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Updated: 8 hours 11 min ago

A trip to liberated Minbic in Northern Syria: from hell to paradise

8 hours 31 min ago

The city of Minbic (Manbij) and its surroundings are among the most contested regions in the Syrian war. Ercan Ayboga interviewed representatives of the new Democratic Administration in Minbic.

A square in the liberated city of Minbic. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.It is getting more and more complicated here. Almost all parties at war are located in close proximity to this region in Northern Syria. Most notably the Turkish army, acting as an occupant, wants to take Minbic – an endeavour which, although announced by Turkish president Erdoğan, has so far failed due to the resistance of the local population, as well as the US and Russia.

The city of Minbic was liberated on August 12, 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, arabic: QSD), thus ending the "Islamic State's" (ISIS) rule of more than two and half years. Shortly before the liberation offensive started, the Minbic Military Council had been set up on May 31, 2016 by the QSD under the leadership of the Kurdish People's and Women's Defense Units (YPG/YPJ). It exercises military control over the Minbic region, located about 100 kilometres southwest of Kobanê, which became known worldwide for its resistance. In autumn 2016, the Military Council handed over the region's administration to the provisional Minbic Civic Council. Consisting of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Circassians, the Civic Council has renamed itself the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council on March 12, 2017 and expanded in size in order to heighten its democratic legitimation.

The significance of Minbic derives not only from its geostrategic location in the Syrian context, but also from the political system which has been established there from August 2016, namely with the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council which holds a very high democratic standard and is supposed to serve as a model for a new democratic Syria. This will be the focus of this interview which was conducted with the key representatives of the Democratic Administration's legislative, among them the co-chairs Sozdar Xalit (Kurd) und Faruk Maschi (Arab), as well as Emel Bozgeyik (Turkmen), Muhamed Dolmusch (Turkmen), Muhamed Tarik (Circassian) und Abdo Mustafa (Kurd).

What kind of a city was Minbic before the war in Syria?

All: Until 2011, about eighty percent of Minbic's population of roughly 100,000 were Arabs. However, more than ninety years ago the majority of the population had been Circassian. Shortly before the ongoing war, Kurds made up close to 15 percent, while Circassians and Turkmens together accounted for only about five percent of the overall population in Minbic. Several decades ago a small Armenian community had existed as well, which emigrated to Aleppo though.

Both commerce and agriculture have always been well developed in Minbic. Economically the city was in quite a good shape. The level of education is quite high as compared to the surrounding areas.

Maschi: The region's 63 Arabic tribes convened regularly for many years and came to terms with the state, but in general did not actively support it. The two biggest tribes sent one deputy respectively to the Syrian parliament.

What was the period between the beginning of the Syrian uprising and war until shortly before ISIS' rule like in Minbic?

All: The city of Minbic and its surroundings positioned themselves quickly against the Baath regime from spring 2011 onwards. But there were heated discussions on whether resistance should be peaceful or armed.

Members of the Democratic Self Government. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

Dolmusch: This discussion was held among Arabs as well as Turkmens. While the latter organised themselves peacefully initially, a lot of them quickly changed their mind when weapons, money and military training was pressed on by Turkey. Thus the Turkmen society was of two opinions.

Maschi: I, together with my tribe positioned myself against the regime, but rejected armed aggression. But many were in favour of them and the Arabs were of divided opinions. Hardly anyone was on the side of the regime.

All: From 2011, up to 76 oppositional military brigades formed quickly, all convening under the label of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Politically, the Kurds got organised mostly in the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), an alliance of several Kurdish parties including the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which quickly rose to be the major force of Kurds throughout Syria. On the military level, they assembled mostly under the Al-Akrad group, which belonged to the more progressive parts of the FSA and was on friendly terms with the YPG/YPJ.

FSA rule in Minbic from July 2012 at first led to more political freedom but it was a very chaotic period. Most FSA fighters on the one hand could not cope with basic administrative tasks and on the other they began to enrich themselves. Having plundered state institutions, they robbed civilians. After a few months the FSA turned more repressive and started to fight among each other. The population became dissatisfied. It was quite easy for the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian Al-Qaida which was growing in strength, to seize power in spring 2013.

Right at the beginning, Al-Nusra introduced sharia law and exerted greater political pressure. Many people who were accused of criminal acts got their hand chopped off. Theft, too, was part of Al-Nusra fighters methods. While the FSA curtailed TEV-DEM's political work in the villages, Al-Nusra began to oppress TEV-DEM in the city as well. In short, Al-Nusra's short rule was far from social justice and freedom and was heading speedily towards dictatorship and chaos. Thus, ISIS with it's assertion of absolute Islam and a just system encountered no difficulties in grabbing the power in Minbic.

Hotel where ISIS tortured people. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

How can we imagine ISIS' rule in Minbic, which lasted about three years, to be like in practise?

All: When the regime was ousted in 2012 the population of Minbic rose in number at first. But with ISIS, it shrank to less than half of the original number. Notably almost all Kurds and Circassians left the city because they were seen as potential enemies.

Dolmusch: When ISIS ruled in Minbic, they were not so much after Turkmens, but in particular after Kurds. Because they feared them a lot.

All: In the first months, ISIS conducted themselves quite cautiously in the city. They even offered sweets to children on the streets. But right at the beginning they underlined what is "halal" (permitted) and "haram" (prohibited). The population watched ISIS rule passively at first. But a few months later ISIS showed its true face and started to control political, social, cultural and economic life in a formerly unknown way. Any kind of objection to or infringement of the rules imposed by them were met in the most brutal way. The most extreme form of terror perpetrated by ISIS in Minbic was to lock up people – 545 persons in the course of about 3 years – in cages put up on public places for days, not allowing relatives to come to them, and behead them in public days later, with many people being made to attend by force. This was recorded on video in order to spread even more fear of ISIS.

Bozgeyik and Xalit: Women and also girls were subjected to special laws. They had to wear the strictest type of chador in public and were only allowed to go out on the street when accompanied by a male relative, having to walk 15 metres behind him. In order to receive a punishment it was enough for a part of the woman's face to be seen outside. It sometimes happened that men lost sight of their wives or sisters and were not able to find them again. Many women simply stayed at home all the time because of this regulation.

Some women had to continue working in the vegetable fields around the city due to the difficult economic situation, a job greatly obstructed by the chador, especially during summer. Certain products such as tomatoes, tinned food or other things especially favoured by women, were banned. In order to enforce restrictions more efficiently, even a women's militia was formed. Arrested women were tortured – shortly after liberation traces of blood were seen in the women's jail – and in many cases stoned to death in three public places. We are particularly pleased that a tree has grown in exactly one of these places.

Women going to attend a demonstration. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

All: Under ISIS the economic situation in Minbic grew even more difficult and life exceptionally expensive. They sold bread and one litre of Diesel for 350 Syrian lira respectively (the price of which was only about 40-50 lira in YPG-/YPJ-/QSD-controlled area at that time) [equivalent to roughly 1,50 and 0,20 EUR]. Often, long queues formed at the distribution points, although petroleum and crop were available in sufficient quantity in ISIS territory. Sugar was very expensive, too, although it was produced in close-by Maskanah. Horrendous taxes were randomly exacted from shop owners and merchants. ISIS financed their war this way. The foodstuffs available were rationed, with ISIS fighters withholding the best parts for themselves, justifying this with their alleged status as "God's warriors". Most people survived on money which came from relatives living outside. The poorest, who asked for financial support, generally were told to join ISIS as fighters.

All schools in Minbic were closed by ISIS, our children could only attend Islamic schools. When ISIS had enlarged their capacity of own schools after some time they started to force all children into these schools. There they were subjected to ideological brainwashing and pressure to join ISIS from a young age.

There were so many more crazy bans as for example, eating in parks. Using a mobile phone was prohibited in general. If someone was caught for the first time, they had to pay a high fine. In case of repetition jail and torture loomed.

Not everything which ISIS did can be linked to Islam. They instrumentalised it for their regime of terror.

According to your account ISIS was not supported by the population. But were there not many people who actively supported them?

This was the case only for a small part of the population, most of those who remained adjusted themselves. We have to keep in mind that more than half of the population fled from Minbic when ISIS ruled. But sadly so we have to say: Some families positively sold their daughters to ISIS, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons. If you were close to ISIS and acted as an agent you were for example allowed to work in one of the many small Diesel refineries. Some became agents, we were scared not only on the street but also in our staircase. The majority of the population positioned themselves more and more explicitly against ISIS from 2015. All in all three demonstrations against ISIS' methods took place in Minbic, once even shops were closed. But all attempts were suppressed in the most brutal ways. Minbic is one of the few cities controlled by ISIS where demonstrations against their methods took place at all.

Support for ISIS was bigger among the armed groups than the civilians. Unfortunately, an important part of the former FSA joined ISIS militarily from 2014.

Shortly before the liberation operation started on May 31, the Minbic Civic and Military Council were proclaimed. How did this come to be?

Xalit: The liberation of the Tishrin dam on the Euphrates through the QSD in December 2015 slowly raised hopes that ISIS could lose its sovereignty over the Minbic region. ISIS slowly lost its confidence and rightly so. Because in the beginning of 2016, people and groups who had fled Minbic convened with YPG/YPJ/QSD and representatives of the three Rojava cantons and the newly founded Syrian Democratic Council to prepare the liberation of Minbic. The former TEV-DEM activists from Minbic were the motor of this enterprise. Since we both had fled from Minbic before, we contributed a lot from the start. First, the Minbic Military Council was founded in the beginning of 2016, and then the Minbic Civic Council on April 5, 2016. The representation of all parts of society was so important to us that we reserved the seats for Circassians in the 43 members strong Civic Council. Because almost all of them had been forced to leave Minbic. The Civic Council used all the languages spoken in minbic right from the start, the banners were in four languages. The Military Council had women as members from the start, we made this a point. However, they were hardly present in the media at the time of the liberation operation.

Maschi: It was possible to proclaim both so swiftly because of the terror perpetrated by ISIS which was of utmost brutality and the hate against it on the one hand, and the active support of both structures by the QSD and the Syrian Democratic Council on the other. I myself have had a good relationship with the Kurds in Minbic and close-by Kobanê for a long time. I have always valued having actual deeper relations with them as an important goal, only then can we prevent other forces from playing us off against each other. I also convinced many people in my Al-Buberne-Clan, which is one of the biggest clans in the Minbic region, of that. The Minbic Civic Council and the Military Council which possesses an autonomous structure within the QSD, and the civil council have collaborated closely right from the start, the task sharing was quite good. This became apparent during the liberation operation which lasted about three months. The Military Council grew quickly during this operation and reached several thousand members when Minbic was liberated.

One of the partly destroyed neighborhoods in Minbic. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

What did you do as Civic Council, when the Minbic Military Council had started the liberation operation?

Xalit and Maschi: Before and during the liberation operation we made great efforts to get in touch with people in Minbic and refugees from Minbic in various places and win them over for the liberation. The acceptance of the Civic Council grew fast through this, which was of importance for the time after liberation – we were confident of the success of the operation. We had formed groups which, starting from June 2016, immediately visited the liberated villages and informed about our goals and intentions. The vast majority received us with joy and relief. Apart from that we, together with volunteers, tended to the many hundreds wounded in the course of the hard fights in Minbic. But most of all we led discussions on how the administration of the city and surrounding regions of Minbic should work. Every step during and shortly after the liberation was important to gain the support of the broad population. In fact we were all in all quite successful, and were given charge of leading Minbic for the transitional period without being questioned. From then on the population turned to us.

Can you give us examples and impressions of how the population received the liberation? What was especially important for you?

All: You can compare the liberation from ISIS by the Minbic Military Council and the Syrian Democratic Forces to the passage from hell to paradise! Accordingly, spirits were particularly euphoric during the first weeks. ISIS brutality had been so immense that many could rejoice only then when they could meet the Military Council and Democratic Forces fighters in person and not in combat position in front of their houses. Then came cries of joy. This great joy could be seen especially on women's faces. Many danced on the streets in the first days. It was important for us that no attempt at lynching took place. Tens of thousands returned to their houses within a few weeks, among them many thousands from Turkey. A lot of people approached us offering their help, or rather wanted to carry out tasks in reconstruction. The population had seen that we bring freedom and equality and do not want to exclude anyone or take advantage of differences in favour of a small circle. The population senses exactly this. Minbic has never lived through so much freedom in its history. The joy is still huge, everyone can see this for themselves walking through the streets of Minbic. People's faces are full of positive energy.

Which were the first steps you undertook in Minbic? How has life developed in more than half a year?

All: During the liberation process several dozens of buildings were destroyed completely, and hundreds of them partly. This is very little compared to many other Syrian cities which were fought over. One of the first steps was to clear the debris very quickly. Right from the start we made efforts to establish people's councils with broad participation from the population in every city district and every place outside of the city. In some places we quickly managed to build a democratic structure with women's participation. We are confident that we will manage to do the same everywhere within a short period of time.

A second wave of happiness went through the region when schools reopened one month after liberation. They had been closed for three years. We had successfully called on all former teachers for that. The only change we have made to education so far is the abolition of the subject on state and history which used to be taught on the basis of Baath ideology. Kurds and Turkmens started to teach their children in their mother tongue additionally a few weeks after the opening.

Tarik: As of now we are not able to offer our children Circassian language, which is also due to the fact that we do not speak our language very often. But with the new school term we will start. This is a huge challenge for us, because Circassian hasn’t been taught neither in Syria nor in Turkey. It is an incredibly wonderful feeling that everybody can go to school in their own language.

All: When the situation in Minbic became more stable in autumn and we as Minbic Civil Council had organised ourselves better, administration was officially transferred to us by the Military Council. From then on, all important decisions regarding Minbic region were made by our council of 43 members. One of the first decisions was to ask the Military Council to build the security structure, called Asayîş.

Economy was freed from the many restrictions imposed on it in the last years. This was important insofar as the merchants of Minbic were thus able to bring necessary goods from other regions. But this does not suffice by far and the traded goods are expensive in parts. But staple foods and other elementary goods and aids for the needy are coming from the cantons Kobanê and Cizîrê. Now bread – the large bread factory was restored immediately – and Diesel in Minbic cost the same as in Kobanê and Cizîrê, and water supply is working again. Electricity is delivered from Tishrin barrage almost all day long free of cost. Mobile company Syriatel was allowed to repair the telecommunication masts, and so people could talk to their relatives in other parts of the country again.

The reconstructed bread factory. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

Some accused of spying for ISIS were given an open and democratic trial. But only after a people's court, transparent to the Civic Council and the public, had been established.

But the liberation of Minbic has also led to people from regions where ISIS and other antidemocratic forces or regimes are in control coming to us as refugees. They say: “We have heard that there is freedom here, life is better and no one is persecuted. That is why we are here”. Of course we take them up but it's a huge technical and financial burden in our current condition to provide for additional tens of thousands of people. After Al-Bab was taken by the Turkish army and the regions south of Minbic by the Syrian army, further tens of thousands have come. Now at least there is a little international support.

Recently, the Minbic Civic Council has restructured and renamed itself the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council. Why, and what is different now?

All: On March 12, 2017, Minbic Civic Council has not only renamed itself as the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council, but also a number of restructuring measures in the entire administration have taken place after months of discussions. In the Civic Council, legislative and executive had been one structure, now they are separated. The number of representatives taking political decisions in the legislative of the Democratic Administration has been raised from 43 to 134. 71 of them are Arabs, 43 Kurds, 10 Turkmens, 8 Circassians, in addition to one Armenian and one Chechen. 15 persons form the executive of the Democratic Administration. All in all, 13 committees were founded – defense, women, society matters, economy, finances, health, culture, education, communal administration, martyrs, services, diplomacy, and youth&sport.

Xalit: The greatest challenge was to win enough women among the non-Kurds for this function in accordance with the gender quota of 40% as agreed. This was due to the fact that among them, so far very few women had been active in the public-political sphere and the question of women's rights had hardly been posed in a serious manner. For several weeks we struggled for a sufficient number of women to be represented in the legislative. Only because 50% of the Kurds in the legislative of the Minbic Democratic Administration were women, was it possible to observe the quota.

All: In the face of the war, the displacements and massacres in Syria, and the exploitation of religion or ethnicity, it is important that all ethnic groups of Minbic are sufficiently represented; from the religious point of view all are Sunni. We also have made efforts to successfully let different professions be represented. Youth, students, intellectuals and artists are also among the 134 delegates.

How can we even understand the developments in Minbic in the Syrian political perspective? How, according to you, should this new system be assessed?

All: These new structures in Minbic were developed on the basis of the idea of the Democratic Nation. According to it, the nation state is rejected and instead all individuals and groups should be enabled to find their place in it. No identity should rule over the other. In practice this means for instance that all languages can be spoken and the free expression of the different cultures are equal to each other. Women's liberation is a central element and pervades all political and social structures; thus we are gradually introducing the co-chair-system of one man and one woman and a gender quota everywhere. Furthermore, life is supposed to be organised ecologically and communally: Private economic gain must not stand over the interests of society and a broad solidarity among each other is important. This concept has been implemented successfully in the three cantons Afrîn, Kobanê and Cizîrê since 2012, but the difference is that here lives a majority of non-Kurds. And this is exactly what is special about Minbic.

Square where ISIS executed 545 people. Today children can play here. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

Bozgeyik: All that which we are hearing from the Kurds in recent time sounds so very new and exciting to us. The greatest thing is that we are building something new together and in good cooperation. Even more decisive than theory is practice, because this is what the broad population is looking at. Hopefully we will manage to build a model for the whole of Syria in Minbic. In the face of the enormous suffering this is very important. We are aware of the historic and responsible task we are carrying out. That is why we work a lot, discuss and continuously educate ourselves in academies which we have established.

What does Abdullah Öcalan represent in this context, as the one who provided the ideas behind the concept of Democratic Nation? Which role does he play in Minbic?

Tarik: Abdullah Öcalan has voiced essential thoughts which place the coexistence of cultures at the centre. The peoples are coming closer at heart. Today Öcalan is not only a political leader of the Kurds, he has earned himself a very special role for Circassians and all others in our region. We can also see this in the fact that women are becoming active in society.

What do you think of the role of the Turkish government in the war in Syria? For weeks now the Turkish army has been attacking villages in western Minbic.

All: We maintain a good relationship with the population of Turkey. Many of us have lived in Turkey as refugees and a small number of people from Minbic are still there as refugees. Nonetheless, the Turkish government has wronged us for years by supporting ISIS. ISIS is the common enemy of all people and we should focus on them. The attacks of armed groups supported by the Turkish army against villages which were liberated from ISIS taking place now are unacceptable. We invite the Turkish government to come to Minbic and witness themselves what we are establishing here. All parts of society partake, we have established social peace and consensus.

There are repeated reports on the YPG/YPJ respectively QSD allegedly conducting ethnic cleansing of non-Kurds, especially Arabs, in Northern Syria. Has something like this taken place in Minbic?

