Wednesday, August 31, 2005

More signs of Italian economic decadence under Berlusconi

Former european commissioner for competition, Mario Monti, criticizes italian government and expresses his fears. Here

A sad excerpt: "We are the laughing stock of an incredulous international community, and we have taken a few steps back from a modern market economy. It’s sleeve-rolling time, especially when European integration, for decades the engine that drove the modernization of the Italian economy, is at best faltering."

Francis Fukuyama on September 11...

4 years afterwards. Please read here.

His conclusion tells a lot about his position:
"We do not know what outcome we will face in Iraq. We do know that four years after 9/11, our whole foreign policy seems destined to rise or fall on the outcome of a war only marginally related to the source of what befell us on that day. There was nothing inevitable about this. There is everything to be regretted about it."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The meeting of two fundamentalists

When Oriana Fallaci, italian taleban writer, meet the barking german shepard. Here

The failure of the Iraqi Constitution

Noah Feldman wrote an interesting piece on the Iraq's Constitution in the NYT, today. His main point is the following: the constitution is a good enough document, the problem is that american pressures to respect the deadline has created frictions between the Shiite majority and the Sunnis minority, in particular relating to the issue of federalism (repartition of Iraq between kurds, shiites and sunnis).

As a senior adviser for consitutional law to the Coalition provisional authority in Iraq, one feels that his final judgement on the constitution itself is slightly biased, however. He says that improvement have been made throughout the whole process, and eventually "the text strives to balance democratic equality with the Islamic values."

I disagree. If balancing competing values simply means asserting them one after the other, as I pointed out yesterday in another post, then this strikes as a badly concocted compromise which merely postpones constitutional dilemmas involving the interplay of islamic values with other occidental ideals.

Let's face it, democracy is not a neutral value, but it is only perceived as good if it helps enhancing certain basic values of the community. For example, american conceptions of democracy are at odds with european conception of democracy in a number of cases (e.g when free speech trumps privacy without appeal). Islamic conceptions of democracy will tend to be even more remote from western interpretations. I am not saying that this is a bad thing. All I am saying is that the "balance" striken by the Iraqi Constitution between Islamic values and democratic values is bound to collapse any time after the, unlikely, approval of the Constitution.

Hence, the text is not particularly good, and it has not necessarily improved over time as Feldman insists. For one, its internationalist element has lessened considerably if you compare the transitional law with the draft constitution.

Other aspect of the constitution are disappointing as Feldman himself acknowledges. For example, the constitution is very ambiguous as to the composition of its federal court. The way in which this will be worked out, is likely to have a huge impact on the substantive constitutional issues that have been left unanswered. In particular, as Feldam notes, regarding the issue of federalism.

The issue of federalism, however, is but a window dressing for a much trickier problem, undoubtedly The problem of Iraq: the distribution of revenues coming from oil. It is on this point that the poor sunnis minority is not likely to bow to any constitutional balance or compromise. They are afraid to be left out and kept outside any major political deal on oil revenues. They feel, as Feldman puts it, that politics is useless if you are in the minority.

Day-to-day politics, and especially oil politics, is all that matter, Feldman seems to say. So why bother having a carefully cooked constitution, one wonders? Feldmand's answer is surprisingly frank: "A constitution is just a piece of paper, no better than the underlying consensus- or lack thereof- that it memorializes."

This is the ultimate sign that there is something wrong with the 'balances' and 'compromises' reached by the constitution. They are only smoke in the eyes, and the constitution is failing to address the most important problems, which will not be solved without an open confrontation on values and procedures to enhance them. But, as already pointed out, the Iraqui constitution fails to do so.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Iraq's constitution and religious principles

The Draft Iraqi Constitution is now available in english.

Its preamble and basic principles mirror a very akward compromise between western values and Islamic principles. What looks as a necessary concession to western 'friends' is likely to be the object of unrelenting disagreement and social instability. Ironically enough, its preamble would probably constitute a model for Papa Ratzi and any other christian fundamentalist, who advocate the insertion of christian values in the european constitution.

I quote some parts of the Preamble and of art 2;

PREAMBLE: "Recognizing God's right upon us; obeying the call of our nation and our citizens; responding to the call of our religious and national leaders (and our national forces and politicians) and the insistence of our great religious authorities and our leaders and our reformers, we went by the millions for the first time in our history to the ballot box, men and women, young and old, on Jan. 30, 2005, [...] to create a new Iraq"

ART 2: "1st -- Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation:

(a) No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.

(b) No law can be passed that contradicts the principles of democracy.

(c) No law can be passed that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms outlined in this constitution.

2nd -- This constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and the full religious rights for all individuals and the freedom of creed and religious practices like (Christians, Yazidis, Sabaean Mandeans.)

The latter article cited would please very much the german shepard in Rome. His on-going barking about christian roots of Europe would easily find a rest if phrased in the same terms: This constitution guarantess the Christian identity of the majority.

Unfortunately as we can easily detect in article 2 at the beginning, principles of Islam, democracy, and human rights are going to clash in irremediable ways.

It would be interesting to know whether art 2 outlines a ramking between islamic values, democracy, and human rights or whether those principles are meant to be taken together (?!? who is supposed to do that and how is a mistery).

The main lesson for us, however, is that any constitution drawing heavily on religious principles in its definition of identity is bound to create more problems than it can possibly solve.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Andreotti vs. Pera: Who speaks more for the Pope?

