Caucus Conflict I: Right and Wrong

The media’s chosen narrative on the conflict in the Caucuses, is that Georgia is the victim of unwarranted agression by Russia. Putin and his oligarchy are flexing their muscles, and the war in Iraq has meant that the USA looks hypocritical when it condemns Russia’s military incursions. Meanwhile, the Right-wing media in America are enjoying re-playing the cold war, casting Russia as a marauding menace.

But then ‘second-day’ stories appear – about alleged atrocities comitted by Georgia in South Ossetia. Saakashvili is no saint. Over at the Progress blog, Stan Rosenthal suggests that Russia was right to come to the aid of the suppressed Ossetians.

This, however, seems to be going to far:

The Georgians have now reaped the whirlwind of what they had sown … I have no sympathy whatsoever for them.

This seems to be falling into a similar rhetorical trap that ensnared a lot of the commentary regarding Israel’s bombardment of the Lebanon in 2006 – the base need to take sides. Then, we saw the uneasy spectacle of people glorifying the Hezbollah’s ‘repulsion’ of Israel. Then, we heard people arguing that Israel’s right to defend itself some how justified collective punishment of the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon. We make similar mental calculations when considering the current conflict in Georgia: We need to make sense of it all, and for this we feel the need to establish who is in the right, and then scramble for the moral high-ground. But in both examples, it may actually be that both sides are wrong.

A second trap is to equate the citizens with the decision-makers. It is Georgia’s political class who have sown the seeds of the conflict, but it is Georgia’s peasants who are suffering as a result.

I don’t suppose making these distinctions really helps those under attack, or who have been killed or displaced. But it does imply that a pragmatic solution may be the best option. Wars usually occur when the chance to make a moral case has been bypassed, forfeited, lost. Forging a quick compromise will undoubtedly leave many with the sense that injustice has prevailed… but I would argue that purely in humanitarian terms, any cease-fire is better than none.

Update

In an OpenDemocracy article The Miscalculation of Small Nations, Fred Halliday makes this point in more detail:

Where Georgia itself is concerned, the lesson can be summed up in a phrase: pity (and of course help) the Georgians, but condemn their leaders. For if most western governments and commentators have focused on the high politics and historical echoes of the conflict – from Russia’s excessive military response to the implications for Georgia’s entry into Nato, from the role of the United States to echoes of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1968 – less attention than is warranted has been paid to Tbilisi’s contribution to the disaster.

He also discusses the narrow nationalism which is a cause of the conflict.

The Emir's Third Way

Here’s a dilemma: The Emir of Kuwait has to decide whether his own cousin should be executed for drug smuggling.

To grant a pardon would seriously undermine the rule of law in what is supposed to be a constitutional monarchy. But to allow the execution would obviously cause terrible distress to other members of the Royal Family (and, one presumes, the Emir himself). Such a precedent would also worry other Royal Families around the Middle East, says The Times.

But the Emir has a third way, which is to place a moratorium on executions alogther. Often, draconian laws are enacted because those with power assume “it would never happen to me”. They only change their minds when the unthinkable happens.

In other execution news, Andrew points us to ExecutedToday.com, a blog dedicated to the anniversaries of notable executions. It is fascinating and macabre, but commemorates events we would do well not to forget.

On 'Open Source Campaigning'

Yesterday at the Blog Nation Event, Dan Hardie gave an account of his experiences running his Iraqi Interpreters campaign. He mentioned my post on Open Source Campaigning, but said he thought that ‘open source’ wasn’t an appropriate label, because you need a heirarchy and a leader to run an effective campaign.

To clarify, I’m not sure that the ideas of ‘leadership’ and ‘open source’ are mutually exclusive. Open Source coding projects tend to have a core team of dedicated developers, but individual tasks to code are farmed out to volunteers. Likewise with Jay Rosen’s ‘open source journalism’ – an editor or lead journalist still writes up the piece, but dozens or hundreds of other journalists are able to perform the many discrete pieces of research required.

So it is with Open Source Campaigning. You still need someone like Dan to lead the campaign and make strategic decisions, but the leg-work can be decimated if the lobbying or writing to individual MPs is shared throughout the network.

Cross-posted at the Liberal Conspiracy website.