Maschi: I can answer this very clearly: no. Everyone out there on the streets of Minbic will confirm this, too. If something like that had happened neither me nor the majority of Arabs would have established the new political structures together with the Kurds and the others. In general, the liberated villages were examined for mines for several days, then all inhabitants were allowed to return. This applies to Kurdish villages, too. Whoever alleges something like this does not know the reality or has something bad in mind. Rather, the opposite is the case, in spite of decades of oppression the Kurds have not answered with nationalism and have truly promoted kinship among Syria's peoples. This is especially evident in Minbic. Last month a demonstration for Abdullah Öcalan took place, in which we and many thousands took part in. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Circassians were marching together.

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The mass distribution of everything

10 hours 29 min ago

Innovation is not an option: it is a necessity - to keep on improving on the way we do things and having a role to play in the fluid economics context. Español Português

Fab Lab Barcelona at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC). On the screen, artist and designer Olafur Eliasson gives a lecture to the fab lab network within the Academy’s program.

For some years now, we have been witnessing the emergence of relational, cross-over, participative power. This is the territory that gives technopolitics its meaning and prominence, the basis on which a new vision of democracy – more open, more direct, more interactive - is being developed and embraced. It is a framework that overcomes the closed architecture on which the praxis of governance (closed, hierarchical, one-way) have been cemented in almost all areas. The series The ecosystem of open democracy explores the different aspects of this ongoing transformation.

Hundreds of years ago, human agriculture made excess production possible, and this led to the accumulation of goods, the concentration of people in towns, and the end of the role of the hunter-gatherer. A few hundred years later, we came up with a system to organise the exchange of services and products at an abstract level: money. Today’s economy is based on the flow of real and fictitious money, which simplifies the value of assets, skills, people, resources, and almost every element of reality. Money has become a means and an end in itself.

If agriculture once transformed dramatically the way in which humans inhabited the planet, now the monoculture of money is threatening life itself. Our economy assumes that we have a limitless planet at our disposal, so that we can focus on one single objective, no matter what: cultivating money - as much as we can. What makes the monoculture of money possible is, on the one hand, the control over the access to information (the Internet is being hijacked, in case you had not noticed) and, on the other hand, the concentration of the means for production: energy, agriculture and the objects/tools which allow humans to survive, and to better interact with their habitat. The management (hijacking) of physical assets and natural resources is organized through other abstractions, such as legal systems, economic laws and models backed by national governments and corporations. If we were to democratise the means of production and make them accessible to all, and if we were to own - and protect - our digital information, we would be challenging the very foundations of the current economic, political and social structures.

Purpose, meaning and ownership are keywords to keep in mind when talking about the future. The conversation is not really about VR, AI, AR, ML, robotics, quantum computers, automation or synthetic biology. What we must ask ourselves is: for whom and for what purpose are these technologies useful? Who decides what to do with them? And how much do we really know about them?

These are the questions that motivate individuals, communities and organisations to collaborate in proposing and building new ways to own and use technology, and to put it at the service of human beings and the planet, not merely in order to survive, but to coexist in harmony with our living systems. This is, at any rate, the aspiration. We want to invent the future, not so much to be able to predict it, but to make it more accessible, and to meet the main challenges of our times, which are mainly social and environmental. For more than ten years now we have been doing research on the role of technology in society at the Fab Lab network, and developing new programs and projects aimed at developing a new productive and economic model for society.

The first Fab Lab outside MIT was created, more than a decade ago, by Mel King at Boston’s South End Technology Center (SETC), in collaboration with MIT’s Center for Bits Atoms. Mel’s vision was to use the technology that the lab could offer to recover the life of a neighbourhood that had been suffering from racial segregation and economic deprivation for decades, to the benefit of the real estate market. Decades before that first lab in Boston, Jane Jacobs had warned about the negative consequences of mass urban development driven purely by economic principles in New York. She stood up against Robert Moses in one of the most famous clashes in the history of city planning, activism and sociology. Jacobs defended the idea that cities should be devised by its citizens, and that the tyranny of the car and the highways, the removal of community identities that had been built by several generations, the market dynamics and progress were killing the cities’ DNAs. Kids in Boston’s South End were the victims of the new urban model that is still driving city development today. The local community and Mel decided to take action by making technology accessible, so as to build the future of the neighbourhood kids who were being left behind because they did not fit into the “normal” educational system, and creating mechanisms to find alternatives to the jobs that black or Latino kids would usually expect. SETC has been operating for some 15 years now, offering Boston kids free workshops and advice to develop their creativity. Mel’s lab has inspired hundreds of labs around the world, where the social dimension of technology is key. We usually hear that Fab Labs are elitist, or too MIT-centric, or even just a place for nerds, but the world should know more about Mel King, the man who, for the last 50 years, has been organising Sunday brunches at his home, where people sing, discuss and debate community issues, or just get together to read poetry.

But can a Fab Lab help rebuild communities and attract new economic opportunities? Fab Lab Barcelona opened 10 years ago, the first Fab Lab in Europe, located at Barcelona’s Poblenou, a post-industrial neighbourhood with a strong manufacturing and radical union history that used to be known as the Catalan Manchester. There, the local community has been suffering the consequences of the deindustrialization process that hit almost every city during the last quarter of the 20th century, and the devastating economic crisis that has, among other things, jeopardised the 22@ urban renovation plan (developed by Barcelona’s city council to stimulate real estate investment in the area). The 2008 crisis reduced dramatically the options for capital investment in Barcelona, and the real estate market in Poblenou did not boom as expected, even though some university departments did in fact move in, as did a few large corporations that were able to resist the economic meltdown. Then, the neighbourhood began to receive new creative industries - such as design studios, small architecture and design schools, digital production businesses - which, together with art galleries and collectively occupied buildings, began to create a new neighbourhood identity, similar to Brooklyn’s, Wynwood’s, or Mitte’s, the corresponding gentrification-related issues included.

Poblenou is now becoming an ecosystem where different initiatives are giving it a new, unplanned identity which has emerged as a result of the economic crisis, but also as a result of the obsolescence of traditional planning. The neighbourhood has now a private-initiative association (Poblenou Urban District) which groups most of this creative industries, maintains a communication flow among its members, organises events and promotes the area’s potential to the city and beyond. At Poblenou, Fab Lab Barcelona and Fab City found the perfect context in which to settle and build on the future of technology and its potential impact on society. At Poblenou, the recently launched Maker District (as part of the Barcelona Digital Plan) is now looking to add a new layer to the existing dynamics of the neighbourhood.

Maker District co-creation session with Poblenou stakeholders. The project aims to support the local ecosystem to enable the transition to a productive neighbourhood using new technologies.

The Maker District has been conceived as a collaborative and co-created process aiming at building, with the local community and a global network, the Fab City project’s vision, and creating an experimentation playground to design, make, test and iterate new forms of governance, trade and production at the local (neighbourhood) level, using advanced technologies to accelerate the process of making cities more resilient and inclusive. At the city scale, Fab Lab Barcelona is leading the development of the Fab Labs public network: it advises the city council on building the first infrastructure layer for the Fab City, as described in the project’s white paper. The newly named Ateneus de Fabricació will then have to choose between two operation models: a) being bureaucratised by the City Council machine, or b) becoming an avant-garde force for innovation in public policy matters. This is, for now, still an open question.

Beyond public intervention in the Barcelona innovation ecosystem, private initiatives have been flourishing and finding their way to create business opportunities in addition to the maker movement in both Barcelona and Catalonia through spaces such as Makers of Barcelona, TEB (very similar to the SETC model in Boston), Tinkerers Lab, Beach Lab, Green Fab Lab - to name but a few. These spaces make technology accessible to people in different ways, by connecting it with existing co-working activities, social action initiatives, or educational programs. There is an interesting model to explore, which we have been proposing to different public administrations,  that of the public-private partnerships for the creation of new labs: instead of having the city council trying to concentrate innovation and spending millions of Euros in new buildings, less than 30% of that investment could be directed to private initiatives already happening in the city. These initiatives, in exchange, would offer open school programs and free educational workshops and address unemployment by teaching new skills.

Public and private investment in new digital production technologies in Barcelona is acquiring a larger dimension with the emergence of the 4.0 Industry, which aims to digitise large-scale manufacturing processes. The 4.0 Industry has been wrongly narrowed down to the Internet of Things and 3D printing, which are some of the emergent technologies that will complement manufacturing processes. The new industrialisation of cities must look beyond the techno-centric view and invest in bringing technology closer to people. At the same time, industries should abandon the traditional, extractive model economic approach which makes them “takers” instead of “enablers”, in order to keep being relevant in a context of distributed production. On the other hand, the public sector might want to experiment with less-controlled models for nurturing new business, employment and innovation forms, without having to spend millions in infrastructure, competing with private initiatives. In this sense, the Catalan government is launching the CatLabs initiative as a way to create mechanisms enabling the creation of a larger ecosystem in the territory, and understanding the “lab” idea as a permanent way of operating. In our constantly changing world, innovation is not an option: it is a necessity - to keep on improving on the way we do things and having a role to play in the fluid economics context.

Barcelona has a unique ecosystem that can be used as a prototype for new forms of production in cities, something that is also currently happening in Paris, Santiago, Amsterdam, Shenzhen or Detroit, or in countries like Bhutan and Georgia - all of them places where the Fab City has been adopted and replicated with a local flavour, and is at the same time networked as part of a global community for building a new productive and economic model for the future. With the emergence of new forms of politics in the context of the so-called liquid democracy, we could just be at an interesting turning point for traditional governance in cities which are used to having a strong public presence in almost every sector, only challenged by central governments or large corporations. In a new iteration of democracy, participation should not be merely about giving an opinion or delegating power to elected representatives, but about co-creating and co-building neighbourhoods and cities. The risk here is that, at high-level power struggles (city, region, country, corporations), the other actors (citizens, communities, small businesses) be left to navigate in uncertain waters and ever-changing rules of the game, and the personalisation of power. Without institutional infrastructures enabling new productive city models, we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes the existing extractive, market driven economy has made. But we have the opportunity to test new forms of governance, with all the actors, in a fair and transparent way, using the technologies that can make the transition to a new economy possible – the transition to the mass distribution of everything (including democracy, participation, responsibility and governance). 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Democracy and the city: new geographies, new geometries Country or region:  Spain Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Where are the missing? How the tabloids underplayed deaths at Grenfell for their own gain

11 hours 3 min ago

The press claim they don't want to speculate on numbers until they have an official body count. That’s laudable. But very responsible reporting has become widespread overnight where it never was before.

‘Singer Lily Allen: 150 dead in Grenfell inferno’‘Police Commissioner ‘HOPES the death toll won’t reach TRIPLE figures as 600 feared to have been in Grenfell’‘Locals claiming 100 bodies taken to ONE hospital as protests mount over lack of tenants register’‘Furious local resident claims Kensington & Chelsea Council will be paying for FIVE HUNDRED FUNERALS’ 

Lily Allen talks to Channel 4. Youtube. Fair use.These headlines would sell more papers than anything any British news editor has printed so far. If Lily Allen claims a fireman told her the death toll is three times the government’s figure, it doesn’t mean it’s the truth. But it does mean the most incredible front page splash the British tabloids have had in a long time.

But these aren’t the headlines in The Mail, The Sun, or The Times this week. Why not? The profit-seeking ‘run it now and pay the legal bills afterwards’ tabloid media to which we’ve grown accustomed are now not printing the headlines that would sell the most papers. This needs some attention.

The press claim they don't want to speculate on numbers until they have an official body count. That’s laudable. But very responsible reporting has become widespread overnight where it never was before. Suddenly, and quite miraculously, the corporately-owned media no longer seem interested in selling papers and turning a profit. Shareholders must be scratching their heads.

If the tragedy at Grenfell could be spun a different way (imagine if the fires were caused by a plane flying into the building) The Mail, The Sun, The Times and plenty of others would be speculating. They’d be looking for an interview with the witness or relative claiming the highest numbers, and they would print that – in quotation marks if their lawyers told them to.

The headlines after 9/11 are a good example: “Hundreds of Britons among the dead” went The Mail two days after (in fact the number was much lower); ‘Hundreds of Britons dead’ was The Telegraph’s, The Sun ran with, “They Must Have Killed Thousands”, and The Times, “Death Toll of Thousands and Hundreds of Burn Victims Feared”. Both headlines were published the day after the attack and long before a coroner’s report came out. If Grenfell could be spun differently, the incredible, stomach-turning interview in which local resident DJ Isla estimates the need for 500 funerals, would be the feed-in to every Sky News report.

The police are releasing information gradually because their job is public order, and they know that reasonable people may struggle to articulate their rage non-violently when they learn of the extent of this avoidable atrocity. But the job of the press isn't to be the mouthpiece of police. The job of the press is to sell papers and – in theory at least – get to the bottom of things.

These investigations aren’t being done. Where is the journalists’ demand for a register of tenants to help with estimates? Where are the floorplans of the building dug out from the archives to tell us how many flats there actually were? The Telegraph is calling Grenfell twenty-four storeys and The Mail is saying twenty-seven – at six flats a floor that’s a difference of eighteen households. How can there still be a discrepancy about these numbers?

A normal, profit-seeking tabloid would get that tenants register, call the hotels around West London to find out how many have been re-housed, stalk the hospitals to find out how many had been admitted, and print whatever the difference between the two figures was. Not to mention pack their reports with harrowing eye-witness testimony, which has been eerily, chillingly absent from most news reports and should fill us with dread about the reality of how many people actually escaped to tell their tale.  

What we’re seeing here is capitalism glitching. Corporations have become wealthy enough that they no longer need to make money as a singular priority. The Sun doesn't need to sell more papers than The Times anymore, because the same person owns both. In the coverage of Grenfell, we’re seeing corporations giving up on short-term profit and competitive advantage over their rivals in favour of consolidating their power in the long term. They can afford to wait.

What are they waiting for? Not the truth – not the exact number of dead forensically verified by the coroner. They are waiting for a truth that will not be so challenging to their power or the status quo. Right now, people directly impacted by Grenfell are pointing the finger at capitalism and its advocates: Conservatives, landlords, and the millionaires who clad buildings full of poor people in flammable plastic to save £5000 – and, of course, the press.

Right now, the people's account is winning while the press cast around for a more neutralising narrative, equivalent to the “drunk football hooligans’’ made up by The Sun to distract from policing and engineering mistakes that led to 96 deaths at Hillsborough in 1989.

The Mail attempts to scapegoat the individual whose fridge exploded. Twitter. Fair use. Their efforts are pitiful. The Mail has tried to point the finger at 'green targets' (riveting stuff – I’m sure they expected that to fly off the shelves), at ‘EU regulations’ (nope, Germany has managed to ban the same cladding material used here), and even a grim attempt to ignite a scapegoating of the individual whose faulty fridge is supposed to have started the fire.

All of these are substantially less newsworthy than what people on the ground are saying happened, but we are not seeing the usual rush to find the most shocking narrative. We are seeing corporate media stand back in the hope that a narrative more amenable to their long-term interests – as capitalists, as landlords, and individuals – will emerge.

But another narrative will not emerge. It is becoming possible that more than 150 people – perhaps 200, 300, have burned to death as a direct result of a deregulated housing market and corporate greed. It is beyond sensationalism, and the corporate media are not even trying. The inequality exposed by this tragedy must be getting to them; it may finally be too dangerous to stoke a sense of injustice in this politically volatile environment, lest it land too close to home.

Sideboxes Related stories:  After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections Fire in neo-liberal London At Grenfell, a lack of accountability was deliberate – and residents were treated with contempt One law for the poor at Grenfell Tower Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Trust is in recession: and there is little sign of recovery

11 hours 7 min ago

Where does trust end and continuous fear become the norm?

Big Ben. Mariano Mentel / Flickr. Some rights reserved. 

Political scepticism and suspicion, civic disengagement, chequered confidence in those we contract to protect us, have been terms thrown around academia for centuries. And though the connected debates are often over-dry and abstract, a sequence of events has just reminded us that without raw trust, the very ability of democracy to function is at serious risk. 

Get careless with the small stuff - to paraphrase Albert Einstein - and you won’t be trusted with big ticket business. If this advice was pinned outside every committee corridor, every MP’s room, every debating chamber, every quango office, would it make a difference? On recent performances, the answer is, sadly, no. 

Where to start? Those who work in the Palace of Westminster have been worried about the consequences of a catastrophic fire for years. This is not about altruistic concern for those living in sub-standard public housing.

It is about how £5.7 billion is needed to refurbish parliament, to bring a neo-gothic building into the 21stcentury; and about how the electrical system in Westminster is dangerous and maintenance might not be working. It’s also about security, and digital communications and protecting Pugin’s interior design, all with a sky-high price.

This work will get done and billions will be spent. But it will probably not take the lives of ministers, MPs or the staff of the Palace of Westminster to force through the project. It is unlikely a catastrophic fire will engulf the palace and destroy Sir Charles Barry’s work. And when the upgrade is complete it will remain a fitting monument to our democracy.

But what kind of monument is the blackened skeletal structure of Grenfell Tower? What is the significance of dozens of council-owned blocks that are either clad in the same combustible material that contributed to the horrors of Grenfell, or found to be sub-standard when experts carried out a thorough safety evaluation?

If one of the key roles of the state is to protect its citizens and to ensure their rights are upheld, then what is left of Grenfell – and I choose these words carefully, intending to upset no one – is a giant tombstone to democratic failure.

Whatever form or part of government you examine, whether federal or the UK’s parliamentary and local administrative system, trust is the glue, the belief even, that decisions will only be taken if the public are protected.

Living in an advanced civic society has its risks. Government, those we elect, is there to protect and minimise such risks – to ensure food is safe, roads are safe, energy is provided, waste disposed of, the environment protected. We learn, as political consumers, to trust the government and to trust the technical experts the government says it trusts.

But what happens when trust fails and we learn there is more focus on a £5 billion upgrade of parliament’s home rather than homes supposedly built for those unable to enter the private market? 

The expenses scandal fostered concern that those who represent us may instead be stealing from us. Broken political promises and basic lies compound the problem - and trust slides. During the EU referendum, an extra £350m every week was promised for the NHS if Brexit happened. That pledge vanished quickly, along with the meaningless ‘Take back control’.

An election that Theresa May repeatedly said would not happen, subsequently resulted in her authority being abruptly removed. The marketing of a ‘strong and stable’ leader was rumbled as an unconvincing, feeble con. 

Political trust, thin on the ground before the election, has since the Grenfell fire morphed into a deeper anger. And while we may accept conflicts over the outcome of competing economic arguments, we have no stomach to accept life-ending hazards that have been ignored or dismissed as unworthy of prioritising.

Political trust, thin on the ground before the election, has since the Grenfell fire morphed into a deeper anger. 

The residents of Grenfell Tower knew where they lived was dangerous. Their concerns were well documented. Yet their voices, and their rights, were sidelined. Their concerns were not centred on advanced technological systems. It was far less complex. They knew sprinklers would help, that better alarms mattered, that a single stair exit was far from ideal. 

That anyone slept well in this fated tower block says more about the tragic acceptance of risk than it does about faith and trust. And now? If Grenfell is to mean anything, then the low trust we have in politicians and in the commercial relationships formally connected to the state, must change. Business as usual is not an option, nor is a drawn-out judicial inquiry that tries to lean on the ability to forget and move on.