Giulio Andreotti, controversial politician of the old guard, ex-Italian Prime Minister in the period of the so-called first republic, currently an Italian senator for life, delivered a speech at the annual meeting of Comunione e liberazione (CL). In the speech he directly criticized the radical discourse of the president of the Italian Senate Pera (see Teocons and Nozick) but also raised some other interesting issues regarding the relationship between religion and politics.

Andreotti said that one must not automatically put together terrorism and Islam. He said that there are Muslims who are not terrorists and also terrorists who are not Muslims. Andreotti also warned against racist statements (directly quoting Pera) such as that immigration brings about a society of mongrels. Following what is normally considered as the official line of the Vatican, Andreotti said that the war in Iraq was “profoundly unjust” because there were no arms of mass destruction and the U.S. Administration had know this. Regarding the insertion of Christian values in the preamble of the European Constitution Andreotti said that he is less interested whether this would formally occur or not, what he wants is that Europe starts making Christian politics. As far as the gay marriages are concerned Andreotti is more conservative and even aggressive, he thinks that they are against the nature and that giving homosexual marriages legal recognition is wrong because if everyone were to be gay human race would go extinct.

Analyzing Andreotti's and Pera's words one can conclude that Andreotti's words sound more main-stream and less radical, regardless his strong anti-homosexual position. Being overtly racists is less acceptable for the catholic sensibility than being overtly homophobic.

Andreotti made some other interesting statements, out of which the most curios remains his distancing from Pera's strong libertarianism in the economic sense (invoking the minimal state). Explaining what does he intend by European Christian policies Andreotti said that “if the rich become less rich and the poor become less poor, I can say that this is a Christian policy”. Is this (redistributive economic policy) where the mainstream Catholic political platform is going towards, or are most of the people within the Catholic Church closer to Pera's minimal statist thinking?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Iraq's Constitution and (International) Standards

There's an interesting post on the role of International Law in Iraq's Constitution on Opinio Juris. Two articles are mentioned to show how internationalist is the present proposal of the transitional law. At the moment, however, it is not clear how much internationalist will be the actual constitution.

My interest lies in the fact that the Bush administration has pushed such an internationalist transitional law, when a standard American approach is not always very internationalist. I wonder whether this is the case because international standards are genuinely very high or because international standards are high from the viewpoint of Iraw, but low from the viewpoint of the US. In the former case, the reluctance of the US to comply with international standards could not be justified very easily. In the latter case, it would be easier to justify the reluctance to act upon international standards at times, but then one would wonder why a new constitution (Iraq's) only has entrenches low standards.

Which one is the right position?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Depoliticizing Democracy? Opinion Polls Instead of Multiparty System and Democratic Elections

Imagine a system where state power is in the hands of a technocratic elite, where political parties do not exist, where executive power is confided to experts and where the government tries, as much as possible to reflect the expectations of its citizens (by conducting opinion polls on most of the issues regarding governmental policies). This system of government comes as close as it can get to a sort of high-tech government of the wise. Such a system would potentially present an alternative to standard forms of representative democracy, where the battle between different political options, combined by demagogic populism, almost fully obscures real issues at stake, meaning that the people are invited to make political choices without knowing, in most of the cases which policies would these policies produce at the end of the day. Having said that, direct democracy might be an answer but in most of the states in the world application of such a system would be hardly workable, people living in the contemporary society do not bother to vote in the elections even once every for years, not to mention the hypothetical situation where they would have to participate in the decision making process for most governmental decisions, thus, possibly every week. If they would have to vote so often would they have time to work, would they have time to go shopping?

There are several problems when thinking of the aforementioned technocratic government, ruling with the help of public opinion surveys. First, the government would have to sincerely reflect the needs and wants of the majority of the population, (1) meaning that the opinion polls would have to be conducted professionally trying to find out a position of the population on certain governmental policy (trying to capture even the most subtle positions on a certain matter), (2) meaning that it would have to respect and fight for the application of the results of these opinion polls as much as technically possible.

At first sight it might seem that in contemporary world such a system does not exist. True enough, democratic governments do conduct public opinion surveys once in a while. Nevertheless, they do so mainly as part of the election campaign trying to find out what the population wants and to construct their electoral program accordingly. They also sometimes consult the public opinion in the process of policy making by means of opinion polls. Yet, the power of democratic legitimacy, acquired at the elections, allows the liberal democratic politicians to go against the findings of these opinion polls or not to conduct them at first place. The role of these is therefore, mainly to help politicians to come to power, not to help them to govern better.

There are, however, countries where opinion polls are conducted for a different reason. In still formally Communist China, government often resorts to opinion polls as means of facilitating the decision making process. Communist elite, concerned by protecting stability in the country uses opinion polls as a way to countenance/avoid outbursts of public discontent as that of Tienanmen 1989. The Chinese government wants to know in advance the level of satisfaction of the population in order to avoid having to use unpopular repressive measures like sending the tanks against the students. In this way the Communist government uses public opinion surveys to find out whether the population is content with appointed local community leaders, whether certain policy or the other is preferred and so on.

It is no news that authoritarian (undemocratic power), historical examples demonstrate, remains highly concerned with what the population thinks and desires. Having such findings highly facilitates their rule and provides for political stability. They do so for pragmatic reasons to retain the stability in the country, but also, in this way, to secure their power. One could argue extremely provocatively that democratic politicians also (usually) respect democratic rules of the game as means to come to power. The difference between a classical system of representative democracy and a model of technocratic depoliticized government of the wise (reigning through help of public opinion surveys) is purely technical not normative. This is, however, a highly provocative statement, one is not to forget the maxim “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Such social perfectionism (historical examples demonstrate, e.g. communism) where power is given to a closed circuit of people might prove extremely dangerous.