A Matter of Principle?

I initially welcomed the news that David Davis had resigned in protest at Parliament’s assent to allowing pre-charge detention to be extended to 42 days. Its a travesty of a vote – anything to keep the debate alive. Most left-leaning types I spoke with were cynical about his motives, and sank into ad hominems about the man and his other policies (such as support for the death penalty), which in their view rendered anything else he did obviously suspect. However, leaning my head against the train window late last night, watching the illuminated Palace of Westminster recede, reflected in the glass, I wondered if there wasn’t too much cynicism in the world, and that for once we should take a politician at face value.

Today, however, I’m more cynical, after reading in Hansard David Davis arguing for an increase in pre-charge detention times, from 14 to 28 days:

That is why my hon. Friends made it clear in Committee that we agree with the Government that the current 14-day limit is too brief and propose its extension to 28 days. I believe that that proposal will find widespread support among Members around the House, including on the Government Benches.

(via Jennie and Matt). True, Davis goes on to suggest that the 90 day limit was too long. Regardless, his stance in 2005 was surely no less an attack on habeus corpus. It makes no sense for Davis to be lamenting the demise of the Magna Carta now.

Indeed, yesterday he said:

Because the generic security argument relied on will never go away – technology, development complexity, and so on – we’ll next see 56 days, 70 days, then 90 days.

The problem is, many people argued this precise point as a reason to oppose the extention to 28 days! The argument then was “first 28 days, then 42 days, then 56 days” ad nauseum, ad absurdum. It is precisely because of Davis earlier capitulation to 28 days, that 42 days has become feasible. The same Bill would not have passed in 2005.

We are witnessing the boiling of the frog, David, and you were complicit in turning up the heat.

Update

Here’s David Davis on Question Time, being asked whether he supports Habeas Corpus or not. His answer is a terrible fudge:

Tsvangirai detained

MDC Leader Morgan Tsvangirai
Photo from the Sokwanele Flickr Photostream

In an entirely predictable move, Mugabe arrests Tsvangirai ahead of the presidential run-off vote in Zimbabwe (via F/P).

This is what happens when the state has too much power. The reason why we have a much healthier democracy than Zimbabwe is precisely because we go all “awkward squad” the moment any politician moves anywhere near this kind of power. For all the convenience that 42 days detention might bring, it is unquestionably a transfer of power from citizen to state. And, reading about the fate of Morgan Tsvangirai, you will forgive me if the prospect of such a transfer makes me squeamish. Now is not the time for 42 days.

'Free Tibet' flags made in China

Loving it:

The factory in Guangdong had been completing overseas orders for the flag of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Workers said they thought they were just making colourful flags and did not realise their meaning.

But then some of them saw TV images of protesters holding the emblem and they alerted the authorities, according to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper.

Which is odd, because it means that footage of the Free Tibet Olympic torch harassing in London, Paris or San Francisco must have squeezed past Chinese censors.

Tibet Flag

Facetious Gaza Post

Gaza Wall
In reporting the recent Gaza border break the BBC reffered to the security “wall”. Now, call me pedantic, but that looks more like a big fence to me, just like the other “security fence” currently under construction around the West Bank.

Oh, but wait! The fence in the West Bank is actually a wall. Now I’m confused. Why can’t we get nomenclature correct on this one?

That’s the problem with dehumanising people these days, you just run into a wall of political correctness. Or is that a fence?

Shooting Jean Charles

The Met are on trial for breaching Health and Saftey legislation, when they shot the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes seven times in the head. The phrase “no shit, Sherlock” comes to mind, although it is surely inappropriate for a case where the detectives were, without question, shit.

Here’s Cressida Dick’s rather pathetic testimony on her role in the shooting:

“Secondly, from the behaviours that had been described to me – given that I thought they thought it was him – it could, very, very well be him.

“The behaviours that were described – the nervousness, agitation, the sending of messages, the telephone, getting on and off the bus – added to the picture of someone potentially intent on causing an explosion.”

This is shocking, not least because the actions described by DAC Dick, those that persuaded her that Mr de Menezes should be “stopped,” are precisely those actions I indulge in every day. A “nervous, agitated man sending messages” is exactly what I look like on pretty much every morning on the way to work. And who, in their lives, has not had a senile moment of indecision at a bus stop?