Trust is lost easily, but it is usually a slow learning curve. It produces a drip-feed of suspicion that those supposed to be on your side have their attention elsewhere. This fosters the idea that even tried-and-tested expertise should be questioned or rejected. From the state’s perspective, a wait-and-see approach to catastrophe then begins to look attractive.

The UK is perhaps more guilty of this approach than elsewhere. We improve rail safety after major accidents (Paddington, Clapham Junction); we improve oil rig safety after lives are lost in a major fire (Piper Alpha), we improve ferry safety after a sea disaster (Zeebruge). And now we will improve the building and safety of high-rise blocks after Grenfell.

Our mounting loss of trust could be offset through formal links to international organisations, which monitor safety on a global scale. Instead the UK’s withdrawal from Europe risks a retreat to an ‘own-back-yard’ school of safety when we should be drawing on expertise beyond our borders.

openDemocracy has already pointed out inconsistencies in air safety in the North Sea where the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority and its Norwegian regulatory counterpart both decided they will make decisions on their own rather than take directions from the European Union’s air regulator, EASA.

In February this year the CAA discussed proposals to allow a “phased return to service” for a helicopter (Airbus’ EC225) that had been banned from operating in the UK. Despite being deemed airworthy by the EU and returned to service by military and air sea rescue services world-wide, there are currently no Super Puma 225s flying from the UK or Norway. 

The CAA stated that provided conditions were met on equipment checks and other issues, the aircraft could return to its business of ferrying personnel to the North Sea oil fields.

On the surface, this looks like the type of thorough safety regime absent from many tower blocks in the UK. Evidence was being judged and evaluated, and risks were being assessed.

However a month later the CAA opted for a two stage approach: the first where the UK and Norway regulators would decide if they are satisfied everything is safe; and a second stage where the crew and passengers who use the helicopters offer their assessment. 

If this is an indication of how far institutional trust has been eroded, where industry regulators no longer believe their own expert opinion is enough, then the work of the inquiry into Grenfell ordered by the Prime Minister will be a far harder task than expected.

The UK is about to start work on a new generation of nuclear power stations. Park the questions over their economic viability. If we no longer trust the authorities that will evaluate nuclear safety, if we no longer trust the politicians who take decisions on our behalf, and instead want a local or DIY approach to public safety, then where do we draw line? Before we board a jet to fly off on holiday, do we want to inspect the engines ourselves? Where does trust end and continuous fear become the norm? 

Grenfell is already more than an appalling loss of life. It may be a bonfire of our remaining political trust, trust any future government will need to work very hard to restore.

Sideboxes Related stories:  North Sea, air safety and Brexit Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Too many Afghan women in London face racism, sexism – and unwanted pregnancies

11 hours 19 min ago

Recent research on Afghan immigrant women living in London has revealed a multi-layered crisis. What can be done to address this, and to empower them?

Houses in north London. Photo: Andrew Parsons/PA Images. All rights reserved.Afghan immigrant women in London seem to be suffering from a slow and hidden epidemic of unwanted pregnancies. The government has failed to give an exact picture of what is happening on the ground. However, at South Asian Sexual Health (SASH) we have conducted research that suggests a lack of awareness about sexual health is endemic among first generation immigrant families.

We interviewed more than 40 Afghans (women and men) in four boroughs of west and north-east London. Their testimonies reflected how racism and sexism have combined to produce numerous unintended pregnancies. Women are being denied basic human rights by male members of their families and the British government must do more to help them and address the sexual health burden they carry.

‘Shockingly, moving to Britain seems to have done little to help Afghan women transform their lives’

Afghanistan has been described as one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman. In the UK, the diaspora has grown significantly since 1997 when the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban seized control of the country. Under their rule, women were kept as caged birds deprived of basic human rights such as access to education and the right to marry who they chose.

Shockingly, moving to Britain seems to have done little to help Afghan women transform their lives. Twelve of the 20 women we interviewed were married, and most of these married women were unemployed – but not because of a lack of qualifications. Most were university graduates, including doctors. But they weren’t “allowed to go outside,” as several respondents put it.  

Recruiting Afghan women to participate in research like this is extremely difficult as they often live in secluded communities that are hard for researchers to reach, in part because of language issues. Our in-depth discussions – in Dari and Pashtu – were intimate and emotional.

Rabia*, 41 and a mother of four, was a medical doctor in Afghanistan. She moved to London 17 years ago to live with her husband. She expressed little or no control over her sexuality. Rather, her testimony reflected how her body is bound by cultural assumptions that women’s duty is to submit to men’s demands. She said, for example, that she “never wanted to wear Hijab” but that her “husband gets upset” when she doesn’t.

“I'm not allowed to go out without my husband’s permission”

Nasrin*, 32, had an arranged married with a 43 year old Afghan man when she was 17. Her husband sought asylum in the UK after 9/11, after which she joined him. “I suffer from constant depression,” she told us. “I am not allowed to go out without my husband’s permission. If I do, he doesn’t talk to me and throws food. He sometimes hits me. I have four kids. I am busy cooking and cleaning. Afghan culture is like that”.

Women we interviewed described issues of culture, religion and gender as key barriers to accessing sexual health services as well as public places in general. They expressed finding it difficult to be part of broader social life because they can’t engage with mainstream society – as if their lives were hermetically-sealed, guarded by virtual, community fences.  

East London is home to many South Asian communities including members of the Afghan diaspora. Photo: Ritu Mahendru. These women also revealed that they don't associate sex with female pleasure – and that they often unwillingly bear the consequences of unprotected sex.

For Rabia, an inability to negotiate safe sex with her husband led to unintended pregnancies. She said: “Sometimes I don’t feel like having sex but he tells me that I am an educated woman and I should know that men have more sexual desires than women. Sometimes he doesn’t even care if the children are sleeping next to us”.

Knowledge of contraception is also shaped by myths and lack of trust in modern methods. One woman said pills are “not good for [one’s] health”. Another claimed: “I am breastfeeding and most pills aren't compatible”. A third woman said, similarly: “I do not want to take pills. I have heard that they have side effects”.

Many of the women we interviewed said it is ultimately their husband’s decision which form of contraception is used. Several said that Afghan men prefer ‘traditional’ methods to prevent pregnancies, specifically ‘early withdrawal.’ This is concerning as 1 in 4 women will get pregnant if ‘early withdrawal’ is the only form of contraception used.

“It’s my husband’s decision,” said one woman who told us her husband had insisted she use an IUD even though she hated it. Nasrin said, about her husband: “There is a whole bag of condoms in the cupboard. He has never used them”.

“There's a whole bag of condoms in the cupboard. He's never used them”

Each of the women we spoke to said that while they should have the right to accept sex, they may not have the right to dissent. From my experience over the last seven years, working with Afghan women in South Asia and in the UK, including as an activist and with NGOs, this is not uncommon: refusing to have sex and displeasing your husband could lead to violence, and in some cases it could be seen ‘un-Islamic’ too.  

Some women said they had made joint decisions with their husbands to seek family planning advice. But even in these cases they said their GP appointments were almost always led by their husbands who acted as interpreters and had the final say.

One 34-year old woman, Samia*, complained of “a lack of interpretation services”. Nasrin said: “I know a lot of women… [for whom] their husbands do the translation. I am not sure if women are able to convey their sexual health problems to their GPs, out of fear, or out of being shy”.

All of the married women we interviewed complained that family planning programmes assumed that they were in charge, when in reality it is their husbands who govern their bodies and their choices.

‘The overall message is that no help is available’

The government’s integrated sexual health plan does not give any specific consideration to inequalities faced by minority women. Too much is left to the discretion of local NHS commissioners who are given no specific guidance on the needs of migrant women or how to monitor and address inequalities.

Rayah Feldman, at the charity Maternity Action, has also warned that women asylum-seekers and those with insecure immigration statuses are particularly impacted by ever-harsher discourse and legislation around their access to health care. Migrant women in the UK are currently required to pay 150% of routine tariffs for services if they haven't already paid a visa ‘health surcharge’.

South Asian clothes shop in London where Afghan women may buy traditional clothing. Photo: Ritu Mahendru.The women we spoke to emphasised that they are unable to even leave their homes to access basic health services without their husbands. This exclusion is amplified by the British government which emboldens a hyper-masculine religious agenda, and allows Sharia courts to run in the UK, while rebuking refugees from the Muslim world in the mainstream media. The overall message is that no help is available.

Health service professionals are failing to respond to minority women’s specialist needs. Rights to privacy and informed consent are being undermined by gender and racial stereotypes. Although sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics exist, they are not necessarily a one-stop shop for all services. Most of the women we interviewed did not know how to access them.

‘To empower women, sexual health programmes need to be integrated with other services’

London is also home, however, to positive models of secular organisation fighting racial and gender equality. I have been active for example with the group Southall Black Sisters that has defended Black and minority women from harsh judgments and racism from the outside while remaining critical of fundamentalism and sexism within their communities.

As human rights defenders and activists, we can learn from examples like this to help address the multi-layered challenges faced by Afghan immigrant women in London too. A key lesson is this: To empower women, sexual health programmes need to be integrated with other services. They must be linked to efforts challenging the lower status of women, as well as religious fundamentalism, in the Afghan diaspora.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

Country or region:  England City:  London Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Integrating a psychosocial perspective in human rights works

13 hours 51 min ago

Integrating a psychosocial perspective requires the incorporation of psychosocial support and self-care into job descriptions and work plans. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on mental health and human rights. Español

Through my work with Peace Brigades International (PBI), I’ve been in contact with diverse members of local and international NGOs working on human rights, but few—if any—of these organisations have integrated a clear approach to counteracting the negative psychosocial impacts of human rights work in repressive contexts.

As an independent consultant, I recently worked with PBI to document and systemize the work done by PBI Mexico over the last 10 years, and our case study indicates that the inclusion of a psychosocial perspective can be an important mechanism to strengthen human rights organisations and their members. In our surveys and interviews, past and current members of the organization gave a variety of examples of how integration of the psychosocial perspective—in addition to specific tools and procedures—led to increased resilience, decreased internal conflicts, and improvements in protection and security work.

People who are aware of the psychosocial impacts of repression are more willing to prioritise adequate self-care.

Our interviews and surveys found that sensitisation and awareness raising about the psychosocial impacts of political violence (and human rights work in such contexts) were key—people who are aware of the psychosocial impacts of repression are more willing to prioritise adequate self-care.

To increase this awareness, PBI offered regular mental health workshops facilitated by an external expert, which addressed the impacts of violence and the problems that members of the organization deal with in their daily work. PBI also facilitated self-organized workshops, which are set up and managed by the teams in order to work on any issues related to mental health. These workshops—utilizing existing tools, knowledge, capacities and previous experiences of each member—helped staff and volunteers to recognise negative impacts and to develop strategies to prevent, cope with or counteract these effects.

Another important tool that the organization introduced was “check-ins”: these were spaces at the beginning of meetings (in person or virtual) where each person can comment on how they are doing and about aspects that influence their well-being (work-related or personal) and in which members can hear from others about how they are doing, express needs, concerns. The excessive workload and the dynamics of human rights work in the field can lead to situations in which team members do not know how their teammates are doing, and this lack of exchange can lead to misunderstandings, friction and conflicts. Proper use of check-ins can be a useful tool for preventing conflict and to promote mutual support. The tool helped to get staff and volunteers used to including expression of emotions and (the lack of) “well-being” into certain spaces, and in many occasions team members noted an increase in their empathy for each other.

Flickr/Jonathan McIntosh (Some rights reserved)

"Paseo de Humanidad" (Parade of Humanity), a painted metal mural, is attached to the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales.

In addition, PBI Mexico created “mental health minimums”, which are individual commitments by all team members to practice self-care and maintain a good state of mental health during the year in the field. These minimum commitments are different for each team member and involve simple things such as doing sports at least once a week, writing daily, and going to dance classes.

They are the result of an individual reflection process (sometimes promoted and/or guided in a workshop) and are shared with the other members of the team so that everyone is aware of each other’s needs. The implementation of these minimums is done individually but if stress dynamics linked to a lack of implementation arise, the team uses the workshops and/or the “check-ins” to follow-up as a collective. As such, the minimums help with conflicts about different perspectives on work management and self-care.

The organization also decided to rotate certain tasks considering the mental health of the team members. One example is the person who is on-call. This person is responsible for checking the phone and e-mail in order to respond to emergency situations, and PBI has taken care to avoid exposing the same people to the most difficult testimonies, such as victims of torture and forced disappearances. “During my year, the hardest moments for me emotionally were listening to testimonies of mothers of disappeared people”, stated one of the volunteers. During the workshops, the external expert provided tools to better deal with such situations and at the same time the rotation system avoided constant exposure to these testimonies.

Finally, PBI offered individual support programs with therapists through Skype. This is an external service to support employees and volunteers so that they can prevent and/or cope with situations or periods of stress and/or emotional charge. PBI has a working agreement with the European Gestalt Therapy Association where members can request individual pro-bono counselling at any time throughout their service (before, during and after the volunteer year, and also for paid staff) in order to prevent burnout and secondary trauma. At the beginning of the collaboration volunteers and staff did not used this specific service much. PBI Mexico started to promote this opportunity for support and integrated further information about this service in training and orientation of staff and volunteers alike. Now there is a regular use of the service and in the questionnaires and interviews several people stressed the importance of this tool.

PBI Mexico made extensive use of an external professional expert to support field teams to address the negative psychosocial impacts of the dynamics inherent to frontline human rights work. Before this collaboration (ten years ago) there was little work on mental health and the accompaniment work of PBI Mexico did not consider well (if at all) psychosocial aspects of the security and protection work for human rights defenders. While there was initially resistance from some members, people were rapidly convinced once they experienced the support. Over time the collaboration with the external expert led to the integration of a psychosocial approach in the internal and external work of the organization. One public example of this integration is PBI Mexico’s facilitator’s guide for security and protection workshops, which explicitly integrates a psychosocial perspective in each training module.

Although we found that workshops with the external expert were especially important, it was the combination of the different tools and procedures that led to a proper integration of the psychosocial perspective. The ongoing support via the regular workshops helped to develop or adjust these tools and procedures to make them more effective. We found that participative processes were important, as commitment and implementation depends on buy-in from all team members—coping mechanisms should not be imposed from the outside, in order to avoid resistance and/or dependence on intervention. Our study also illustrates the need to create an organizational culture that not only allows and promotes the use of time and resources for well-being and mental health, but actually integrates it as important part of the human rights work that is obligatory, reflected in work plans and job descriptions. Unless this incorporation happens, we observed that self-care gets lost or de-prioritized in the frequently overloaded agendas of HRDs and their organisations.

The horizontal and participatory working approach of PBI has certainly facilitated progress, but most of the tools and procedures described can be integrated and adapted by other local and international NGOs alike. In addition, a similar type of case study to what we completed could also help organizations identify their specific needs.

Of course, a cultural shift and strong effort to raise awareness are still required in order to foster well-being and counter negative impacts of repression within the sector. But profound changes in the staff and organisation are possible with proper investment in and implementation of psychosocial support.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 


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Sunny FP 27th June

14 hours 48 min ago
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After the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park, the Tories proposed a series of policies that would effectively police and criminalise thoughts. This will do nothing to address violent extremism.

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My own private basic income

15 hours 21 min ago

One person’s experience becoming a business owner shows how our economy is based on luck rather than merit and how it rewards people who own stuff rather than people who do stuff.

fedee P/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd)

I have a private basic income – a small, regular cash income without means test or work requirement. It’s probably large enough to meet my basic needs. And I got it thanks to privilege, nepotism, and two big lucky breaks.

My first big lucky break happened in 2009 when Georgetown University hired me as a philosophy professor on their campus in Qatar. Georgetown-Qatar, which is funded entirely by the Qatar government, has to pay an enormous premium to get faculty to agree to live and work in Qatar. I get paid three times as much as my wife. I teach half as many classes. She’s a full professor. I’m only an associate.

Qatar can pay more than US universities because of their own series of lucky breaks that put them in control of enormously valuable resources. Their position today comes largely from decisions made about a century ago, as the Ottoman Empire was breaking up. Britain and France arbitrarily drew lines on the map to create what became the states of the Middle East. They had no idea those lines would eventually give some of those states enormous amounts of oil and gas and leave others desperately poor.

The joy of options

I 'earn' my salary by doing a job few others are both willing and able to do. To some extent wages compensate for other disadvantages of the job. But this equalisation is only partial and more importantly, it only occurs among people with similar options.

I had better options than most people in the world. My white, American upper-middle class privilege gave me the opportunity to get the qualifications and the flexibility to take this job. For every highly paid professional 'expat' in Qatar like me there are maybe eight or ten extra-low paid 'migrant labourers', some of whom make as little as $200 a month. They live in dorms for years at a time, separated from their families. They are unfree to quit or to change employers. They are unfree to leave the country without their employers’ permission.

There is no combination of hard work and grit that could have put any one of these workers in my position from their starting point in life.

I see these workers often. They clean the toilets at my university. They bring me tea if I want it. They are, on average, several inches shorter than me thanks to childhood malnutrition, because human resource companies in Qatar have scoured the earth looking for the most vulnerable, cheapest labour. There is no combination of hard work and grit that could have put any one of these workers in my position from their starting point in life – nor is there a combination of bad choices that could conceivably put me in their position from my starting point. I’m paid partly because I’m willing to see unfree labourers up close rather than to stay home and consume the products of billions of workers like them without seeing them.

I do not 'earn' my salary in the sense of doing more useful work. I’m a competent professor, but I’m not outstanding. My work is no more valuable than the work other academics do – perhaps less because most of my students are already so wealthy they need education much less than the average person around the world.

I receive a high salary because I was lucky enough to be in the position to serve the whims of rentiers – that is, people who own resources and the stuff we make out of them. There are exceptions but on the whole, the highest paid people are those advantageously placed to serve the whims of wealthy people. Doctors who perform cosmetic surgery for rentiers make far more than doctors who treat malnourished children.

And the power of ownership

The real money isn’t in doing stuff for the people who own stuff. It’s in being one of the people who owns stuff. My chance to do that was my second big lucky break.

A few years before I left for Qatar, my brother returned to the Midwestern United States with a significant amount of money he’d saved while teaching English. With that money, he’d bought a couple houses, fixed them up, and rented them out. Although he made a very good rate of return, he had no more money to invest. He had less money because he was now teaching underprivileged children in a public school in South Bend, Indiana instead of teaching relatively wealthy people in Tokyo.

We were a perfect match. I had the money but not the time or skills. He had the time and skills but not the money. And as brothers we had a bond of trust. No one is going to give tens of thousands of dollars every year to some guy who owned a couple of houses and said he knew how to manage more, but I’d give it to my brother. Nepotism made my business possible.

South Bend is a fabulous place for small investors to get into real estate. Thanks to overbuilding 50 years ago, houses there are extremely cheap to buy, but not as cheap to rent. So, we needed less money to buy in and made a higher return than most real estate investors in most US cities.