In China, on the other hand, introducing democracy, political liberties, is considered as dangerous and potentially leading to territorial dismemberment of the country and serious social unrest, possibly war. To illustrate that the main concern of the Chinese ruling elite is to maintain a depoliticized notion of public order and stability of the country, not so much to maintain the ideological primacy of Communism, one should consider a following anecdote. When asked by an ex-Yugoslav diplomat to justify the violent suppression of demonstrations at Tienanmen, high ranking Chinese decision maker said that the rulers of the bourgeois post-Imperial China where imprudent enough not to nip in the bud the communist uprising, as a result Mao came to power and the country became increasingly weaker vis-à-vis the Japanese, he emphasized that communists, this time around, were not to make a same mistake, be sentimental, allow democracy and become and easy pray to other great powers.

Introducing a depoliticized notion of public control of governmental policies (although not mandatory) goes hand in hand with the revolutionary transformation of the Chinese economic system. There are indeed certain indicators that suggest that Chinese Communists take this issue seriously. First, Chinese ruling elite tried to conduct these opinion polls through a specialized organ of the Party, called The Control Commission. When they realized that the results of the public opinion surveys of the commission remain unreliable they decided to commission such very important activity to independent profit-based agencies. Several questions, however, continue to burden the activity of such agencies: the findings are not always made public (in this way the people does not have the impression that their voice is really being taken into account), questions such as the popularity of the Fallun Gong sect or Taiwanese independence remain a taboo and outside of the area of investigation of such agencies.

This model might seem both unrealistic, in terms of its efficiency, and dystopian, however, as long as current trends of democratic participation in Western democracies continue to decrease, their governments would have to consider seriously reforming the techniques of governance. Maybe they could learn something from the Chinese and their ability to get to grips with revolutionary transformations of their system, in this way they might in time prevent serious revolutionary outbursts of violence by the discontent population. Genova 1999 and numerous anti-globalization riots are merely a small indicator of boiling social discontent in the West and the inability of the democratic process to capture such discontent in an adequate manner.

Maybe depoliticizing democracy in the way suggested in this deliberately provocative piece is not possible nor desirable but it should serve as an instrument to make as think about improving our system of representative democracy.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Teocons and Nozick

Marcello Pera, the President of the Italian Senate (Second Chamber of the Italian Parliament), gave a small lesson of philosophy, religion and multiculturalism to the participants of the annual meeting of the conservative Catholic organization Comunione e liberazione (CL) that is currently taking place in Rimini, Italy.

The crux of Pera's speech went against, what he branded as “ideology of multiculturalism and relativism”. He warned of a moral crisis of the western (Christian) world, criticized the lack of invocation of Christian values in the European constitution, criticized the legalization of homosexual marriages in Spain, branded the use of arms against fundamentalists who want to destroy our way of life as legitimate (“we are at war”, he said), claimed that the uncontrolled immigration to Europe must stop, because if not our society will going inevitably to transform itself into a society of “mongrels”. His words took a surprisingly different tone, when compared with the reconciliation speech of the new Pope Benedict XVI, delivered at the world meeting of the catholic youth in Köln, Germany.

As far as the partisans of the CL, they welcomed the words of the Italian Christian democrat politician. They interrupted him with applauding as far as 34 times.

What has the academic community have to say to his interpretation of political philosophy is another issue. Just to give several illustrative examples of Pera's shocking interpretation of some contemporary Western philosophers work. He mentioned “the difficult enterprise of rendering clear the philosophical thought of Jürgen Habermas”. This is probably to the fact that Pera does not seem to understand subtle arguments. Furthermore, he calls for abandoning of the concept of “open society” of Karl Popper, and finally and most surprisingly, he proposes to the CL meeting (and the world and Italy) the night watchman, minimal state of Robert Nozick. It is difficult to situate Nozick and the libertarian thought in the psychological mindset of the teocons (note the difference with neocons), on many accounts (if not all) Nozick would disagree (if he were to be alive) with the model of state and society proposed by Pera. Doubtfully did Pera read Nozick, or maybe he did, but then for him it is “difficult enterprise” to understand any model of political philosophy. What is probably here at stake is that Pera (and CL, not surprisingly so) want to promote a combination of right wing economic ideology and theological conservativism. This is probably what pushes them to offer an unfair partial presentation of Nozick's work by putting an accent on property oriented elements of Nozick's work and not on his libertarianism overall. If one was to read Nozick honestly then he would have to conclude that two aspects of his work go hand in hand (if one would be radical in interpreting Nozick, one could claim that his theory is more about personal liberties and less about property but this is an argument probably to subtle for Pera). Nozick does not think that the business of his minimal state is to impose any restrictions on gay marriages, that the minimal state should restrict immigration, or that the minimal state should invoke the principles of a religion in its constitutive act. If Nozick, in heaven or hell (I believe unlike many left-wingers who believe in such theological concepts, that he is definitely in heaven), was listening to Pera's speech, he would be insulted and surprised by the putting of his work into the context of a dubious and confusing political agenda proposed by Pera.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The plot thickens: More on the London Tube Shooting

The saga of the shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes has taken a further twist with the leaking of certain findings from the independent inquiry into the affair. While it is clear that we must guard against drawing any conclusions, or even allowing ourselves to be unduly influenced, by documents deliberately selected and leaked into the public domain ahead of their full publication (the Guardian has an excellent leader on this point), it is difficult not to be surprised at the information that has come to light.