More seriously, the entire affair is shocking because of the low burden of proof that was required for the state to take someone’s life. The fault lies not with the officers who carried out the shooting, but with the decision to put such an ill-advised “shoot to kill” policy into the field at all. Who made that decision, how, and when? Only when this question is answered, and that person brought to account, can we begin to explain an attone for this terrible, avoidable death. And until this happens, every one of us in this democracy remains collectively responsible.

We should stop worrying about what kind of bullets were used in the incident, and focus on who was putting out misinformation in the immeidate wake of the killing, and subsequently.  That line of enquiry might lead us to the person who had made a decision that they did not want to take responsibility for.

Alisher Usmanov

While the We Can’t Turn Them Away campaign gathers pace, here’s some news of another campaign – this time regarding freedom of speech. I am very “late to the party” on this one, but as Justin says

This isn’t a race, this about sharing views and showing solidarity.

So, who is Alisher Usmanov? Is he, perhaps, a detained blogger in Egypt? Or an activist in Burma? Nope – he is an Uzbek billionaire who owns part of Arsenal Football Club. When Usmanov sought to increase his stake in the club to 21%, Craig Murray (a former ambassador to Uzbekistan) posted some articles about Usmanov on his website www.craigmurray.co.uk. The businessman threatened to sue Murray if he did not retract his articles. Since Murray believed his allegations to be true, he refused and invited the legal action.

Usmanov responded by threatening legal action against not only Craig Murray, but other blogs which had republished Murray’s articles. Crucially, they also threatened legal action against the web hosting company, FastHosts. The result was that several blogs were temporarily taken offline, and some remain unreachable. Tim Ireland, relentless blog stalwart and one of the victims of the hostile action, has the full timeline.

Tim also cites the ‘cross-spectrum’ outrage at the action of Usmanov and his solicitors, Schillings. Defending freedom of speech tends to unite bloggers like nothing else. As expected, there are plenty of succint quotes out there. Mr Eugenidies says it in his own style:

I don’t give a shit about this character, or Arsenal FC (no offence to any Gooners out there); nor do I share all or even most of Tim Ireland or Craig Murray’s politics. But that’s far from the point. If you can be silenced for calling a businessman a crook, then you can be silenced for calling a politician a crook, too. Then it’s everyone’s problem.

That bloggers should be crusading for free-speech is to be expected. In fact, I would say it is the normal state of things. That a blogger and his web host are being sued is not a unique occurrence. Given that blogging still has a reputation as a fringe pursuit for obsessives and activists, I imagine that news of the legal action is something that the population at large would find unremarkable.

For me, the ‘hook’ is Usmanov’s involvement with Arsenal. I am a fair-weather fan myself, although my family are much more dedicated supporters. They particularly dislike the methods of Roman Abramovich, such as the tapping up of Ashley Cole. The meddling of Vladimir Romanov at Hearts is well documented. Let us hope that the prospect of yet another post-Soviet Croesus ripping the heart out of yet another Premiership Football Club inspires a viable campaign against this podgy, anti-democratic thug.

Critical Mass

Rangoon monksGood luck, of course, to the Buddhist monks, nuns, and the growning number of Burmese citizens who are protesting against their excessive junta.

Last month, OpenDemocracy published an article by Yury Drakakhrust on the Algebra of Revolution:

How many protesters in the streets does it take to bring an authoritarian government down? … The model comprises two elements: the level of popular support for the opposition (dissidents) and the number of people who can be mobilised for action (activists).

The Burmese situation seems quite positive, since as a religious group the Buddhists can mobilise a great deal of ‘activists’. But unlike the weak governments of Eastern Europe (which Drakakhrust uses as examples), the junta in Burma is much more entrenched. This would presumably alter the equation.

But other factors should tip the balance in the other direction. This BBC quote gives some hope:

Aung Naing Oo, a former student leader in Burma who was involved in the 1988 uprising and who now lives in exile in the UK, believes the junta cannot stop the 2007 protesters. “Nobody knew what was happening in 1988,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four.

“There was only very little information about the killings. Now with the internet and the whole world watching I think its a totally different story now…”