I also benefited because the US tax structure is extremely favourable to business owners in general and landlords in particular. Capital gains are taxed far less than income, and people who don’t need their income are taxed less than people who do. My brother needs to live off of the salary our business pays him, and so he pays income tax on it. My wife and I don’t need the money we make from owning most of the business. We live off the salaries of our jobs, and reinvest virtually our entire share of the business. These reinvestments count as “losses,” and so officially we have never made any income or paid income taxes on our share of the business.

The business pays property taxes, but they average about $15 per house, per month – minuscule compared to the rent we make. Our business needs to maintain the houses, but the cost of maintenance is far less than we receive in rent. Eventually, I’ll take money out and pay income taxes on it, but that amount will probably always be a small portion of the returns to my share of the business. As long as my wife and I (or our heirs) keep reinvesting most of our profits, the vast majority of it will never be subject to income tax.

Making private basic incomes universal

My wife and I don’t have enough property income to put us in the one percent, and at our age, it probably won’t get there while we’re alive. But we could quit right now and be safely out of poverty with probably as much as the most generous basic income proposals on the table right now.

We have a basic income – a permanently growing basic income – not just for life, but forever. Because we own stuff we don’t need, our society rewards us with more and more stuff every year. We don’t have to do anything to get more every year. Our money works for us, so we don’t have to.

Because we own stuff we don’t need, our society rewards us with more and more stuff every year.

We don’t quit because employers have offered us jobs with good working conditions and pay that makes us significantly better off than living on our basic income alone. Most people in a similar position would do the same. If some people don’t work when a basic income becomes available, we should consider the possibility that employers aren’t paying high enough wages. My wife and I are not better humans than most of the world’s poor. Our lucky breaks make us different from the poor. And those same lucky breaks make us similar to most other people with money.

Just because I benefit from the unfairness of our economic system doesn’t make its rules any fairer. Those rules are not some natural feature of the universe. People made them. People can change them.

Why don’t we?

Obviously people who own stuff have a great deal of political power, but there’s more to it than that. Most people and policymakers do not understand the difference between rewarding people who do stuff and rewarding people who own stuff. Spending rewards production, but rewarding production is not the same as rewarding people who do things that make production happen. Everything humans produce is made from a combination of human effort and resources. Some spending rewards human efforts, but the biggest rewards go to the owners of resources and of the things we’ve made out of them in the past.

People like to think that owners are 'entrepreneurs' and 'job creators'. To some extent this is true. Entrepreneurs are owners who put forth effort to increase the value of what they own, and often what they do is valuable. But there are three reasons entrepreneurship can’t justify the enormous inequalities in the world today.

1. For owners, work is optional. For everyone else, it’s mandatory. Owners do not have to be entrepreneurs. They don’t even have to be competent. They can hire competent people to manage their money for them. The amount of 'entrepreneurship' in my story was miniscule. It amounts to this. I lucked into money. My brother knew what to do with it. I gave it to him. For nothing more than that, I never need to work again. Neither will my successors. And unless they’re spendthrifts or exceedingly incompetent investors, they’ll have more than me, and their successors will have more than them.

2. Most owners aren’t really entrepreneurs. Economists have a saying, “the entrepreneur tends to become a rentier”. The reason is simple. The more money you make, the more it makes for you, and that part of your income will eventually outstrip the part from the things you actually do. As a human, you will eventually stop working, and so, you’ll stop getting money for doing stuff, but your stuff will keep on making money forever.

3. We can get entrepreneurship without the enormous rewards to ownership we have today. Rewards were smaller a half century ago, but there was just as much entrepreneurship. What can I possibly have done in the seven years that I’ve been accumulating stuff to justify rewarding me and my successors with a perpetually growing stream of work-free income? In short, nothing. I do not exaggerate. I’ve studied the market as an economist and as a political theorist. I’ve lived it as a wage earner and as a business owner. It’s not just me and my wife. It’s how the economy works.

Some people who read this story will probably accuse me of hypocrisy, saying something like, “If you’re an egalitarian, why are you rich?” If I wrote a similar description of the economy when I was poor, they’d accuse me of jealously, saying something like, “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” That’s the catch-22 for people who complain about the rules of our economic system. You’re either hypocritical or jealous. No one has the right amount of property to complain about the distribution of property.

I plan someday to use most of my money to do something good for others instead of just for myself. But it’s the system that needs to change. Individual owners giving away things at their whim will not fix the unfairness of the system. We need to change the rules.

We don’t need to eliminate the market economy or property rights. We just need to realise that a lot of the income in the world today goes to the people who own resources and the stuff we’ve made out of them. Tax that unearned income and share it with everyone – a universal and unconditional basic income. The most common objection to basic income is that it’s supposedly wrong to give things to people who don’t work for it, when actually, the economy already gives billions of dollars of unearned income to people who are already wealthy. The problem is we don’t share it.

This article is based on an earlier version published in May 2010 at

Sideboxes Related stories:  Basic income and the anti-slavery movement Rethinking basic income in a sharing society ‘Utopia for Realists?’ - a review Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Juvenal on Grenfell Tower

16 hours 44 min ago

Satire III : 190 - 231, from The Satires, written in the early second century AD.

Grenfell Tower, June 16, 2017. Rick Findler/Press Association. All rights reseved.


The very houses are unsafe

Who fears, or ever feared, that their house might collapse,

In cool Praeneste, or in Volsinii among the wooded hills,

Or at unpretentious Gabii, or the sloping hills of Tibur?

We inhabit a Rome held up for the most part by slender

Props; since that’s the way management stop the buildings

Falling down; once they’ve covered some ancient yawning

Crack, they’ll tell us to sleep soundly at the edge of ruin.

The place to live is far from all these fires, and all these

Panics in the night. Ucalegon is already summoning a hose,

Moving his things, and your third floor’s already smoking:

You’re unaware; since if the alarm was raised downstairs,

The last to burn will be the one a bare tile protects from

The rain, up there where gentle doves coo over their eggs.

Cordus had a bed, too small for Procula, and six little jugs

Of earthenware to adorn his sideboard and, underneath it,

A little Chiron, a Centaur made of that very same ‘marble’

And a box somewhat aged now, to hold his Greek library,

So the barbarous mice gnawed away at immortal verse.

Cordus had nothing, who could demur? Yet, poor man,

He lost the whole of that nothing. And the ultimate peak

Of his misery, is that naked and begging for scraps, no one

Will give him a crust, or a hand, or a roof over his head.

If Assaracus’s great mansion is lost, his mother’s in mourning,

The nobles wear black, and the praetor adjourns his hearing.

Then we bewail the state of Rome, then we despair of its fires.

While it’s still burning, they’re rushing to offer marble, already,

Collect donations; one man contributes nude gleaming statues,

Another Euphranor’s master-works, or bronzes by Polyclitus,

Or antique ornaments that once belonged to some Asian god,

Here books and bookcases, a Minerva to set in their midst,

There a heap of silver. Persicus, wealthiest of the childless,

Is there to replace what’s lost with more, and better things.

He’s suspected, and rightly so, of setting fire to his house.

If you could tear yourself from the Games, you could buy

A most excellent place, at Sora, at Fabrateria or Frusino,

For the annual rent you pay now, for a tenement in Rome.

There you’d have a garden, and a well not deep enough

To demand a rope, so easy watering of your tender plants.

Live as a lover of the hoe, and the master of a vegetable bed,

From which a hundred vegetarian Pythagoreans could be fed.

You’d be somebody, whatever the place, however remote,

If only because you’d be the master of a solitary lizard.


translated by A.S.Kline

Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Why didn't Labour win?

Mon, 2017-06-26 19:26

Bad governance has resulted in a steady diminution of voter credit, which has progressively accumulated into a loss of confidence in that the party can govern.

Miliband in 2015. Labour Party/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Given the dire display of their government opponents, some have asked the legitimate question: why did Labour not win? Much has been written on the surprise and elation at Jeremy Corbyn’s performance. But given that the alternative has been variously characterised as the 'Maybot' and our 'supreme' leader, and has demonstrated how poor a negotiator she would be by being unable to debate in public and being uncomfortable with people, why then didn't Labour walk it into government?

The answer has little to do with Jeremy Corbyn. That is the story here: it’s not that New Labour, Blairism, Momentum, Corbynism or some other simplistic label is to blame, selected according to our personal and political likes and dislikes. Rather it’s all of the above and more: the inability to see what lies beyond party politics that transcends mere personalities.

The answer is to be found in the Labour party’s governance, dating as far back as 1922. Its weak governance has meant that internal tribalism has flourished, that ministers whose shelf life has expired have been left to continue, and, with regularity, that it has entered elections with leaders of insufficient electoral credibility. The consequence is a steady diminution of voter credit, which progressively accumulates into a loss of confidence in the party to govern.

Internal tribalism has flourished, and Labour has entered elections with leaders of insufficient electoral credibility.

The answer lies also in another jurisdiction of governance: the whole system of British government. This broken – or is it bust? –system has meant low standards of government resulting from limited electoral competition, and has meant all governments flying blind without the feedback essential to comprehend, in the New Labour government's case, the toxic consequences of neoliberalism coupled with the style of that caricatured mindset of the so-called North London liberal elite. It is the system itself that causes elected governments to fail.

Let’s start in the modern political era and with New Labour, a body that both connected with the real world and failed to grasp the big levers for change. This government, busy attempting renewal on all fronts, failed to renew itself. Stuck with those answers it first thought of – initially totems and then yokes, tired from being cabinet Ministers for so long, and struggling with the decrepit system, the old guard hung on for far too long. Fresh blood, and with it fresh thinking and fresh faces, was needed and never happened. This is a job for good governance.

New Labour also suffered from the absence of serious competition – a consequence of first past the post. Representative democracy is competition, but when one major party is out of action, as the Conservatives were for most of this period, then standards drop. New Labour had little to challenge it – until David Cameron appeared. Even then, it took some doing to lose to an Old Etonian ex-PR executive. Personally, I’d be ashamed to do that.

New Labour had little to challenge it – until David Cameron appeared.

Indeed, such was its essentially absent performance in its second half of office, and the negative memories this accumulated, it could be argued that the main reason Labour lost in 2017 is the consequence of first past the post (FPTP).

Of course, with an effective choice of only two parties – a restrictive practice – standards will never be that high. This is a rigged market that would never have allowed Apple, Google, or any ‘disruptor’ to become significant let alone to lead. Any self-regarding competition authority in the world would rule FPTP illegal.

But it is a challenge to get across to the average party politico, eyeing all that apparent power and all those trappings, that he or she would do a far better job under proportional representation (PR). But they would. Theresa May may even get round to understanding that, when she comes to write her memoirs. But few of them get it before, alas fewer still with power in their hands, and even fewer after their demise.

The absence of a credible alternative allowed the remarkably self-indulgent Blair-Brown feud to fill the void. Its continual strife sucked energy, purpose and votes. New Labour had demanded discipline from its members as the price of election, yet tolerated the most self-centred and ill-disciplined leadership I’ve ever seen in government. Both should have been read the riot act through the party’s governance.

The absence of a credible alternative allowed the remarkably self-indulgent Blair-Brown feud to fill the void.

New Labour did well in its early days, but not that well. This much was obvious to those insider/outsiders like me who lived in the real world but had straight routes into most of the senior people. I attempted to register this through feedback notes. These were designed to cut through the spin and counter-spin and to record the results experienced on the ground far from the froth of Whitehall. I sent this for example:

“But in other aspects, little or nothing has actually changed on the ground – transport being a notable example in 1999 where, after two years of new government, the traveller’s experience has not improved (except for public transport users, for three miles in an easterly direction at the London end of the M4, where a bus lane has been installed by John Prescott – hardly the stuff of heroes of the Soviet Union). Unimpeded by government, travel by train continues towards a caricature of Indian Railways – plenty of room on top.”

Another great irony here is that every government in the world would improve, and its politicians be more successful, with comprehensive, independent and balanced feedback. None has this. This is one of the several large reasons for global discontent with government performance – local, national, regional, and global. If you don’t know the score how do you know if you’re winning? Or losing? You don’t. If you don’t know where you are, how will you know how to get to your destination? You don’t.

So vast resources are spent on trying to convince themselves and the electorate that policies are working – or not, if you’re the opposition. Self-scoring, rhetorically massaging, news-spinning is the vapourware that occupies the space that real feedback should. We are all getting monumentally disgruntled with it. But until we grasp that feedback of results has to be institutionalised and put somewhere where the politicians can’t tamper with it, spin is what we’ll get. And fake news.

New Labour went into the 2010 election pretty exhausted, splintering, with little idea of what it would do next, and with the baggage of another leader who was not going to win. The legacies of the failed Iraq war and of the banking crash did not help. That the Conservatives only just scraped in via a coalition with the Lib Dems is testimony to the ‘social democratic hegemony’ that now existed in the country, to quote one cabinet minster of the time. A refreshed Labour would not have lost.

Every government in the world would improve with comprehensive, independent and balanced feedback. None has this.

Refreshments came in the form of Ed Miliband. Labour embarked on a muted why-are-we-here quest, but a stale New Labour vs Old Labour vs Only-Used-Once Labour, conducted with lashings of labellism, judgementalism, and moral superiority, was unaware of the major shifts in circumstances wrought by neoliberal economics and in values.

Underlying these five confused years in opposition, Labour knew not why it was here. After all, its historic mission to take the masses out of poverty, disadvantage, and inequality had succeeded. To compare their lot today with even when I was growing up, let alone to the conditions when Labour was founded, is to rejoice. But the old mantras continued to be chanted by a party unable to come to terms with the modern world. It needed a trip to the political psychotherapist but instead sat on its hands. What do you do when you’ve achieved what you were set up for? Retire?

It was quickly evident that no matter his various qualities, Miliband was not going to win. This repeated Labour’s most enduring failure of party governance: to enter elections with a leader without sufficient electoral credibility: Neil Kinnock in 1992, Gordon Brown in 2010, Ed Miliband in 2015. The party’s unwritten policy is to replace the CEO only once the company has gone bust.

The party’s unwritten policy is to replace the CEO only once the company has gone bust.

The Conservatives don’t self-handicap like this. Why? Their ‘1992 committee’ (so-called after its year of founding) is composed solely of backbenchers – no cabinet ministers are allowed – and thus has far more freedom to discuss difficult issues than if overseen by the management who wield much patronage power. Its role is to take soundings and suggest changes of course, and to tell leaders whose shelf life has expired to move on. Their process for challenging sitting prime ministers works too, as Labour’s did not for Blair and Brown.

The Conservatives would have replaced Kinnock with John Smith, Brown one year before the 2010 election, and Miliband after two years as leader. The party is far more important than the person.

Interesting to note that Brown’s election in 2007 became an uncontested coronation, as May’s in 2016. With a proper robust competition, both would probably have been found out. These top jobs, in the full glare of the media spotlight, find manners undiscovered in ministerial roles, only then to be so excruciatingly revealed. Not since Alec Douglas-Hume of the skeleton head in the Private Eye cartoon and the constricted and aristocratic throat warble, chosen by the Tory grandees as PM in 1962, have I seen anyone crumble as May has.

The party is far more important than the person.

Onwards to the Corbyn era – an essential disruptor for a drifting party. The Parliamentary Labour Party, of all its MPs, continued to behave as a failed state. It should have shut up, backed Corbyn for two years, given him a good run (and enough rope if you like) and then taken stock. Instead, the ruling faction threw its toys out of the pram and embarked on continuous strife.

Post the referendum, one year in, spooked by a quick election rumour, it repeated the mistake by mounting a hopeless challenge, and continued its tantrum. It showed a remarkable detachment from actual people and their genuine disadvantages, unable to comprehend their role in Brexit through preaching, ignoring and fixating on its own semi-ideology.

Apparently struck by a vision on a two-mile walk in the woods around that Victorian watering hole of the English in Dolgellau, May announced the latest election. I have wondered what would have happened if, instead, she had climbed the adjacent majestic mountain of Cader Idris.

Jeremy Corbyn played a blinder, Theresa May the opposite. In an unusual way, he was aided by Murdoch and the Mail and the rest of the fundamentalist Tory press. Such was the extreme picture painted of this threat to the security, stability, and anything else held dear that could be concocted, the comparison, once we were actually allowed to see and hear him, was far greater than if the news media had left him alone. Blimey, he’s not a monster. Crikey, he speaks straight, and without hector. Goodness gracious me, he’s even saying things I agree with. I hope Jeremy has the decency to send Murdoch and Dacre a thank-you card.

Blimey, he’s not a monster. Crikey, he speaks straight, and without hector. 

But he did have some real negatives from his first years as leader. At first, he could only find reverse gear as he came up with mostly very old Labour policies. Second, the organisation of the leader’s office and output was not competent. Third, his performance in parliament was limited.

But bear in mind that he had become leader not after years of planning alongside a slick team of advisers, but suddenly on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm for something very different. It would always take time to learn these complicated and sometimes bizarre ropes.

More than that is that none of us – including the person him or herself – before stepping into a leader role anywhere, knows whether or not they will make it. Only under the spotlight, with excited followers looking to be led, will we or they know. Corbyn has it. May does not. Party governance has to make these calls.

Whilst absolute levels of prosperity are light years from those on Labour’s founding, mass disadvantage, inequality, and disempowerment have returned. No-one is starving but the basis for a New New New Labour mission is there. Whether Corbyn recognised this or whether what he thought happened to be right for the time, I don’t know. Either way, his essential message resonated.

Either way, his essential message resonated. But did not win.

But did not win. That would have taken – not a different leader this time – but a party that had left its proud history in the history books, that grasped where many people were, that had thrown away the old recipes and thought long and hard about new and workable solutions, that really got behind their leader and their leader behind them, and shouted with one voice.

That it did not is down to years of decline in every wing, faction and tendency, itself the product of the weak governance of the Labour party and of the broken system of government and democracy.

It still has no backbench governance. I propose a committee identical in membership and role to the Conservatives, and to be named the 2022 Committee, (only a century late but let’s not carp).

I further propose that Corbyn and the MPs and the members and actually all of us, get some serious thinking caps on as to how to reform the system of government – feedback, competitive democracy, policy by design, powerful check and balance. Yes, yes, yes, all this takes time and then actually reforming the system takes time too. But Corbyn will find to his cost that the big change he and many of us want will not happen in a 60s old banger. Until the system is redesigned and fixed good and proper, government and us will muddle on, nothing much will actually change for the better nor lives made easier, political parties will keep their bad name, and every government – including your or my choice – will disappoint.

Corbyn has shown remarkable political dexterity and vision. I do hope he will grasp the biggest prize of all. It is the existing system that will stop him doing what he envisages. Its reform would lead to a fair economic system, redistribution of power and wealth, and harmony. He has shown the essential humility to know that it will take more than a new group of ministers to change the world.

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‘How do we get out if there’s a fire?’ In Yorkshire, G4S tenants live in fear

Mon, 2017-06-26 19:08

Security company G4S housed six families with babies and toddlers in a fire-trap hostel in Halifax.

A child looks out from the G4S hostel, June 2017 (John Grayson)

“The only way that landlord will do anything is when children die in there,” neighbours warned. “It’s because we are black, they don’t care,” one tenant said. They’re talking about a hostel that is home to six families and their nine children, most of them babies and toddlers.