As I posted at the time, it became clear almost immediately that things were perhaps not quite as initially claimed; the full extent of this, however, is only now coming to the surface. The full report into the affair by the IPCC will certainly make interesting reading. Much of the information reported in the press at the time - which, if not actively affirmed by the Met (as the Head of the force has insisted), was certainly not expressly dispelled - may well prove to be false. Mr de Menezes may not, it transpires, have been wearing a "bulky jacket" at all; nor did he vault a barrier when challenged to stop - in fact, it seems he may not have been challenged at all, walking calmly and legally through the barrier, and only beginning to run when he heard his train approaching. Even more curiously, it seems that one of the soldiers watching the block of flats identified him as an ethnic white male - when all officers involved knew that the suspect they were looking for was not. The Guardian has some interesting pieces on the new developments here, here and here, and a transcript of an interview with the Metropolitan Police Chief here.

Again, there is no point in demanding a full independent inquiry, and then judging before it makes public its findings. However, things certainly do not look good; worse, perhaps, even than many deared to begin with. One irony may be, given what has been splashed on the front pages of the tabloid newspapers recently, is that the prevalence opf CCTV cameras may well (in a way, contrary to Lorenzo's fears) actually work against the law enforcement agencies - making it difficult for any "cover up" to get off the ground, and ensuring that un- and half- truths are brought to light. Of course, it is a relatively small step from having CCTV to suppressing the images it records, but, in this case at least, we may have grounds for being grateful that they were there.

In any event, we can but applaud the steps taken by the UK since the event, in particular in ensuring that an independent inquiry would be held. We can only hope that the correct actions continue to be taken after the full report is published, whatever they may prove to be.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Pope Benedict and Public Display of Crucifixes

Corriere della Sera, a main stream italian newspaper, published an intervention of Ratzinger on the public place of religion. Here's the text with my comments in italics:

The Pope: ”Don’t remove the crucifix from schools and offices.”Benedict XVI: “It is important that God be present in public life, through the sign of the cross, in homes and public buildings.”

On the eve of the opening of World Youth Day in Cologne, the pope has asked for crucifixes not to be removed from public places. “It is important that God be present in public life, through the sign of the cross, in homes and public buildings,” said Benedict XVI during his homily for the mass of the Feast of the Assumption celebrated in Castelgandolfo, the pope’s summer residence.

It is puzzling that Ratzinger says that 'God should be present', and not 'Christians (Catholic) symbols should be present in public life'. After all, the controversy in Italy sprang up when muslims claimed to be offended by the presence of christian crosses in classrooms (see below).

The subject had already caused controversy in Italy when leading Muslims requested that the crucifix be removed from classrooms. And last year the affair finished in the courts. The pope insists: the symbol has to stay, in schools and all public buildings.

The mere fact that the Pope insists for his symbol to stay should be a ground for getting rid of it. It is not clear at all to me with which authority he claims this. Moreover, the reasons he gives are quite loose. Let's examine them.

The pope’s call is based on his reflection that “where God disappears from public life, man does not become greater but rather loses in dignity, becoming the product of blind evolution and for this reason may be used and abused".

The central concept in Ratzinger's mind is dignity. So, now it seems that if men believes in evolution, progress, the force of reason, they are bound to be fooled and to fool themselves. To the contrary, following Ratzinger, if they hold on to a strong metaphysical belief in the existence of a supranatural entity, then everything is fine. And the more they believe in this metaphysical entity, the better they are likely to be. Hmmm, this sounds like a 'brilliant' piece of propaganda.. Coca Cola could say pretty much the same: 'if you don't drink it, you'll be damned. The more you drink it, the better you'll feel.

"The modern age", the pope observed, “has believed that in setting aside God and following only our own ideas and will we would become totally free, but this has not happened. Only if God is great can man be great.”

You see there is a non-sequitur in the previous argument. One may well agree that the mere belief in evolution and progress does not carry very far, and, more importantly, doen not necessarily increment the overall level of human liberty. Why should it? But from there it does not follow that human beings should ground their hope for liberty in the belief of a great God. Religion can be a part of everyone's life, but it does not guarantee the goodness of a man, or one's moral achievement. Many other efforts are necessary to do so.

That is why the presence of the Christian symbol remains important. “We must apply all of this,” concluded the pope, “to our everyday lives. It is important that God be visible in private homes and public places, that God be present in public life, through the sign of the cross, in public places,” because if God is absent, “differences become irreconcilable”.

I would tend to say the opposite: If symbols of only one confession, as opposed to many others, are present, then differences become irreconcilable. In a pluralist society, this seems to me to be plain.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

'Laique' fallibilism v. Vatican dogmatism

Papa Ratzi has few fixed ideas. One of those is that Europe is losing its identity as it is not recogniszing the foundational role of christian roots. In particular, he is very eager to claim that a widespread relativism is swiping away all points of reference and guidance for individual behaviour. He would be happy to restore a form of dogmatism that is partly, if not entirely, based on catholic dogmas.

I think it is time to fight back this dogmatic non sense as it is very dangerous. More importantly, any committed liberal should now raise his voice and stand for his position firmly. It is true, liberals enjoy exchange of ideas, and Papa Ratzi contributes to the discussion of certain arguments.

