state should create a new lay institution (say a civil union, which regulates rights and duties) for all people, be them homosexual or heterosexual. Each couple could decide afterwords whether to have a religious ceremony. Of course, each church could decide whether to exclude a category of people accordingly to its own internal morality.

This way both State and Church would play their own regulative role, and they would do so keeping their own morality separate. The Church should not play the role of the State, but the State should not play the role of the Church either.