Tenants of the six flats in a converted house in Halifax, West Yorkshire, have told me they are frightened. They say the wiring is faulty, the hallways are blocked, and there’s repeated leaks and flooding. They’ve shown me the evidence. They worry about risk of fire, and how they might escape.

I first learned about the hostel a little over two weeks ago, on Friday 9 June. A charity worker who supports one of the tenants asked for my help. She said tenants had struggled to get anybody to act on their concerns about fire safety and repairs.

Some feared speaking out, worried that this might affect their claims for asylum. All of the tenants are asylum seekers.

G4S hostel: 17 asylum-seekers live in six flats above shops (images by John Grayson)

The worker told me: “At 8.15pm on Tuesday 6 June I went to the flats. I noticed there was no indicator light on the alarm control panel. I contacted the regional manager for G4S, who called a repair man. He arrived just before 9pm, and began installing smoke alarms in the hallways. I am really worried about how safe people are in there.”

A visit to the hostel

I visited the hostel on Saturday 10 June and spent four hours inspecting, taking photographs, listening to tenants’ concerns.

The hostel is part of a converted townhouse, just off Halifax town centre, in the borough of Calderdale. The flats sit atop an electrical shop and another shop, apparently abandoned.

Directly above the shops are two flats. Another floor up, three more flats. Up another flight of stairs, at the top of the house is Flat 6, with more stairs leading up to a mezzanine within the flat.

The hostel is owned by a private landlord and managed under a UK government contract by G4S, the international security company. A subcontractor procured the property. The client is the Home Office. Calderdale Council and West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Services also have responsibilities towards tenants.

One dangerous consequence of the privatisation of asylum housing, apparent in this case, is the fog around who is responsible for what.

Here’s what some tenants told me. For their protection we’re calling them Mary, Brian, Eric, Helen, Tasmin, Joanne.

Water rushes through the ceiling

“One day in January the electric main board was flashing ‘fire in room 3’ and we dialled 999,” Mary said. “The fire engine could not find the address. I was jumping up and down in the street waving my arms to get them to the flats. It took them forty-five minutes to get here from our call. They said that a leak from a boiler in the flat above had caused the alarm.” 

Water rushes through light fittings (screenshot from tenant's video)

Brian worked as a builder in his home country. He worries about the risk of electrical fire. 

“Water pours in everywhere,” he said. “This happened last week.” He showed me a video on his camera. I could see water rushing through the light fittings.

Joanne pointed to exposed wires hanging from the ceiling on one of the landings.

Evidence of water ingress, ceiling repairs

“Perhaps the wires are not live there,” Joanne said. “But they frighten the older children who hear us talking about the water and the electrics causing fires.” Signs of water penetration and ceiling repairs were all around.

Replacement hob

Eric said his G4S cooker had fused the electrical circuits throughout the building. He showed me the replacement two-ring hob that G4S had supplied for himself, his wife and their baby.

Joanne took me to the only external door at the rear of the hostel. Because so many families with young children live here, the hallway is full of buggies.

Shoddy electrical work behind a cooker“This is our only escape, we have to leave the buggies here, the stairs are so difficult, there is no fire escape,” Joanne said. 

A neighbour who knows the flats had told her: “The only way that landlord will do anything is when children die in there.”

All the tenants said that over eight months, time and time again, they had contacted the G4S helpline pleading for better and safe conditions for their children.

Mary said: “They never do anything, even for the big things, heating and flooding. They don’t care. It’s because we are black, they don’t care.”

She told me about when the downstairs corridor flooded: “There was water full of oil and waste from the drain outside.” She showed me video on her phone. The water was ankle deep. 

The flood water was ankle deep (screenshot from tenant video)

Tasmin pointed to wet plaster in a corner of the kitchen units in her flat.

“Always water comes in,” she said. On her phone were pictures of the debris left when the wall unit crashed down, she said, narrowly missing her six-year-old daughter.

Tenants told me about other worries.

“Early one morning I heard noises in my living room which woke me and I found a man from G4S there,” one lone mother said.

“He said he had used his own key to get in. My daughter was terrified, she has bad memories of men hurting me in the past. For months the door on my toilet and bathroom would not shut. G4S never did anything. I could have been in the toilet or showering when that man came in.”

Buggies crowd the escape route (John Grayson)

She went on: “The local women’s centre suggested to G4S that I get a chain on my door. They refused, but the women’s centre threatened to get the work done themselves, and G4S put a chain on the door, and one on the door of another woman here — but still refused to fit chains on the other four flats.”

One of the support workers told me: “Three months ago, in March, St Augustine’s community centre sent complaints about the hostel to G4S, but nothing was done about them.”

Another tenant recalled a visit from the Home Office: “G4S took them only to the flats where they knew the tenants could not speak good English and were frightened to complain. When I asked why they did not come to my flat, they said the Home Office did not have time.” 

If you won’t listen to the tenants. . .

G4S knows me and my work. I’m a housing academic. I work alongside refugees at South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group, SYMAAG.

Since G4S won the Home Office asylum housing contract five years ago I’ve published quite a lot about them.

On Monday 12 June I contacted G4S and Calderdale Borough councillors and told them that the hostel was unsafe.

My intervention prompted an emergency inspection by council officers and West Yorkshire fire service on the Tuesday. On the Wednesday, a G4S welfare officer called in. One tenant suggested an emergency fire drill: “We have never had one, and it would show we cannot get out of the building safely.”

The G4S welfare officer allegedly refused, saying: “That’s up to G4S, not me.” 

Hostel rear view (John Grayson)

Heidi Wilson is Calderdale Council’s head of environment and housing services. After the inspections she told me that the council took reports of risks to tenants “very seriously” and was “giving them a high priority”. They had given G4S a list of actions and a “short time frame”. Should G4S fail to make the necessary improvements the council “would certainly consider enforcement action”. 

A dangerous place for babies

When I called in to check on progress on Thursday 15 June, I found G4S workers making repairs that had been first reported months ago. I was told that the Home Office was going to send someone to inspect the place.

I climbed all the way up to the top of the house to see Helen. She lives up there with husband Brian and their three year old son. Another stairway led to the small mezzanine where their son had had access to a floor-level window. On Tuesday the council had noted the “poor guarding to the window”. So G4S workmen had boarded up the stairway. 

Brand new noticeboard, erected 15 June 2017 (John Grayson)

Helen told me: “The G4S boss when he came up here yesterday said: ‘This is a dangerous place for babies.’”

As I left the property I saw the G4S supervisor putting up a noticeboard by the front entrance, near the alarm control panel. He had pinned up no-smoking signs, a warning about the absence of fire extinguishers, a fire safety log book and a floor plan. Someone had taken a fat red marker pen and marked out a rough escape route on the plan. 

All the information was in English. Most tenants are still learning the language.

At last, an escape plan (John Grayson)

I set about researching fire safety, emailing and phoning the tenants and G4S with more questions.

It wasn’t easy. Fire safety regulations are fiendishly complex. G4S’s own spokesman confessed to having difficulty.

G4S appeared to be in breach of fire regulations.

Before the hostel opened last year, it seems, they should have arranged for a fire risk assessment by a qualified fire safety practitioner — as required by the Fire Safety Order 2005.

From what I could see, G4S had an obligation to test the alarm every week and hold a monthly fire drill. Tenants told me these things hadn’t happened.

Tenant: It’s because we are black, they don’t care.

The regulations require that testing dates are recorded in a log book displayed in the building. The log book on the newly erected notice board contained just one entry — for a test dated April 2017.

All escape corridors and landings should have smoke alarms and emergency lighting. But the hallway smoke alarms were fitted on Tuesday 6 June 2017, eight months after the hostel opened.

Every kitchen should have a fire blanket. And they do. I asked one tenant, who is fluent in English, to open the packaging. She said: “The instructions are confusing. No one has ever told us about fire safety here. There are no instructions on the fire blanket or anywhere else in any language — except difficult English.”

My reading of the regulations suggests that G4S has a responsibility to inform and regularly update tenants on fire safety — and to provide safety information in appropriate languages.

Neighbour: The only way that landlord will do anything is when children die in there.

All of these things seem anyway like basic common sense if you are housing multiple families with small children in a four or five storey house.

As landlords of asylum housing for babies and small children, G4S has particular obligations.

The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 (Section 55) requires that immigration and asylum functions be carried out with respect for the need to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.

After the Calderdale council inspection on Tuesday 13 June, one tenant told me: “The council man said the bedroom with my children should not be used. He said the window was too small to let light in for them.”  

I asked G4S to respond to the issues raised in this article. On 15 June a G4S spokesman said the building had a valid electrical certificate and was “compliant with fire safety standards”.

About the flooding, G4S said: “There has been a very recent issue with damp after the landlord installed a new concrete walkway outside the property which is not draining effectively. We are in discussions to have a drain fitted. A roof leak has also recently been rectified and the landlord will be making good any cosmetic damage that arose.” 


And the intrusion? G4S said: “Our protocol is that when our staff visit a property they knock twice (leaving a gap in between). If there is no answer they unlock the door and call out to announce themselves. If there is still no answer they then proceed into the property, calling out that they are from G4S. We are entirely confident that this procedure is — and was — followed at this property.”

At the company’s request — (the spokesman sounded quite flustered) — we delayed publication of this piece to give G4S time to provide further comment.

On Tuesday 20 June, I tuned in to BBC Radio Sheffield, for Toby Foster’s breakfast show. He had an interview with John Whitwam, the ex-army officer who is G4S managing director, immigration and borders. Whitwam told listeners that G4S had about 18,000 asylum-seekers in 5,000 properties. “There is a great deal of scrutiny,” he said. “These properties are probably the most inspected in the UK.”

Whitwam said the G4S helpline took 4,000 calls last month. Toby Foster cut in: “5,000 houses, 4,000 calls! Nearly every house is ringing you every month!”

Whitwam replied: “These aren’t all complaints.” And then: “That’s not to say many of them aren’t.”

I was still waiting for the company’s response to my queries on Tuesday evening, when a tenant called to say that an extractor fan had fallen off the wall in Flat 2. She said she was only slightly injured, but her four year old child was hysterical.

John Whitwam on BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme 31 January 2017

On Tuesday evening, Brian was back in touch. He said the G4S welfare officer had been round to tell them: “The Home Office are coming tomorrow, you have to say everything is fine in the flats.”

On Wednesday afternoon Brian called again. He said the woman from the Home Office had been round, she’d done more talking than listening and assured them that if there’s a fire, they’ll have plenty of time to get out.

On Thursday another tenant called to say that workmen were, at last, fitting smoke alarms in tenants’ rooms. 

A curious response from G4S

Also on Wednesday came the company’s detailed response to my queries.

It was odd.

G4S offered a series of curious assertions that neither confirmed nor denied tenants’ allegations about fire safety, but, rather, bypassed their concerns.

For example, G4S noted: “Smoke alarm and fire alarm tests as recorded in our monthly property inspection report.”

On the absence of fire drills, G4S claimed: “Drills are not mandatory for private dwellings.”

Private dwellings?

G4S: These properties are probably the most inspected in the UK.

And: “All fire safety information is provided as part of the induction when asylum seekers move into the property and information in 71 languages is available in the home.”

Seventy-one languages!

About the absence of fire log books, G4S claimed: they “are sometimes taken away and used as notebooks by residents.”

And the apparent failure to arrange a fire risk assessment on the building until after I got involved? G4S claimed: “All fire alarm systems are checked monthly.”

About the Fire Service inspection of 13 June, prompted by my interventions, G4S claimed: “All adjustments recommended have now been completed. Any observations made by the fire services regarding door fittings or openings were rectified within two days.”

About the alarm control panel that had either been turned off or was defective, G4S said: “We require service users to report defects to control panels and we operate a 24 hours turn around policy to fix or replace such systems.”

G4S has claimed repeatedly that it loses money on asylum housing. The company, which had no prior experience of housing asylum seekers, won the Home Office contract after a computer-based reverse auction. G4S bid £8.42 per family member per night (according to contract details revealed in a High Court judgement here). At that price, packing 17 people into the Halifax hostel brings the monthly take to around £4,300.

Who’re you gonna call?

Until last Thursday, Calderdale Council’s website told asylum-seekers in the borough that their housing was provided, not by G4S, but by another company, Cascade Homes. The council supplied a phone number tenants could call if they needed help and advice.

I called the number. An angry man picked up. He said he was fed up with getting calls and he had nothing to do with Cascade. 

Calderdale Council's misleading advice to asylum-seekers (screenshot 20 June 2017)

I told the council about that — they corrected the online advice. They said Cascade no longer managed properties in Calderdale, only procured them. G4S confirmed: “Yes, all properties in the Halifax area are provided by Cascade.”

I was sorry that Cascade had been given any role to play.

Over years I’ve reported on their shoddy behaviour. How Cascade asylum properties in Leeds were infested with cockroaches and slugs. Male staff harassed women tenantsCascade failed to pay energy bills and council tax bills.

My evidence has been cited in Parliamentary inquiries and debates. Speaking in the Commons on 27 February 2013, Mark Durkan MP said: “What is especially alarming is that the neglect and suffering go on, regardless of this kind of public and Parliamentary exposure. There has been little impact on the everyday practice of G4S and their subcontractors.” 

In February 2014 G4S announced that they had dropped Cascade.

‘I watched that place burn’

While we were working on this piece, on Wednesday 14 June 2017, fire gutted a tower block in West London with appalling loss of life.

The block was called Grenfell Tower.

The residents were mostly people of colour, and poor. The first victim to be named was Mohammed Alhajali, a Syrian refugee.

Grenfell tenants had warned repeatedly that the flats were unsafe. Their warnings were variously dismissed, ignored, and met with legal threats.

“White tenants said their concerns were ultimately ignored, but officials were more likely to listen to them,” British journalist Dawn Foster wrote in the New York Times. “Black and South Asian survivors told me they felt the implicit message from everyone they contacted before the fire for help with the building was ‘you are a guest in this borough, and a guest in this country, you have no right to complain’.”

Back in the Halifax hostel, the tenants have come from East Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Up in the top flat, Brian told me how Grenfell had shocked him: “I watched that place burn,” he said. “I thought I couldn’t get out of this flat if there is a fire.”



  • Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light at openDemocracy.
  • To follow John on Twitter: @SYMAAG
  • To follow Clare and Shine A Light: 
  • @SHINEreports





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A Corbyn-led government should start by scrapping the Prevent Strategy

Mon, 2017-06-26 15:57

Corbyn wants to talk about and address the causes of terrorist violence? This will require scrapping the Prevent Strategy.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott responds to the statement by Home Secretary Amber Rudd in the House of Commons on the recent terror attacks in the UK, June 22,2017. Press Association Wire. All rights reserved.In less than two weeks, Jeremy Corbyn managed to see through (at least) two spectacular achievements. One was a staggering political earthquake, which puts Labour much closer to a parliamentary majority than was ever thought possible. The other was to open up some breathing space in the asphyxiating and toxic public debate about terrorism and counter-terrorism.

In the aftermath of the tragic Manchester attacks, Corbyn emphasised that the War on Terror was not working, that an effective response required a more informed understanding of the causes of terrorism and that this included looking seriously into the government’s foreign policy decisions.

It is no surprise that foreign policy or political and social conditions have stayed out of public debate on terrorism for so long. It may be the sheer shock and consternation that follows terrorist violence. It may be the (false) assumption that talking seriously about the causes of terrorism is to justify it. Or it may be the view that nihilist violence is not something we can, and therefore should, try to understand. But it is also years of repeated counter-terrorism legislation that have kept hammering the point that terrorism is something exogenous rather than endogenous to society and that we can fight it by legislation rather than radical political or social change.

State responsibility

The Prevent Strategy, which was legalised by the Counter-Terrorism Act 2015, is a central plank of this narrative. Prevent broke away with the myth that terrorism is something that is born abroad, in the ‘failed’ States and the dictatorships of the East. But the figure of the ‘home-grown’ ‘radicalised’ terrorist that emerged out of the strategy fundamentally distorted the problem. Prevent locates the causes of terrorism at the level of abstract ideas – extremism and terrorism begin with the vocal opposition to British values – and their incubation into individual vulnerable bodies eventually producing the intractable terrorist self. This not only avoids taking stock of the inter-connections between foreign policy and domestic security or between neo-liberal policies and global human insecurity. It also more fundamentally forecloses any form of State responsibility for terrorist violence.   

Although it is no secret that the strategy is primarily aimed at the Muslim community – and that it therefore itself contributes to the creeping Islamophobia that has characterised the War on Terror and that fuels the sort of racist violence underpinning the Finsbury Park attacks – Prevent is not fundamentally concerned with trying to pin down what these ‘extremist’ ideas are. What matters is that they are not the values of the British State and hence that terrorism could never truly be traced back to its actions or policies, whether at home or abroad.

Replacing ‘British values’ with ‘universal democratic values’, as the Liberal Democrats propose, may address some of the problems underpinning the definition of extremism, not least the hypocrisy that the rule of law, democracy or human rights, are somehow peculiarly British values. But it would not counter the view that terrorism is something that inherently inhabits the ‘outside’, rather than a form of violence that emerges out of a complex set of factors that include the actions of the British State and other allied democratic governments.  

More of the same

In contrast to Corbyn’s response, Theresa May’s reaction to the Manchester and London Bridge attacks was to promise yet more counter-terrorism legislation. Harsher restrictions on movement through the tightening and expansion of TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures), more deportations, greater powers of surveillance, longer sentences. Curbing the actions of these individuals will, she maintains, deliver ‘safety and strength’ to the public, despite the fact that hard legislation has already tried and visibly failed to diminish terrorist violence.

Given widespread criticism and opposition to Prevent, her position on the strategy remains ambiguous. May’s four-point plan for a renewed package of counter-terrorism legislation now includes recasting Prevent as an Engage programme. But only a few months ago there were rumours that the policy would be strengthened further. In any event, no major U-turn is to be expected on the policy. Just as TPIMS are increasingly looking like the control orders regime which they were meant to replace, any change to the Prevent strategy is likely to be cosmetic and temporary at best.

May’s longer term plan, moreover, is to expand, not reverse, the counter-extremism agenda by transposing much of the counter-terrorism toolkit to this area, introducing such measures as the banning of extremist groups or extremist disruption orders and closure orders designed to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour, and shutting down premises used to support extremism. Her latest project – formally announced in the Queen’s speech – includes the creation of a Commission for Counter-Extremism designed, among other things, to advise the government on how to assert British pluralistic values, building further on the problematic assumptions that underpin the Prevent agenda.

Enabling genuine dialogue

Last December, Diane Abbott called for a major review and fundamental rethink of the Prevent strategy. But if we really are to begin talking seriously about the causes of terrorism and deliver on the changes that are genuinely capable of tackling terrorist violence, there is no watered-down version of Prevent that will do the trick.

Prevent is not an unworkable, ineffective or counter-productive strategy. It is the lifeblood of a political establishment that seeks to pre-empt any meaningful public dialogue about the links between terrorist violence and the actions of the State at home and abroad. Corbyn is right that if there are difficult conversations to be had, this must start with the UK’s relationship to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. But for these conversations to take place, Prevent and the language of extremism must go.