However, what is not true, is that liberalism does not provide proper standards of behaviour and guidance for individuals. This is a plain lie, which has a demagogic undertone. The vatican, and many other religiuos institutions, are trying to exploit that lie in their favour. The reason is that liberals cherish disagreement in the moral/political realm and fallibility in the scientific realm. Yes, liberals believe that everything is up for grab, even very strong convictions. Yet, in order to shake strong convictions, one has to offer remarkably good arguments. This way, our knowledge proceeds. And false convictions are dismantled.

As a liberal, I am deeply committed to the ideas of disagreement and fallibility. They constitute all I believe in, if there is something worth believing. I do not offer strong dogmas, which cloud reason. I am strongly committed to a method of enquiry, that is so far the best method available. Ratzinger be aware: you'd better believe in it too!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Papa Ratzi and Cristian Youth

The pope will soon leave for his first trip abroad. It will be in Koln, Germany, where he will meet young catholics from all over the world. Before leaving, he also gave his first interview on Radio Vaticana. This is an interesting test for the bavarian pope. Firstly, the comparison with Wojtila will be immediate. The polish pope was a good communicator, especially with young people. Ratzinger has not showed any particular propensity to do so. His intellectual attitude to several problems may not turn to his advantage.

In particular, he seems to be obsessed with the theme of the christian roots of Europe. In short, he equates what he calls european decadence to the lack of recognition for christian roots. His argument is peculiar: he claims that Europe achieved great things in the past because of its deep christian roots. Now that christian roots are more fragile, Ratzinger says, Europe is not lively anymore. It is difficult to understand the value of this argument. The problem is that there is no evidence as to the contribution of christian roots to the great achievements in Europe. If anything, common wisdom indicates that great scientifi discoveries have always been opposed by the Church (Take Galileo Galilei, for example). Moreover, the Church has always exercised an unhealthy monopoly of knowledge. Latin was one of the instrument through which the monopoly was exercised.

As far as the decadence of Europe is concerned, I would not attribute any great importance to the lack of christian roots. Or very simply, I am not able to see what these roots would add to the process of European integration. On this point, please read the article Srdjan and I wrote for the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 'Does Europe need Christian Values?'

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Victors' justice

As, in some ways at least, a quick addendum to my last post, I noticed that the latest of the ASIL Insights series deals with the fifth and final report of the United Nations Compensation Commission, the body set up in 1991 to deal with compensation claims arising from the first Gulf War, on the basis that (according to Security Council Resolution 687 (1991)), Iraq is "liable under international law for any direct loss, damage, including environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources, or injury to foreign governments, nationals and corporations, as a result of Iraq's unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait". There is much in this report that will be of interests to specialists in environmental law, state responsibility and reparations - not least of which will be the compensation awarded for pure environmental loss and the various methods for calculating the amounts.

Here, however, I just want to restate what may seem obvious. At the same time at which the international community is judging and penalising a minor state for an illegal invasion, its most powerful member is threatening to build upon its earlier "precedents" in Kosovo and Iraq in order to launch yet another (almost certainly illegal) invasion of a smaller state. Small wonder that there are serious, basic issues of trust in US assurances of norm-based approaches to international relations...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Live and don't learn...

The Opinio Juris blog is always worth reading; perhaps even more so in recent weeks, as professor D'Amato has been featuring as a guest blogger, contributing many interesting and provocative posts. One that particularly caught the eye, however, was his stark (and approving) prediction that a US military strike, with little or no notice, will be carried soon against either North Korean or Iranian nuclear installations.

Cue, a day or two later, Bush's insistence that the use of military force against Iran remains a real option, if only as a last resort. I find it difficult to believe that this is being seriously considered; and this not merely because US forces are severely stretched at present. Not only does the Iraqi adventure remain a contentious political issue in the US domestically, but many of Bush's allies in this are stil paying the price for supporting him. It is not easy to imagine a course of action that would more polarise the world than a unilateral military strike against Iran, in particular; for proof of this, we need look no further than German Chancellor Schroder's pointed recent comments: "Let's take the military option off the table. We have seen that it doesn't work".

Of course, Schroder's remarks must be read in the context of the election campaign that he is now fighting; however, this is far from beign the only possible example. The UK press also reported recently that Gordon Brown, almost certainly the man to succeed Blair as UK Prime Minister, is under pressure form members of his own party to categorically rule out military action in Iran if and when he takes over. And this is merely the European reaction.

The US (and European) line, of course, is that a diplomatic solution is being sought. The US thus means to suggest that it is happy to give the international rule of law a chance, but will reserve its right to act militarily and unilaterally should this path "fail". However, giving the international rule of law a chance cannot be done a la carte; it must be part of an honest and sustained commitment to multilateral problem solving in the global sphere. The effect of such interventions as those in Kosovo and Iraq, coupled with the very public reservation of the "right" to use force, may well be to turn the "failure" of the international rule of law in dealing with the Iranian issue into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Seen in this light, the almost inevitable hawkish "We told you so" must appear hollow indeed.

Blair is Not Taking Rights Seriously

Tony Blair is willing to jettison the few good things he has done in his first term as prime minister. Back then, he firmly believed in the crucial importance of the modernisation of constitutional institutions. The Human Rights Act 1998, and the Devolution act were acts of a great constitutional importance, possibly the main achievement of the labour government.

But recently, Tony held fiercely: 'Now the rules of the game are changing,!' meaning that rights protection would be lowered in favour of security controls. What was then the point of 'entrenching' a bill of rights, when after less than 5 years (it only started being implemented in 2000) it is set aside very easily.

Maybe few of you recall how intense was the debate following the enactment of the HRA 98. Many rights advocates complaint that the HRA 98 was only a statute as any other open to revision by parliament at any time, or simple implied repeal if posterior statutes were contrary to the HRA 98. Lord Chancellor Irvine of Lairg spent a lot of time and energy explaining that the HRA 98 was a special act, which could not be impliedly repealed because it would govern the interpretation of any posterior acts.

Rights in 1998 seemed to be the new labour constellation. Nowadays, in Blair's words, as a cumbersome obstacle on the way to justice and security. This is regrettable. What is worse, is that Tony did not learn from the very lesson he wanted to teach in 1998. And the change is for the worse, he shows once more that he just belongs to the 3Bs' family: Bush, Berlusconi and Blair.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Berlusconi does not even manage to make money with italian tourism

Some more signs of italian economic decadence under Berlusconi. Only a seriously incompetent person can achieve this. And don't tell me it is about global competition. Italy has enormous ressources to please a huge number of tourists. But there is no input from the top. This government is a dead man walking.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Muslims' daily dilemma

It is becoming common to accuse muslim people of refraining from actively denoncing terrorists. The question is: are they in a position to do so? In order to understand this, it would be crucial to try and put ourselves in their clothes. Muslim civilians, on one hand, are now suspected by non-muslim by th emere fact of belonging to a religious minority. In other words, they have no chance to be integrated in the local community, if that is not muslim. On the other, they have very little incentive to severe the ties with their own community by openly accusing some of its members. If they did so, they would be at risk of losing even their status of member of a minority.

To understand this basic point is necessary if we wish to tailor a policy that allows us to single out terrorist from the rest of the people. To insist on clash of cultures, unwillingness to cooperate, impossiblity to integrate is the wrong path to follow. We have to take the first steps and understand how difficult it is for a common muslim to live under a constant threat of being treated as a traitor at best, and a criminal at worst.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Musical chairs in Europe

It has been apparent for some time now that the current configuration of power within the nations of Europe, and in particular in the major players France, Germany, the UK and Italy, will change beyond recognition in the next two years; with, inevitably, significant implications for both international law and relations. Both Lorenzo and Raphael have posted on the demise of Berlusconi and the rise of Sarkozy respectively; and, as I have posted, Blair is unlikely to last beyond 2007. Sadly, we lack a German co-blogger here, but it seems to be widely accepted that Angela Merkel will take over as Chancellor from Schröder in the German elections, in as little as one month's time.

Curiously, however, it is difficult to discerne any single trend amongst these movements from a global standpoint. While the "old-Europe", anti-Iraq (and anti-Bush) camps seem to be taking heavy blows from the impending defeats of Schröder and Chirac - both, crucially, to candidates who are seen as much more pro-free market, "trans-atlantic-friendly" figures - the situation in Italy is, if anything, reversed: Berlusconi has been one of the US/UK's staunchest allies, both in terms of free market policy and international relations. One crucial enigma remains: the issue of what will happen in the UK when Blair goes - almost certainly to be replaced by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

The situation in the UK is different from the others, as Blair will be leaving a position of comparative strength - amply illustrated by the fact that he will be handing over power to someone who is (in theory at least) a close ally, rather than an opposition party. And yet, the recent tragic death of Robin Cook, the ex-Foreign Minister who resigned from Government over the war in Iraq (and really the only senior UK politician to come out of the whole affair with his reputation actually enhanced), has perhaps given us a hint as to how the Brown administration would move things. It has been suggested that, when Brown took over, Cook was in line for a high-profile recall to the front line of domestic government; a move that would have been a very clear message from Blair's successor that the new administration would perhaps not be such willing allies to US adventurism in the future (Brown retained a judicious low profile throughout almost the whole of the Iraq affair, only "fully supporting the Prime Minister" when facing a direct challenge to do so).

So how will this latest round of musical chairs pan out? It seems (inexplicably, if viewed entirely from the viewpoint of recednt international affairs and transatlantic relations) that those who supported Bush and the war in Iraq will be replaced by those who didn't, and, to a large degree at least, vice versa. It would be easy to draw from this the conclusion that international law, and international relations, simply don't matter to national electorates to the extent that many of us think they should and hope they might; however, a quick glance at the dominant issues, not to mention the result, of the last UK election should dispel this. Rather, it seems that those who supported Bush are actively paying the price (although Berlusconi, of course, has myriad other charges to answer); whereas it is the domestic agenda in France and Germany that is the most important - regardless of the fact that, although both countries were massively against the war, the likely next heads of state will be politicians who would have, and will, be much more sympathetic to US foreign policy ends and means.

The moral of all this? There probably is one, but I'll be damned if I can work it out. Perhaps only that there is more to (political) life than international relations, but that you ignore it at your peril...

Italy's sinking

Berlusconi is sinking Italy thanks to a grave mismanagement of the Italian Finance.
It has never been so bad in the past fifty years. For some objective data of the deficitary trend it is enough to check the report of the rating agency Standard and Poor's.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Berlusconi's media control on the rise?