Blairism imported counter-radicalisation from the Netherlands into UK policy. The Tories expanded the Prevent strategy and placed it on the statute book. It should be among the first steps of a Corbyn-led government to put it back where it belongs: the wish-list of a defeated right wing opposition.    

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Paul Rogers is openDemocracy's international security adviser. See his weekly column here.

Related stories:  Theresa May’s counter-extremism plan will create an incompetent police state Extremism and 'Prevent': the need to trust in education ‘Prevent’, free speech and antisemitism Should Britain work with 'extremists' to prevent terrorism? Where do we draw the line? We need to talk about how we talk about Prevent Prevent and anti-extremism education Trust and suspicion under ‘policed multiculturalism’ Will the democratic debate over counterrorism gain the edge in battle? Country or region:  UK EU United States Saudi Arabia Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Why does our national debate on integration ignore segregation by wealth?

Mon, 2017-06-26 11:57

A major part of what leads to segregation in society, by wealth and power, is not part of our integration debate. Why not?

Red Scarf. Chris JL/Flickr. Some rights reservedToday our society is more divided by wealth than it has been in a century. Mostly this divide between people who own housing, and those who do not.

As part of a book I co-wrote last year on housing, I interviewed a housing officer in London, who told me about a block of flats where there were two entrances, one grand one with a concierge for the ‘private owners’ and a side door for the social and general needs tenants. Leaving aside the symbolism, this is just the beginning.

The car park was for private owners only, so is the outdoor space and the ‘private owners’ insist on CCTV and security to monitor their ‘social’ neighbours rather than estate improvements that would create a community. When she meets a prospective social tenant, it is not unusual for them to turn up at the concierge entrance. My friend then has to explain that it is not for them and walk them, past the car park that is also not for them, to the side door.

This side of segregation by wealth, by power, is not part of our integration debate.

The Casey Review was the latest attempt by government to address integration. It was announced by David Cameron during a speech on extremism in July 2015 as a review of “how to boost opportunity and integration in these [ethnic minority] communities and bring Britain together as one nation.”

It focused overwhelmingly on British Muslims, denouncing various current approaches to integration as being too PC. The key message was that the UK should move away from a ‘two-way’ process of integration, where we learn from each other, to a one-way process – i.e. ‘you must become like us’.

Proposals such as a ‘integration oath’ for migrants and teaching ‘British values’ in schools are red meat for some, but will do nothing to create a sense of belonging or deal with the real issues facing communities.  

Surprisingly, Casey has not actually said what she means by ‘integration’. Historically, it developed as a direct result of the dismantling of segregation and racial discrimination, known as ‘Jim Crow’. These laws legitimised everything from casual brutal violence through to public lynching well into the 20th Century.

The UK story is very different. Slavery was never entrenched in the UK in the same way as the US. There was never a legal basis for slavery in the UK (it was actually ruled illegal in 1772 in the Somerset Vs Stewart case), whereas it was part of the US constitution and became integral to how power was exercised over colonised peoples.

Despite racism and discrimination in the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries, and horrific policies in British colonies, there was never a comparable system to Jim Crow on the UK mainland.

We do know that discrimination and inequality persist in the UK. Black and minority ethnic people and families still live in private rented housing that is more likely to be damp, overcrowded, and insecure.

Shelter the charity found that black and minority ethnic tenants not only experienced a higher level of ‘retaliatory eviction’, but had a greater fear of such action by their landlord which meant they were not confident to ask about repairs and improvements to their homes.

In health, Black men are more likely to access mental health care through criminal justice than through a GP or hospital. Disabled black and minority ethnic people are less likely to be offered and to take up personal budgets designed to give people control over their care.

While the NHS is the biggest employer of black and minority ethnic people, they still rarely reach the top of these organisations, and frontline staff such as nurses are more likely to face disciplinary action and less likely to access career development opportunities if they are from a black and minority ethnicity.  

This is part of a wider problem. Our parliament, councils, institutions, businesses, media, and legal profession in no way reflect our diverse population.

The integration debate in the UK has not focused on breaking the grip of white privilege. Instead it is about ‘assimilation’. These people are different, it’s threatening or dangerous, how can we make them more like us?

It reflects a colonial mentality, and insecurity around difference.

Now I want to tell you a different story. About sharing experiences, values and hopes. One of the common, if not universal human experiences is that of parenthood. Early on in the life of the organisation I work for, the Race Equality Foundation, we became concerned about the poor support available for black and minority ethnic families.

Particularly, the quality and effectiveness of parenting programmes. What we did was look around for a programme that worked for black and minority ethnic families. We found one in the US, developed for African American families. It is called Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities.

What we found then and ever since is that it is a programme that promotes good relationships and understanding across communities (You might call that integration), because it works not just for black and minority ethnic families, but for White families, and for poor families.

When you get parents into a room at the start of the programme, they pretty much represent the local communities. People start of reticent, guarded among people who are mostly strangers and may be unfamiliar. Soon the barriers start coming down.

People start sharing, start talking, about the challenges they face as parents, about the joys, about the hopes they have for their children. Turns out we have a lot in common when it comes to parenting.

If we are to talk about integration in the UK, let’s abandon the colonial era mentality of assimilation based on arbitrary and simplified cultural symbols. Instead let’s think about what we can do to promote our shared human experiences and connect to each other on that level.

Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

A fatwa against sexual violence: the story of a historic world congress of female Islamic scholars

Mon, 2017-06-26 10:01

Can women interpret Islamic law? Scholars who think so recently gathered in Indonesia, where fatwas were also issued against child marriage and environmental degradation.

One of the religious deliberation sessions. Photo: Dr Nur Rofiah. Can women interpret Islamic law? This question would have been a ‘no-brainer’ to a Muslim from Damascus in the 12th century, when women served as renowned teachers of the Islamic tradition, and the opinions of women jurists on questions of Islamic law carried weight comparable to that of male jurists.

Yet, if one asks a Muslim today: have you ever asked a woman for an interpretation of Islamic law?, the answer from Dakar to Dhaka, from Sarajevo to Cape Town, from Jakarta to Ann Arbor will usually be “no”.

Women are not asked to interpret Islamic law, and few expect them to do so. Very often, this is because women are not sufficiently trained for this work. If they are, they tend to be consulted only on so-called ‘women’s issues’ such as child rearing, a wife’s duties towards her husband and towards others in the family, household organisation, and hygiene.

In recent years, however, Muslims in different parts of the world have started to address gender imbalances in juristic expertise. In India, Turkey and Morocco, programs have been set up to train women as muftis (jurists who can issue fatwas or expert legal opinions). Judicial bureaucracies in Malaysia and the Palestinian Authority have begun to hire female judges in their sharia courts.

Recently, Indonesian organisations also joined forces to convene the Muslim world’s first congress of ulama perempuan: women Islamic scholars.

This historic event, held in late April in Cirebon, West Java, was nothing short of a breakthrough in terms of re-establishing the long-lost juristic authority of women to produce Islamic legal recommendations and rulings. It concluded with the issuance of three historic fatwas – against sexual violence, child marriage, and environmental degradation exacerbating gender inequality.  

Between us, we have studied Islamic authority and gender for decades. We interviewed several of the women scholars, as well as some of the male attendees, involved in the event to learn more about it and the deliberations process. We have also been able to analyse some of the copious explanatory material issued by the congress.

It was nothing short of a breakthrough in terms of re-establishing women's juristic authority

Women’s juristic authority was squarely on the agenda. Such authority can manifest itself in Islam in several ways including by leading prayer, reciting the Qur’an, delivering a sermon, transmitting a hadith (a saying of the prophet). The pinnacle of this authority is the ability to interpret Islamic sources to make recommendations of behaviour in the here and now.

In most contemporary Muslim societies, this is exercised in two main ways. The first is by issuing fatwas. These are legal recommendations based typically on interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith. (Different sects in Islam regard different hadiths as authentic, and therefore the specific source material differs from sect to sect.)

A person trained to issue a fatwa is called a mufti, with the feminine form in Arabic muftiya. Fatwas are only recommendations and they are not binding. But they can carry great weight. In some countries, policy makers take fatwas of leading Islamic authorities into account when, for example, considering reforms to family law, inheritance, Islamic finance or food and medicines regulations.  

The second way this authority is exercised is by serving as a judge in an Islamic court. This requires deep engagement and expertise interpreting religious sources, and the needed erudition and experience can take decades of study and training to acquire.

In Indonesia, for instance, family courts for the Muslim majority apply Islamic law (non-Muslims are subject to civil family law). Since the 1950s, judges for these courts have been trained in the country’s Islamic state institutes.

Although female judges of Islamic law were unheard of at the time – and remain a minority – admission to these institutes was not restricted to men. And so women also completed this advanced training and, from the 1960s, some have been appointed judges in Indonesia’s Islamic courts.

Women ulama visit the Indonesian minister of religious affairs before the congress. Photo: Dr Nur Rofiah.In 1970, Sudan also appointed women as judges in courts applying what’s known as “non-codified” Islamic law (under which judges must interpret original sources, as there is no codified text issued by the state, like a statute or book of law).

However, it would take another 35 years before women would be appointed to Islamic courts in other countries. Malaysia did so in 2005, the Palestinian Authority in 2009, and Israel just a few months ago appointed the first woman judge to its Islamic courts.

The congress in Indonesia aimed to raise awareness about these developments and strengthen local initiatives to promote women’s juristic authority in Islam. Importantly, it showed that it’s not only women who stand behind this struggle. Male scholars, while a minority, were also among the speakers and attendees.

It’s not only women who stand behind this struggle. Male scholars were also at the congress.  At the congress’s core was “musyawarah keagamaan” (religious deliberation) to formulate fatwas. In many Muslim countries fatwas are associated with individual Islamic leaders, but Indonesia has a long tradition of fatwas issued by Islamic institutions’ ‘fatwa commissions.’

The women ulama at the congress issued three fatwas. This in itself was historic as fatwa issuing has long been monopolised by male clerics. (There are, for example, only seven women ulama out of 67 members of the fatwa commission of Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) – a prominent Islamic organisation, set up by the government in the 1970s).

The first fatwa issued focused on sexual violence. It emphasises that such violence including within marriage (marital rape) is forbidden under Islamic law (haram). It also distinguishes zina (adultery and fornication) from rape. It emphasises that victims must receive psychological, physical and social support – not punishment.

The second fatwa concerns child marriage. It says these practices bring harm (mudarat) to society. The ulama’s accompanying commentary calls for raising the Indonesian legal marriage age for girls from 16 to 18 years. Importantly, as most child marriages are not registered with the state in the first place, the fatwa also tells ordinary Muslims and imams that it is obligatory (wajib) to prevent them.   

The third fatwa links environmental destruction and social inequality. It describes environmental degradation for economic gain as haram and says it has in recent decades in Indonesia exacerbated economic disparity with women the most affected. It notes how drought, for example, adds to the burdens of rural women typically responsible for preparing food and fetching water.

Participants told us that deliberations on this fatwa also touched on issues of land and forest governance, and how deforestation affects women in particular. It demanded that the Indonesian government should impose strict punishments on perpetrators of environmental destruction. Among other things, the discussion noted illegal deforestation campaigns in Indonesia to make space for vast palm oil plantations.

Like the best judges in any society, the women ulama are also experts in diverse contemporary issues.

The women ulama based their religious interpretations on four sources: the verses of the Qur’an, hadith, aqwal ‘ulama (views of religious scholars), and the Indonesian constitution. They used a methodology called “unrestricted reasoning” (istidlal), with stated aims to maximise maslaha (public interest) and reduce mudarat (harm) to arrive at rulings.

The three fatwas show that women ulama also have the ability and the expertise in Islamic sources to formulate these recommendations. They also show that the ulama perempuan do not restrict themselves to the Qur’an, hadith, other classical Islamic texts, and talking about the past. Like the best judges in any society, they are also experts in diverse contemporary issues.

Indeed, Nur Rofi’ah, an expert in Qur’anic and gender studies who took part in the congress, told us that it produced more than fatwas, which usually consist of only a few pages of argumentation. The congress considered a larger range of sources during its deliberations, including evidence of conditions and challenges faced by women. It also produced far longer and more in-depth textual explanations.

Some Indonesian gender rights activists, and Indonesian fatwa committees themselves, use the term sikap keagamaan (religious views) for recommendations that come out of this more complex deliberation process and outcome.

But whether one calls these fatwas or sikap keagamaan, their significance was clear: This congress was a historic step towards reestablishing the long-lost juristic authority of women to produce Islamic legal recommendations and rulings.

Country or region:  Indonesia Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Radical municipalism: demanding the future

Mon, 2017-06-26 08:13

‘Municipal politics’ may raise new types of demands crucial in organising powerful social movements and improving material conditions, while orienting us towards new understandings of what is possible. 

Breakout working group from a session at Fearless Cities on 'Building non-state Institutions'. Bertie Russell.The last decade has been a miserable decade. As the global capitalist socio-economic system continues to seize up, and as inequality deepens both between and across nations, the Global North has been met with a reactionary nationalist backlash. This backlash has been fuelled by the common narrative that it is malevolent ‘outsiders’ that are the cause of our problems – Mexicans, European migrants, the poor, the disabled, the working class, and so on. From so-called ‘moderate’ politicians to blood-baying ethno-nationalists, the response has been to empower those calling for a resurgence of the nation-state – to put up boundaries, borders and walls and to expel all those individuals and institutions allegedly intent on benefiting at our expense.

This nationalist backlash is based on a fundamental misconception – that if only it was possible to reinstate a parochial and ‘sovereign’ nation-state, it would be possible to ‘take back control’. That our collapsing wages, surging living costs, and hollowing out of social support has been a result of being ‘exposed’ to globalisation, and that if we could only reinstate some well-managed ‘good British/ American/ French capitalism’ then we’d all be enjoying our bread and roses.

All this fails to recognise that deindustrialization, the offshoring of production, exposure to cheap imports, and the emergence of huge personal debt, are not the result of the mismanagement of the economy. To the contrary, these strategies (amongst others such as installing puppet dictatorships, ‘structurally readjusting’ trade rules, privatizing social goods and ‘financialization’) are part of an ideological response to the systemic capitalist crisis of the 1970s. These are not symptoms of a system going wrong, but rather a concerted attempt to ‘offset’ crisis and restore profitability to an ailing economic system.

Those overseeing these transformations claimed that there was no alternative. This was purportedly no longer about politics, but about expert (economic) knowledge determining what was both necessary and logical. The “21st Century” – the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair informed us – would “not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism... within us”. This apolitical acquiescence to the ‘rules of the game’ was the supposed limit to our reality – capitalist realism, as our late comrade Mark Fisher would call it.

When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the ‘expert’ solution was to underwrite the financial system, and convert it into a sovereign debt crisis. Suddenly, the toxicity of obscure financial assets – riddled with subprime mortgage IOUs that weren’t worth the paper they were written on – had become the toxicity of public spending. Rather than an opportunity for the re-emergence of politics, the response was to apply more of the same ‘expert’ and ‘apolitical’ (of course!) adjustments to our economy. The raising of university tuition fees, the slashing of the Education Maintenance Allowance, the freeze on NHS wages and the restructuring of junior doctor contracts, the closure of Sure Start centres, the recurring huge cuts to local council funding, the sell-off of public assets, the increase to VAT, and so on and so on.

So we reach June 3, 2016, when the then UK Justice Secretary and Brexiteer Michael Gove was widely ridiculed for declaring that “people in this country had had enough of experts”. Yet the otherwise fat-tongued simpleton had got this one correct – people were sick of a political elite that had for decades proclaimed themselves as ‘experts’ presiding over a system that had left the majority of people poorer, sicker, more depressed, more scared, and less certain that the future was worth living, No clearer was this demonstrated than in the widespread rejection of the Clinton dynasty, whose failure in the 2016 US election campaign occurred despite being opposed by a misogynistic racist chauvinist fool that would soon earn the accolade of having the worst Presidential approval rating in history.

And so we reach today’s potent and almost incomprehensible mix. The nation has become mobilized as both the answer and a symbolic rejection of thirty years of ‘experts’ imposing their doctrines of structural readjustments both at home and abroad. It is underpinned by an almost romantic, yet fundamentally reactionary belief, that we can somehow return to a milieu of sovereign ‘nation-states’ in charge of their own affairs, like an archipelago of little floating islands existing irrespective and without heed to the material reality of the globally interdependent economy. This supposedly new Glorious Nation will pride itself on lowering its corporate tax rates even further – despite the fact the UK already has the lowest corporate tax in the G20…

Yet the fallacy in all this is that there is no new political-economic model. Those ‘anti-experts’ arguing that we need to ‘take back control’ and reassert our national will are often, quite literally, the same people with the same ideas that came before. This supposedly new Glorious Nation will pride itself on lowering its corporate tax rates even further – despite the fact the UK already has the lowest corporate tax in the G20 – further enmeshing daily life into the whims of global capital. Rather than being tied through the EU into destructive trade deals such as CETA, the UK is instead desperately trying to forge its own ‘deals’ that will dismantle ecological legislation, open up the NHS to US venture capital, and sell of vast swathes of our cities to foreign investment.

In short, whilst nationalist rhetoric has a very real impact in fuelling xenophobia and racism, both on the streets and in government policy, the economic policy remains one of ‘ensuring global competiveness’ – in other words, more of exactly the same political-economic approach that has defined the past three decades.

Whilst some left-learning parties and politicians – such as the UK’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, or the former Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders – promise to try and reclaim the nation-state as a more ‘humane’ institution, their strategies ultimately remain grounded in Keynesian-inspired redistributive economic logic. Whilst the rhetoric suggests these parties are part of a new leftist-strategy, the underpinning analysis remains that we can somehow return to a ‘strong’ nation-state presiding over a healthy (and controlled) capitalism that works for “the many, and not just the few”.

It is without question that we’d rather see the election of national politicians that are genuinely committed to equality and social betterment, rather than neo-fascist demagogues bent on further exacerbating inequality and hate. Yet it is not contradictory to suggest that the prospect of an archipelago of strong nation-states presiding over a ‘better’ and more equal capitalism is a fallacy. Not only is this a dream that belongs to a previous century – to a particular moment in the development of the capitalist economy – it was a dream that could only be (temporarily) fulfilled for a small minority of the worlds population, nominally a white-male population residing in former colonial states that continued to benefit from the expropriation of people and resources on a global scale.

The left ­– especially in the UK – remains without a coherent vision or a set of strategies to drive a real movement towards a world after capitalism. We need to think of a different scale for our politics, of different ways to build and exercise leverage, and of a different understanding of who can become a ‘revolutionary subject’ – those people who, through the virtue of the position they occupy in society, are in a privileged position to change how we organize our everyday lives. This doesn’t mean rejecting all that has come before, but it means recognising the need for us to generate political strategies that make sense in a world that is organized very differently to 40, 60 or 100 years before. It means recognising the need for us to generate political strategies that make sense in a world that is organized very differently to 40, 60 or 100 years before.

We are hopeful that there are already new places to look in trying to answer these questions. To help us in our search, Plan C has established a working group on Radical Municipalism and Directional Demands, to help us explore the following hypotheses:

1. That the ‘municipal’ – whether we’re talking about towns, cities or city-regions – might be a fundamentally important scale at which, and through which, to generate progressive movements towards post-capitalism; 

2. That certain types of political demands might be crucial in organising powerful social movements, helping us both improve material conditions whilst orientating us towards new understandings of what is possible. 

We’ve kept these two themes together for an important reason – different types of political strategy may be possible at different scales. We’re not excited by urban-scale politics because it’s an urban scale, just as we’re not excited about directional demands in an abstract sense. Rather, we’re interested in exploring whether the municipal scale is a unique scale through which to organize a truly internationalist – a post nationalist – revolutionary politics, and whether certain types of political demand are fundamental to realizing the potential of this scale.

In what follows, we will briefly introduce what we mean by these two tendencies, and establish some of our misgivings and questions. We’re not undertaking this with a certainty that we’re correct, nor that any strategies that emerge are mutually exclusive of other political strategies. However, we’re also aware that we can’t look to anyone but ourselves to start generating forms of political activity that both overcome the unwelcome return of nationalism, and that genuinely increase the prospects for just, ecologically sound and equitable ways of organising our societies. These will necessarily be aimed at the end of capitalism and the nation-state, and towards democratically organized societies held in common.

Why/What is radical municipalism?

‘Municipalism’ is both the practices of self-government by towns, cities, and city-regions – municipalities of different sizes – and any perspective that advocates for such forms of government. Taken on its own, municipalism appears as a politically neutral concept. It’s just as possible to advocate a municipalist strategy as a way of fuelling capitalist accumulation – which is what partially underpins the logic of the UK’s current devolution policy – as it is to advocate a municipal strategy that is based upon promoting the expansion of commons and social solidarity.

At its most basic, a radical municipal strategy is thus one that recognizes the municipal scale – both in terms of the way that people's lives are organized in these spaces, and the institutions that govern them – as a space of contestation. Rather than a depoliticized administrative unit ‘nestled’ under the nation-state, and thus of relatively ‘less’ political importance, a radical municipalist perspective asks whether there is unique revolutionary potential in organising at the municipal level.

Various radical intellectuals have previously made the case for the municipal scale being a privileged site for revolutionary organising. Perhaps most famously, Murray Bookchin – whose ideas have become influential in Rojava – argued that ‘libertarian municipalism’ was the ‘ “red button” that must be pushed if a radical movement is to open the door to the public sphere’. The Marxist geographer David Harvey has also argued that ‘rebel cities’ will become a privileged site for revolutionary movements, sharing a perspective that the ‘right to the city’ would become a clarion call for progressive communist movements. Whilst we are interested and influenced by some of these perspectives, we are not interested in this simply as a theoretical undertaking, and do not take these perspectives as ideological programmes. We take our starting point as the actually existing practices emerging at the municipal scale.

Rather, we take our starting point as the actually existing practices emerging at the municipal scale. Whilst far from a comprehensive list, we are interested in a number of different strategies emerging at the municipal scale:

  • -   Riace, Italy – the small Italian town that has received global recognition for its successful open door policy towards refugees

  • -   Jackson, MI – the American city where predominantly black working-class communities are looking to create a cooperative solidarity economy through a combination of direct action and electoral strategies under the banner of Cooperation Jackson

  • -   Naples, Italy – where in 2016 the radicalized mayor De Magistris established a “Department of the Commons”, part of a process of protecting seven properties that had been reclaimed by social initiatives 


  • -   Rosario, Argentina – where the social movement Ciudad Futura, which has its roots in a network of different types of social reproduction, have also successfully listed a number of candidates for election to the city council

  • -   Barcelona, Spain – alongside a number of Spanish cities with similar projects, Barcelona is seen as a ‘flagship’ of this new radical municipalist strategy, where the citizens platform Barcelona en Comú has implemented a number of progressive policies, not least promoting direct citizen involvement in policy development, and a participatory budgeting system to redistribute the excessive politicians wages to activist and community groups.

In no case is this simply a return to an electoral strategy, only conducted on a municipal rather than a national level. Rather, it’s an openness to the idea of occupying both the squares and the institutions – of exploring how best to generate power and exercise leverage to achieve social change. Each of these examples – and others – are unique, and we don’t yet know what lessons can be drawn from these for organising a post-nationalist movement towards post-capitalism.

Why/What are directional demands?

The idea of the ‘demand’ has long been at the heart of political organising. Some demands are framed as an opposition – an end to a war, the privatization of water services, the rule of a dictator, or against the closure of a local library. Other demands are framed as a demand for something – the right to vote, the 8-hour day, equal access to healthcare, a wage-increase, or for national secession. These demands are evidently different in terms of what they immediately want to achieve, yet there are also fundamental differences in the very nature of the demands themselves. Directional-ism is the premise that we must develop and evaluate practices and processes according to… their ‘beyond-capitalism dynamics’.

Some schools of socialist organising – most notably laid out in Trotsky’s Transitional Program – recognised certain types of ‘transitional’ demands as central to any revolutionary strategy. Premised on the idea of an intellectually immature working class and the need to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, these demands were theorized to ‘help the masses... to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution’ (Trotsky 1938). As such, the ultimate aim wasn’t so much to fulfill the demands, but rather to reveal the impossibility of seemingly reasonable demands being fulfilled within capitalist society. In helping to clear the ‘false consciousness of the masses’, these demands would thus hasten the capturing of the nation-state and implementing the revolutionary plan.

We agree neither with the necessity of capturing of the nation-state, nor the narrow conception of demands as simply tools for aiding the ‘transition’ to socialist rule. However, we share (at the most basic level) an understanding that ‘demands’ have concrete political effects – they help ‘create’ political identities, give expression to otherwise ‘latent’ anger, frame visions of how things could be different, and name enemies (whether that be people, processes, laws or systems). In other words, demands are interesting not only because of what’s being demanded, but because of the effects they have on the composition of social movements, the people that compose them, and what that means for making the seemingly impossible become possible.

We are only introducing the idea here – and so won’t go into much depth – but we suggest instead that we need to start thinking about political demands in terms of their direction. Directional-ism is the premise that we must develop and evaluate ‘practices and processes according not to their pro- or anti-capitalist ‘essence’ but according to their ‘beyond-capitalism dynamics’. [1] A directional demand must therefore ‘be capable of cognitively reorienting us far enough out of the present organization of social relations that some kind of critical distance is achieved and the political imagination of a different future is called to work’.[2] These are demands that, in their fulfilment and/or the struggle for their fulfilment, have a concrete effect on how we think about what is possible.

Our questions

Our starting point is that these two themes – of radical municipalism and directional demands – may be fundamentally linked. The question of “what makes municipalism radical?” might find its answer in the where, how and who of directional demands. In bringing these together, we’re suggesting that it’s at the municipal scale that we may find our best chance in producing ‘practices and processes’ that can really be considered as contributing to ‘beyond-capitalist dynamics’.

This hypothesis immediately poses a series of questions about the challenges and/or limits of what we are suggesting. Whilst some of these may have a ‘theoretical’ response – and we’ve got some ideas – we’re more interested in seeing how these challenges are addressed in practice:

-  If the ‘municipal’ scale is where directional demands should be made, then who are demands made to? And who makes these demands? 

-  Where and how do those who don’t live in towns or cities fit into a political strategy that focuses on the municipal? 

  • -  If we accept there is a huge danger in fetishizing ‘the local’, then how does a municipal strategy resist falling into localism? How does a municipal strategy go beyond the nation-state? 

-  Are municipal institutions just an extension of the nation-state, or is it possible that they are qualitatively different in terms of what they can do and how they are positioned? Can we make qualitatively different institutions at these scales? 

-  How does ‘occupying the squares’ and ‘occupying the institutions’ work in tandem? Can we take institutions without being institutionalized? Do we even need to take the institutions? 

-  Given the ways municipal institutions are currently limited by nation-states – both financially and legally – can we produce new ways of building our capacity to act? How can we develop resources and the ability to use them without and irrespective of the nation-state? Can we build degrees of autonomy from the nation-state? 

-  How could it be possible for municipalities to seriously disobey the nation-state without being crushed?

We don’t plan to answer these in the short-term, or to answer them on our own. We hope that through organising and working with other municipalist movements we can begin to develop our understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – meaning new problems and questions will continue to emerge.

What we’re going to do

Here’s what we're thinking of doing over the next 18 months. If you’d like to be kept in the loop, or join us in organising some events, get in touch at

Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena open the Fearless Cities conference in Barcelona on June 9, 2017. Bertie Russell.

  • -   Some of our members are attending the Fearless Cities meeting organized by Barcelona en Comú on June 9-11. We’ll be organising feedback meetings on whom we’ve met, and what we’ve learned. 
(For a taste of this event, see openDemocracy vid below.)
  • -   We’ll be hosting a series of discussions and workshops at the Plan C Festival, held 1-3 September 2017. We intend to invite those working on radical municipalist strategies to join us. 

  • -   We’ll look to host a UK-wide speaking tour, visiting cities across the UK to discuss what it would mean to build a radical municipal movement. 

  • -   We're thinking of conducting a series of Power Structural Analyses of our cities, helping us to understand how decisions really get made in our cities, and where we can look to exercise leverage. 

  • -  Through these activities, we're looking to actively network together organisations interested in developing radical municipal strategies, learning from groups that already exist, and helping share lessons across cities. 

  • -  We’re hoping to organize a major gathering in 2018, which we hope will contribute to fomenting a radical municipalist strategy within UK cities. If our friends agree, we hope this will include participants from across Europe and beyond. 

Writing in 1967 Robert Dahl, the then professor of political science at Yale University, suggested that ‘with each passing day it grows more reasonable to see the nation-state as a transitory historic form, to foresee that the nation-state will some day cease to exist as an autonomous unit... [However,] it will be generations before peoples have defined themselves and have arrived at that state of confident nation-hood where it becomes possible to imagine, without panic, the decline and supercession of the nation’. Fifty years on, we can no longer wait for this moment – we must develop means and methods of organising our societies that hastens the decline and the supercession of both capitalism and the nation-state. 

[1] Stavros Stavrides (2017) The City as Commons. Zed Books

[2] Kathi Weeks (2011) The Problem With Work. Duke University Press

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

For Plan C Fast Forward festival see here.

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Meet the Soopa Doopa branding agency that delivered Brexit

Mon, 2017-06-26 07:31

How did all of the different Leave campaigns stumble upon the same obscure branding agency in Ely, if they weren't working as a coordinated campaign? 

The offices of Soopa Doopa branding. Credit: Adam Ramsay.We didn’t expect to end up in a suburban street in Ely. But then, we didn’t expect to find a Saudi prince or a Danish ‘private banker’ embroiled in the Democratic Unionist Party’s Brexit dark money. We didn’t expect a connection with a Bengali gun-running incident. Or that the Tories would end up relying on the DUP to secure a wobbly majority. So a quiet corner of Cambridgeshire was hardly the biggest shock.

Each of the different campaigns to leave the EU was meant to be a separate organisation.

We went to Ely to find out more about Brexit, and how it was bankrolled. You see, each of the different campaigns to leave the EU was meant to be a separate organisation. You can’t simply set up a new front every time your current one is approaching its spending limit. And we know they are all different. The two main ones - Vote Leave and Leave.EU - had a massive fight, that was reported all over the media. And the DUP has been very clear with us that there was no co-ordination between their campaign and the others.

But what’s also true is that all these different campaigns used the same obscure branding agency. Over the course of the final few weeks of the referendum, the Electoral Commission Website tells us, Arron Banks’ Leave.EU, the official Vote Leave campaign, Grassroots Out, Ukip and the Democratic Unionist Party collectively spent over £800,000 with Soopa Doopa, a branding agency based, you guessed it, in the tiny Cambridgeshire city of Ely.

As part of their Brexit campaign, the DUP spent almost £100,000 with Soopa Doopa, buying 15,000 Corex Boards, 5,000 bags, 100,000 window stickers, 7,000 t-shirts and 50,000 badges. On BBC Northern Ireland, the Stephen Nolan Show recently asked its listeners if they had seen any of the DUP branded Brexit material. openDemocracy did spot some of this, but not in Northern Ireland – in Edinburgh

Meanwhile, Leave.EU spent £20,652.25 with Soopa Doopa, Grassroots Out £42,000, Ukip £18,000, and Vote Leave £637,108.80. In the whole of 2014-15, Soopa Doopa had a turnover of just three-quarters of a million pounds. 

It’s been revealed before – partly by us, and partly by the excellent Carole Cadwalladr – that the various different Brexit campaigns all used the same obscure data analytics company: the Canadian firm Aggregate IQ. The campaigns dismissed this as coincidence. DUP’s campaign manager, Jeffrey Donaldson, told us he ‘couldn’t remember’ how he heard of them, despite spending more than £32,000 with the company. 

So we decided to head to Ely, to find out what attracted the different Brexit campaigns to Soopa Doopa. First, we went to the address listed for the firm on the Companies House website – and that turned out to be a chartered accountants, who confirmed that they were registered there. Then, we popped down to another address that’s listed in public documents as theirs. It was a house in the centre of town, between a Chinese and an Indian take-away. Someone drew the curtains when we knocked. Finally, we went to the current address listed on both their website and with the Electoral Commission.

It was on the edge of town, at the end of a terrace row, and it appeared to be empty. Nevertheless, Soopa Doopa Branding Ltd does exist. The company advertises itself as “specialists in the supply and manufacture of branded promotional products”, and its website advertises a whole range of products that you can get your logo on, through them.

When we rang the number on the site to ask if we could buy a DUP Leave campaign branded mug, the firm’s owner, Jake Scott-Paul, answered the phone. Scott-Paul seemed rather surprised when asked if this was Soopa Doopa branding, but confirmed that it was, and explained that the company itself doesn’t print things, but rather organises for their printing. And so they wouldn’t have a mug themselves: they don’t handle the actual products. He also confirmed that they had worked for the various Brexit campaigns, though claimed that “they were all one campaign”. When we asked him to clarify what he meant by that, he hung up. 

Jake Scott-Paul has been public about his support for Brexit, and among his 142 Twitter followers are senior members of the Leave movement including Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore. 

“Everything you need to know is in the public domain. Those organisations came to us during the referendum and we supplied merchandise to them. That’s all I have to say really,” Soopa Doopa told us when we called back a few weeks later.

Soopa Doopa was founded in 2012, and according to the website Sourcing City News, it won two major awards at the East Cambridgeshire Business Awards last year. As the website says: 

“The judges recognised the substantial growth achieved by the company, made up of just two directors, Jake Scott-Paul and Gavin Lambert along with one part time member of staff having grown from a turnover of £750,000 in 2014-2105 to a massive £2.1 million in 2015-2016.” Nevertheless, Soopa Doopa is not on the British Promotional Merchandise Association’s list of distributors.   

Jake Scott-Paul has been public about his support for Brexit, and among his 142 Twitter followers are senior members of the Leave movement including Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore. During the campaign, Soopa Doopa’s account retweeted prominent Leave supporters, including newly promoted Brexit minister Steve Baker, showing their merchandise.

There is no suggestion that the firm did anything wrong in working for the various different leave campaigns. But what is worth asking is this: how did all of the different Leave campaigns stumble upon the same obscure branding agency in Ely? 

Under UK electoral rules, campaigners are not allowed to agree to work together unless part of a joint campaign. But the rules are less than clear cut. Discussions with other campaigners that do not involve decision making or coordinating your plans are OK, but agreeing which areas or voters to target is not. What you definitely cannot do is agree how to co-ordinate your spending with another campaigner.

“Using the same supplier for goods or services does not necessarily mean ‘working together’ is taking place. Working together is taken to be occurring when two or more campaigners have a common plan or arrangement,” the Electoral Commission said.

In public, Vote Leave and Leave.EU were frequently at loggerheads, often accusing one another of undermining the Brexit cause. But the pattern of spending by the rival Brexit camps displays a marked level of similarity, with both camps spending millions of pounds with the same firms, some of whom – like Aggregate IQ and Soopa Doopa – are hardly household names. 

Of course, one possible explanation might have been that these firms pitched their services to the campaigns, rather than the other way around. So we rang Soopa Doopa again to ask them how they got all this business, and they were clear that this isn’t what happened. As they said, before hanging up again: 

"Everything you need to know is in the public domain. Those organisations came to us during the referendum and we supplied merchandise to them. That's all I have to say really.”

Over a year on from the Brexit result, serious questions are still being raised about referendum campaign spending. Perhaps it’s time the different Brexit campaigns explained how they spent their money, and where it all came from? 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The 'dark money' that paid for Brexit Secretive DUP Brexit donor links to the Saudi intelligence service The strange link between the DUP Brexit donation and a notorious Indian gun running trial Electoral Commission contradicts DUP on Brexit donor transparency Democratic Unionist Party Brexit campaign manager admits he didn’t know about its mysterious donor’s links to the Saudi intelligence service DUP Donaldson can’t remember why his Brexit campaign spent more than £32,000 on controversial data analytics company linked to Trump Meet the Scottish Tory behind the £425,000 DUP Brexit donation How dark money is drowning British democracy The dark money driving the Scottish Tory surge Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

The fight against torture should preoccupy us all

Mon, 2017-06-26 06:55

Torture is a calculated act of cruelty and brutality that degrades us all and weakens the rule of law. On International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, let's eradicate complicity with torture.

Single Man. Credit: Omar Daffalla Ahmed, 2016.Today is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It is a day that celebrates the coming into force of the UN Convention Against Torture, on 26 June 1987, now 31 years ago. It provides an opportunity to stand in solidarity with survivors of torture and to reflect upon the practical ways to help them and to end this horrific crime. It is also a chance to underscore what is well known: torture is a calculated act of cruelty and brutality that degrades us all and weakens the rule of law. No-one should be complacent about torture.

This reflection on the need to eradicate torture and support survivors should be happening here in the United Kingdom, just as it must be happening elsewhere.

A strong and consistent anti-torture stance in foreign policy is vital for the government’s work to promote respect for human rights around the world. This means that the government should not only voice its abhorrence to torture but actively engage its partners. It should voice its objections to torture to those who laud its use, should refrain from providing material, selling specialist equipment or providing training or other assistance to foreign governments that could be used to foster the practice of torture, and should distance itself from joint intelligence work with regimes that regularly resort to torture during interrogations.

The government should distance itself from joint intelligence work with regimes that regularly resort to torture during interrogations.

A strong anti-torture stance is also crucial to protect the numerous Britons who are arbitrarily detained in countries around the world, many at risk of torture and other cruel treatment. It is estimated that over 5,000 British and dual nationals are arrested and detained abroad at any given time. Many are at risk of or actually suffer torture and other ill-treatment while in detention – these are people like Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe in Iran, and Andy Tsege in Ethiopia.

In both cases, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called publicly for their release. It is important for the UK government to do the same, and to impress upon those detaining countries that it will not tolerate such treatment of its nationals under any circumstances. The government should be looking to intensify its demarches. It should not be satisfied with the status quo: families separated from their loved ones, fearing the worst about their treatment.  