Berlusconi is preparing all his weapons to win a second mandate next year at the political elections, which will be held in April 2006. As I said in previous posts, Berlusconi has nothing to lose, and believe me, he hates losing beyond human comprehension. His coalition has abandoned him, and the government is doing really bad at the economic level. Many media warned the public that the campaign will be very tough in the forthcoming year. In particular, the authoritative Corriere della Sera, one of the most read newspapers in Italy, has insisted at various points that Berlusconi will play dirty tricks to win this (last?) battle. Corriere della Sera, however, could not expect that Berlusconi would try to buy it, in order to silence it. That is what he attempted to do recently, even if he denies everything. The doubt, however, has been instilled. Knowing Berlusconi, his thirst for power, along with his obsession with media, this news does not sound at all surprising.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Privacy, CCTV cameras and Identity cards in Britain: Is the world upside down?

Britain is the country with the largest concentration of CCTV cameras in the world. As an evidence for this, I typed in the search line of the BBC sites these words and this is a sample of what I have found:

CCTV appeal as boy hurt in fight, Fire chief calls for CCTV cameras, CCTV to monitor river enthusiasts, Cameras cutting school vandalism, CCTV may show Iraqi race attack, CCTV responsible for more arrests,'Shocking' attack caught on CCTV,Good response to CCTV bombs plea, etc...

CCTV are used everywhere, and their use is growing. What is more surprising is that nobody seems to find their use problematic at all from the point of view of privacy. And this, comes from a country, that is fighting a battle to avoid identity cards, as Euan pointed out in previous posts.

Now, the question is: what makes CCTV cameras so appealing and identity card so unbearable? After all, identity cards merely gathers a number of data about a person. In Britain, as in all western countries, data are gathered by all sorts of private and public bodies. Banks, Air Companies, Mobile providers, Internet providers gather such an enormous mass of data, that the comparison with the data gathered by identity card is laughable.

On the other hand, CCTV cameras record images of your behaviour virtually 24h a day. I say virtually as there is a growing expectation of finding CCTV cameras in every possible place. Since images are just a specific type of data, one may ask whether it is a more or less intrusive way of gathering data. My own view is that it is a very intrusive control, much more so than the identity card type of intrusion.

Some people in Britain would argue that they do not mind being watched because they have nothing to fear about their behaviour. Let them watch us, we have nothing to hide, would be the common line. I think that this reasoning is 100% wrong. The mere fact of knowing that someone may watch us at any time doing the most trivial things, like eating, drinking, chatting, even reading, should -or even, it must- frighten us. Since we live in a world that is heavily image based, it is crucial to maintain a tight control on the way our image could be used. Imagine, for example, that you're simpling walking on the street, and you happen to slip on a banana skin. Normally, such a silly thing would be a little annoying, and that's it. But, what if a TV companies decide to use this detail for a program called, say, 'the idiots of Britain', would you be so happy to have given your blank check to public authorities to record your images? The point is that images, as a form of data, can be used and abused much more easily than other types of data.

Thus, I would suggest british audience to get their priorities reversed. First, start worring about CCTV cameras, that is really scary. Once you'll have done that, you can also worry about identity cards. Possibly, identity cards are a far too big investment of public money and they don't guarantee any special outcome. But this is a wholly different matter.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The positive action of France in its colonies... according to the French Parliament

One can wonder how, in fifty year’s time, the story of the ongoing war in Iraq will be told in American history text books. Will concepts such as the protection of Western Freedom, War for Democracy, Axis of evil etc. be remembered as the historical motivation of the American leaders or as powerful rhetorical tools destined to win over the support of the people?

The 23 of February 2005, the French Parliament adopted the Bill on what the Nation owes to the French citizens repatriated from former colonies. (Loi relative à la «reconnaissance de la nation» et à la «contribution nationale en faveur des Français rapatriés»). This text had two objectives, according to its main promoter, the actual Minister of Foreign Affairs, Philippe Douste-Blazy. Firstly to financially compensate the losses suffered by those who were forced to flea Algeria because of the Algerian insurrection, the war and the recognition of the country’s independence. Secondly, to acknowledge the participation of these populations to France’s positive action in the former colonies.

The Harki, the Algerians that sided with the French army during the war, have long awaited such financial and symbolic acknowledgement of their sacrifices. One can only be relieved that it would come at last. Many of them were killed in Algeria once the French army left and those that immigrated here not exactly welcomed with open arms. On the contrary, the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme points out how the colonial attitude towards them was perpetuated on the national territory through numerous discriminations. Coherently with this republican tradition, the Bill awards them financial remedies inferior to those destined for the pieds-noirs (the French citizens who had settled in Algeria). It should also be mentioned that the bill awards financial compensations also to individual filling certain conditions which, according to the same NGO, turn out to be members of the OAS (the terrorist organization of French citizens settled in Algeria).

Concerning the positive action of the France in its former colonies, every one is entitled to their opinion and it would be unrealistic to argue that absolutely no good came out of the colonisation of North Africa. However this law raised considerable amounts to protesting mainly for two reasons. One is that while acknowledging the suffering of those that were repatriated from Algeria, and the positive action of France there, it says nothing about the suffering of the populations colonized, of the crimes and horrors of the French army and citizens before and after the war. The second reason is that art. 4 of the Bill imposes tha « the school programs recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence in its colonies, amongst which those in North Africa, and award the eminent place that it deserves to the sacrifices of the soldiers of the French army coming from these territories » An other provision mentions that this orientation should also be present in research conducted in university.

According to Olivier Le Cour Grand-maison, professor at the University d’Evry, this Bill fits into a political project coherently defended by the actual Parliamentary majority which tends rehabilitate France’s colonial past and while imposing an official and mythological version of its history.

Following a wide movement of protestation (notably, not from the parliamentary opposition) the French authorities have proposed to establish a mixed commission composed of French and Algerian historian, that will “evaluate” the law.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The food crisis in Niger: The International Development Community to the rescue?

A post I made some time ago, based in part upon Anne Orford's book Reading Humanitarian Intervention, dealt with the effect that the international development community could have on humanitarian crises: not merely in terms of responding to them, but actually contributing to their creation. It sadly seems that, in Niger, the unfolding food crisis is another example of the point that Orford was looking to make.

One of Orford's central points was the way in which the rhetorics of intervention always posit the international community as external to such crises until after they have developed and the are called upon to respond. This allows for the development of a particular narrative of intervention, in which the rich western nations and the institutions that they dominate arrive "heroically" on the scene to assist the poor "victim" states - always third world countries - who, through natural catastrophe, mismanagement or corruption, find themselves in something of a mess. The causes of the crisis are thus portrayed as internal to the state involved, whilst salvation always comes from outside. One of the most significant contributions of Orford's excellent book is to demonstrate just how far this is from the truth.

More often than not, the international community is deeply involved in manifold ways in the countries in which crisis "suddenly" arise; and many critics have alleged in the past that the presence and actions of the development institutions - most particularly but not limited to the economic "structural adjustment programmes" of the IMF and World Bank - actually serve to engender the conditions of possibility that allow such situations to arise; or, at least, hamstring the national governments in their attempts to deal with them effectively.

Perhaps most remarkable about the "famine" in Niger is that there seems to be plenty of food on the market; it is simply that many (and here it is important to remember that Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the most fragile economies) cannot afford it, for themselves or their children. The Niger Government, under pressure from major financial donors such as the EU, France and the IMF, was unable to hand out free food to the most vulnerable. The preferred option of the international community was that "moderately priced", subsidised cereals should be placed on the market; the Guardian reports that the reason given for this by the UN was that it was felt that too much "interference with the free market could disrupt Niger's development out of poverty". The painful absurdity of this position now, of course, seems clear.

Johanne Sekkenes, the head of the MSF mission in Niger, has noted that the Niger government was pressed hard to introduce difficult economic measures pursuant to a structural adjustment programme:

No sooner had the government been re-elected [this year] than it was obliged to introduce 19 per cent VAT on basic foodstuffs. At the same time, as part of the policy, emergency grain reserves were abolished.

And these measures, it seems, were enforced in full knowledge of the fact that 2004 had been a bad harvest for what is considered the second poorest country in the world. The triumph of economic rationality and models - often (as Orford notes) to the deliberate exclusion of other, non-economic factors that would make predictions less "scientific" - comes to seem, in these circumstances, nothing short of grotesque. And yet the dominant narrative remains that of the rich, heroic west arriving like the cavalry to assist the poor and (at best) mismanaged third world country out of its misery and victimhood - perhaps only, on this occasion (as on a number of others) criticised for being a little late.

Returning from a trip to Niger recently, the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy condemned the "sick avarice of rich countries, [and] the lack of prevention and vision from the international community." This, of course, is to be applauded; yet it is not enough, for it still does not (at least, sufficiently explicitly) situate the international development community not merely as present at but also as implicated in the genesis of the current crisis in Niger. More voices of this sort must be heard if "economic shock therapy" is to be held properly to account for its role in this and many other humanitarian crises.

Bush forces through Bolton appointment

George Bush has forced through the appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN, making controversial use of a technique known as a "recess appointment" - basically, a process which allows the President to bypass the need for Senate confirmation of appointees when congress is not in session - in order to overcome the opposition of the Democrats. Although resort to the process itself is not unusual, it seems to be very much so for high-profile appointments, particularly when these are the subject of strong opposition.

Bush has justified his decision by arguing that "this post is too important to leave vacant any longer, especially during a war and a vital debate about UN reform". This, at least, shows us that he is in absolutely no mood to compromise when it comes to the thorny issue of UN reform in general, and that of the Security Council in particular; a more divisive candidate, either internally or externally, can scarcely be imagined.

Articles on the move can be found at the Independent and the Washington Post; Chris Borgen over at Opinio Juris also has a short but interesting analysis of the decision. Whatever the fallout of this, both domestically and internationally, it seems clear that there are some more "interesting times" ahead in terms of US-UN relations...

Monday, August 01, 2005

Italy v Terrorism, part 2

Some more evidence of the terrorist threat to Italy have been gathered in the past few days, so much so that the Interior Minister has proclaimed an extended red alert.
It is no coincidence that Hamdi Adus Issac, one of the terrorists of London, has been found in Italy, Rome. He claims, of course, that he was in Italy just 'on holiday' from the bombing season. It is hard to believe what the press reports he has said. For example, he claims that the bombings were not meant to kill anyone, they were only dimonstrative. How can this possibly be the case? If you place a bomb in a crowded underground, only a clown can believe that this is not intended to kill people.

Hamdi Adus Issac speaks italian well and has many connecions in Italy: a brother in Rome, who hosted him. And one in Brescia, who has been jailed and presently interrogated. Hamdi also claims that after the bombings in London, he had absolutely no plans on what to do next. It is very hard to believe this, since he managed to travel across Europe with no problem whatsoever, and He was found in Italy, a country which is without doubt one of the main targets of terrorists.

In the meanwhile, the government has managed to approve the 'Italian Patriot Act' last saturday. This was possibly the quickest parliamentary procedure ever in the Italian Parliament... The opposition agreed to collaborate despite disagreement. Amazing!