Today, we are also reminded that support and assistance to victims of torture, and those at risk of torture is not a negotiable principle. But there is a tendency to treat this commitment as optional.

  • Many women, men and children fleeing torture in their home countries have not received protection in the UK, and the Government has continued to resist calls to take more responsibility for hosting refugees. Some vulnerable torture survivors have been subjected to lengthy periods of immigration detention, despite rules which outlaw the practice. The Government has also signed agreements with countries that regularly resort to torture, like Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and Ethiopia, to facilitate the transfer of undesirable persons to those countries, even though the persons would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

  • All survivors should have access to rehabilitation services and specialist medical care, but this is not uniformly in place, despite the huge needs survivors face.
  • Restrictions with access to legal aid and tightening of judicial review procedures have reduced access to courts which has impeded many survivors’ access to reparation for the harm they suffered, as have immunities and other procedural bars.    

All credible torture allegations should be investigated and prosecuted where the evidence so supports, including all those who encouraged, ordered, tolerated or perpetrated the acts. And, access to independent court should not be curtailed, regardless of who the alleged perpetrators or victims are. But certain criminal investigations into torture allegations have been disbanded, and accountability has been obfuscated further by inquiries that have stalled or ended prematurely, with the remnants of investigations passed on to much less independent internal investigatory processes.

Piece no. 20, 2005, created as part of the group "Artists for Human Rights". Credit: Khartoum Center for Human Rights & Environmental Development.

  • The Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT), established in 2010, has effectively closed, with the remaining investigations, including that of Baha Mousa’s death following brutal torture in detention, to be taken over by the Royal Navy Police.

  • The judge-led Detention Inquiry (the Gibson Inquiry), set up in 2010 to look into whether UK security agencies were complicit in extraordinary rendition and torture, was prematurely terminated in 2012, and later transferred the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). The ISC inquiry remains pending but with little publicly known progress, hampering the public’s right to know what happened, and impeding the learning of lessons to avoid recurrence.

  • Similarly, independent inquiry processes for serious conflict-era crimes including torture in Northern Ireland have been piecemeal.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence has noted in relation to Northern Ireland, but which could apply equally to other inquiry processes: “it is critical to direct attention to instruments that might capture the more “structural” dimension of violations and abuses, so that victims and society received answers on whether the violations were part of a pattern reflecting a policy under the responsibility of institutions with identifiable chains of command.”

The arrest of General Pinochet underscored the principle that torturers could not escape justice, no matter how hard they may try

The arrest of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet in London, now almost 20 years ago, underscored the principle that torturers could not escape justice, no matter how hard they may try. There should be no safe havens for torture. But there have been only a few prosecutions in the intervening years – the trial of an Afghan warlord and a Nepali military officer. Special mission immunities have increasingly been used to protect officials from friendly governments such as Egypt and Israel, faced with the threat of arrests.  

Eradicating torture and supporting survivors requires a series of interlinked measures, alongside long-term commitments. Work on only part of the picture can serve to impede progress as a whole. It is important for the government to stick firm to the principles underpinning the values it espouses.

The Brexit process, the plans for a new Bill of Human Rights and the stated intention to derogate in future from the European Court of Human Rights to restrict the application of human rights during conflict, these should not be allowed to erode the crucial protections that are now in place. We all have a role to see that rights are strengthened, not eroded.

Sideboxes Related stories:  British torture in Iraq and the state’s ‘corporate memory loss’ Missing torture amongst the poor Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Disconnected society: how the war in the Donbas has affected Ukraine

Mon, 2017-06-26 05:19

People displaced by the war in eastern Ukraine need a community to represent their interests — any community. Why is that proving so difficult? RU

February 2017: Avdiivka, Donetsk oblast. CC BY-SA 2.0 Rebecca Harms / Flickr. Some rights reserved.An Italian journalist once asked me why I love my country. He also asked me whether I consider myself Ukrainian. After all, I was born in the Donbas, and I speak mostly Russian in my everyday life. But just because my home is now a war zone and my mother tongue is Russian doesn’t make me any less a citizen of Ukraine, or infringe my ability to relate to my country with respect, love and healthy criticism. 

Recently, I was asked another question at a Kyiv hospital. I’d gone to register at the clinic, and the clerk behind the desk asked where I was registered previously. When I replied “Luhansk region”, she answered: “Oh, you’re not a separatist by any chance?” This kind of question would stop anybody in their tracks. And perhaps we could joke about it, if that phrase didn’t conceal a war and the lives of people who are dear to me.

The strength of stereotypes

The stigmatisation of people from the Donbas often happens precisely on the everyday level, with everyday people, in everyday life. People take the example set by politicians, who have never said publicly: “We are all residents of one country and we are all needed here, every person who has a Ukrainian passport is worth the attention and care of our state, whichever part of the world they might be in.”

Before the war, the issues of language and where you’re registered as living didn’t seem particularly important. Many things can be taken as given when there isn’t a war going on: you cross the street when the light turns green; cars drive on the right side of the road; when someone steals your pursue, you go to the police station; and if you live in a country, you take care to improve it and make it more comfortable, just as that country takes care of you, too. 

A state relies on functioning communities — professional associations, groups that gather around certain interests and so on. Debates within these groups and between them allow the whole of society to remain healthy and capable of evaluating situations critically, find solutions and defend its interests. In turn, the comfort of these groups and their active public position guarantees an equal society, one with the power and confidence in its own rights and obligations.

Totemic solidarity

Before the war, society in Donetsk was made up into small local communities. Some people liked theatre, some were artists, others were activists (both on the left and the right), there was an intelligentsia oriented around the sciences and the arts, and so on. There were also ongoing divisions inside these communities. But as violent events began to develop in the region from 2013 onwards, these communities split up even more, disintegrating into even smaller units. 

But there’s solidarity in this story, too. And it’s worth mentioning it, so that these communities can start working again to find possible ways of defending their interests. 

On 21 November 2013, when students, programmers and journalists came out onto the Maidan in Kyiv, five people paid a visit to the monument to Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, in Donetsk. These people were representatives of different communities, but inside their groups they turned out to be the only people who decided to demonstrate publicly in support of EuroMaidan. One of the first people to do so was Evgeny Nasadyuk, a director and playwright, who works under the name Pyotr Armyanovsky. This demonstration, which initially attracted five people, grew gradually, with 10 people, then 50. Over the course of several months, active residents of Donetsk stayed close to the Shevchenko monument for days on end.

November 2013 meeting, Donetsk. Source: Segodnya.By January 2014, this kind of demonstration became impossible. The activists in Donetsk began to be attacked more regularly, there was more violence on the streets, and the violence was starting to slip of out of control.

Teenagers armed with bats would attack the demonstrators, and they remained unpunished despite the fact that the city police was still functioning, and the plan to reorganise it hadn’t arisen. One way of scaring the activists was to douse them with zelyonka, the green dye used to humiliate politicians and other persons of interest

All five activists who came out to protest in Donetsk in November 2013 spoke Russian. They were all residents of the Donbas, and now they are all displaced people

A few months passed and people who called themselves residents of Donetsk came out to protest allegedly against the values of EuroMaidan. In the twisted logic of this protest, the problem of defending the region’s Russophone population and their human rights (which was also linked to language) somehow emerged. In the media, this demonstration received the name “Anti-Maidan”, as something opposed to the protests happening in Kyiv. 

All five activists who came out to protest in Donetsk in November 2013 spoke Russian. They were all residents of the Donbas, and now they are all displaced people. They demonstrated to assert their rights as citizens of Ukraine, to protest against corruption in society and all institutions of power, to support modernisation and the improvement of the country’s education system. These values are universal, and thus there’s no room for exclusion on regional or other grounds here.

The largest demonstration, called “pro-Ukrainian” by activists and the press, took place in April 2014. Here, it was the same “five and fifty activists” who’d stood in front of the monument to Shevchenko previously. Indeed, it was the image of this demonstration, which showed a Ukrainian flag flying on Lenin Square in Donetsk, that went viral. 

April 2014: the last "pro-Ukrainian" demonstration in Donetsk. Source: True Donbass

But it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call this protest “pro-Ukrainian”. For the people on Lenin Square, the most important motivating factor wasn’t the Ukrainian national idea (although that was also present), but resisting the spontaneous violence that had begun to spread not only through the city’s streets, but its institutions too, thus alienating the city’s residents. It was precisely opposition to violence that became an important element for people trying to assert humanist ideals and democratic principles in April 2014. All of this helped reinvigorate Donetsk’s local community for a time, its importance and faith in the idea that city residents could defend their city. 

Although this protest was mostly attended by Russian speakers, the Ukrainian flag became its main symbol. This choice was not an accidental one. The Ukrainian flag expressed hope of retaining the state as a force that could defend the city and country against an external threat (many people were worried that the Crimean scenario could be repeated in eastern Ukraine). With the local elite and authorities inactive, the flag became something more than two pieces of blue and yellow material sewn together. It became a totem, a symbol that could protect society from violence. The flag could also be seen as a cry for help — from Kyiv or the international community. 

But what happened to this society and its sub-units after violence finally won out here?

The “other” from the Donbas

Three years on, Ukrainian society has changed a lot. Now, nobody remembers the story of the five people who protested in Donetsk in November 2013. The protesters who attended the April 2014 demonstration became internally displaced people, and they moved to different cities. For many, this move became a source of stress, and the problems that arise in new cities (accommodation, work, finances and so on) led to a feeling of being stuck in a hole. Meanwhile, for others, new circumstances gave way to positive changes and even career opportunities (many young people left to study at European universities or took jobs in good companies).

The subject of internally displaced people is one of the most divisive in the western and Ukrainian press. At the beginning of the conflict, displaced people encountered constant discrimination. In conditions of war, the power of stereotypes has only grown stronger. Despite the fact that many articles on tolerance appeared in the Ukrainian press, people displaced from the Donbas were still represented negatively in mass consciousness — poor, uneducated, politically naive and so on. On a personal level, I have encountered similar claims: “You’re an exception. But there are others, the majority. After all, it was your region that chose [Viktor] Yanukovych, and now we’re going through all of this.”

Some people consider people displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine "traitors" or "separatists". СС: Yu. Gusev. / UNHCR / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Moreover, those people who stayed in Donetsk have on occasion experienced hostility from residents of other regions of the country: “If you didn’t leave, you must’ve earned it”. At the height of events in spring 2014, I rang a woman who worked at the Donetsk Metallurgical Factory — I’d made a small documentary film with her in the past. She asked me: “What are they saying about us in Kiev? What are they saying in general?” Of course, different things were being said. Maidan fostered the creation of many volunteer organisations (VostokSOS, DonbasSOS, New Mariupol, to name a few) that worked directly with people, helped them with food or money, and even repaired homes for them. Yet another section of society couldn’t understand the situation beyond the stereotypes: apparently, the people who remained in the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine don’t leave precisely because they support the regime there.

The historian Elena Styazhkina has said many times that you shouldn’t call people living in the occupied territories separatists or supporters of the so-called People’s Republics. Indeed, according to Styazhkina, these people should be viewed as hostages — that way, your perception of the situation in the Donbas changes. 

Leave and forget — this is all that a certain segment of Ukrainian society wanted people in the Donbas to do in 2014 

Back in 2013, before the war, Sergei Bratkov, a Ukrainian artist from Kharkiv, created the work Leave, Forget, which at the time bore no relation to the conflict. Visually, the work is very simple: a black and white photograph shows a man going down a metro escalator from behind, and on top of it, there’s a neon sign: “leaveforget”. Bratkov’s work was created as a reaction to the relationship between the individual and society, their desire to leave their hometown and move into a different social context. Today, this installation looks completely different: if originally, the man decided to leave due to the soft power of the big city, then today, he’s a resident of the occupied territories who has been physically expelled from his native environment.

Leave and forget — this is all that a certain segment of Ukrainian society wanted people in the Donbas to do in 2014. But in certain situations, it’s impossible to leave, let alone forget. I’ve been asked many times why my parents don’t just leave their region, and whether their reluctance to do so means that life there suits them. I rephrased Bratkov’s sentiment for myself: “Remain and survive”.

"Leaveforget" by Sergei Bratkov. Image use permitted by PinchukArtCentre (c) 2013. Photograph: Sergei Ilin.Styazhkina notes: “People in the Donbas call themselves peaceful. This isn’t a recognition that the future will be peaceful, but a denial of war. They don’t call themselves republicans or members of the Donetsk People’s Republic. This something of a step towards [peace], and it should be noted. People can move towards this image of the future.” 

The emergence of a negative image of the Donbas is connected to the fact that no one outside the region knew much about it, its character, its life, or the people who lived there. People only remember the fact that the Donbas was the heart of Soviet industrialisation, and that people from across the Soviet Union (including some with a criminal past) traveled there to build and restore it after the Second World War. The myth about the down-at-heel Donbas was fed further by gang wars in the early 1990s, as well as the background of its political elite — the majority of them (for example, Rinat Akhmetov or Viktor Yanukovych) had criminal backgrounds. The fact that the region remained conservative and nostalgic for the Soviet past didn’t help either.

T he development of this myth, and the opposition between the Donbas and the rest of Ukraine, was useful for political elites who leveraged their influence to gain votes and mobilise the electorate in 1996-2012. Given that real reforms were not being carried out, populist methods were supposed to reorient voters into an emotional frame in which language and birthplace became markers of how Ukrainian society had fallen behind, a barrier to reform, and all responsibility of politicians was removed in favour of an amorphous “regional problem”. 

Chelyuskintsev mine, Donetsk oblast. (с) Alexei Kudenko / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.The “Sovietness” that the Donbas is often accused of is really the massive gap between the very rich and very poor, the lack of reforms to the education system, the absence of real trade unions, investment in healthcare, low wages, bad transport system and infrastructure, and inactive communities. Indeed, all of these problems unite Ukraine’s 24 regions and Crimea. 

Realising that the problem of Ukrainian society today isn’t its eastern regions, but the substitution of reform with populism, will make everyone feel like a resident of the Donbas — a powerless minority that cannot defend itself. The fear of understanding that Ukrainian society isn’t defended by the state leads to the creation of a mythical Other. And this time, Ukraine’s Other doesn’t come from outer space, but the all-too real Donbas, the source of all the country’s ills.

Everyone’s a comrade

In spring 2014, before the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” was declared in the Donbas, there was an attempt to create a Committee of Patriotic Forces of Donbas in Donetsk. This was supposed to be a civic initiative that could defend the interests of residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions at all levels. Despite the fact that the Committee, which includes Donetsk intellectuals and civic activists, still exists today, issues concerning the region are decided mostly without its involvement. 

Against the background of the conflict, displaced people could have formed a model of a working community capable of defending its own interests (and the interests of Donetsk and Luhansk) independently. But for the most part, this hasn’t happened. And the already fragile community has split up into small groups, which have begun to defend their own interests inside this (small) community, isolating one another and increasing the level of internal competition. This fight, this competition is often accompanied by discussion about which activist is the biggest patriot, who is the biggest activist, who has suffered most, and who has suffered least, and who supports human rights. 

Mariupol, 2014. Image courtesy of the author. For example, when I spoke with Evgeny Nasadyuk in January 2017, he made an offhand remark to the effect that he doesn’t want to associate himself with certain representatives of the Donetsk region, and that you should be sceptical about any public demonstrations they organise. Other activists and displaced persons have expressed similar opinions. I experience similar feelings to a certain extent myself. Perhaps this position comes from an unhealed trauma, or the fact that everyone is involved in a secret struggle for their place under the sun. People who refuse to participate in this struggle leave the community and either remain on their own or join another group.

In The Uses of Disorder, the American sociologist Richard Sennett speaks about how “images of communal solidarity are forged in order that men can avoid dealing with each other… The ‘we’ feeling, which expresses the desire to be similar, is a way for men to avoid the necessity of looking deeper into each other.” Ukrainian society isn’t so far from this model: the concept of “us” isn’t formed on the basis of accepting different categories and groups of the population, and even excludes them. 

Right now, the war justifies everything — aims, means, fictional solidarity, the lack of protection by the state and excessive public patriotism 

Our segmented society has stopped talking to one another, defining common aims, seeing allies, rather than enemies, in each other. Any discussion is reduced to “kitchen talk”, Facebook activism or posts on other social networks. Street protest doesn’t work anymore, it’s been compromised too many times by paid actions. Furthermore, the people behind Ukraine’s public polemics often come from the same small circle who have the same views and similar backgrounds. To go beyond this circle, you have to get out of your comfort zone, express solidarity with people you haven’t met before, and see problems in their true complexity, beyond personal interest. All of this seems utopian and fraught with problems.

Right now, the war justifies everything — aims, means, fictional solidarity, the lack of protection by the state and excessive public patriotism. All of this only plays into the hands of those political forces which will try to retain their place at the next round of elections and once again appeal to the electorate, and not society. 

It’s impossible to even imagine that someone from Ukraine’s political leadership will make a special announcement on television (as president Poroshenko did with Ukraine’s visa-free regime), in which he’d announce that we should make our society more human, or, for instance, make a public example of tolerant behaviour towards residents of our country’s two easternmost regions. Or perhaps lobbyists, intellectuals, writers and philosophers from the Donbas could address Ukraine’s parliament. 

Still, I’d like to believe that when the guns stop firing, we will be ready to accept peace and everyone without exception. After all, we’ll have to do it anyway.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Liberal democracy: a hard choice for Ukraine Critical thinking at (the) stake: Ukraine’s witch hunt against journalism How ‘eastern Ukraine’ was lost Dreams of Europe: refugees and xenophobia in Russia and Ukraine Second-hand Europe: Ukrainian immigrants in Poland Ukraine’s ministry of internal hatred Ukraine’s displaced universities Undermined: how the state is selling out Ukraine’s coal workers Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

US secrecy and transparency in the use of lethal force

Mon, 2017-06-26 04:32

A new report reviews the abuse and civilian harm resulting from American drone strikes and lethal operations.العربية

Image credit: Daniel GreenfeldThis article was first published on Just Security

Much of the news in the first few months of the Trump administration has been dominated by the Russia scandal, James Comey, and the President’s Twitter feed. Falling below the radar of many news outlets, but something that is of growing concern, is the Trump administration’s attitude and approach to the use of force overseas. In its short time in power, the new administration has already shown itself to be more aggressive than its far from war-shy predecessor. U.S. strikes in Yemen have dramatically increased, and the average number of lethal operations per month in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen is nearly quadruple what it was under Obama. The limited policy restraints President Obama imposed on the use of lethal force in places far from traditional battlefields are at risk of being discarded by an administration that has already reportedly acted to loosen these rules in parts of Somalia and Yemen. The question remains whether, or how much, the Trump White House will ever commit to transparency and accountability—and what can be done to monitor the administration.

As highlighted in a new report published today by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic and the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, the heightened prospect of abuse and civilian harm under the new administration makes transparency more important than ever.

The report is the first comprehensive review of the extent of U.S. secrecy and transparency about drone strikes and lethal operations and covers a 15-year period (2002-17), focusing on Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, where, for many years, “targeted killings” and drone strikes have been carried out in great secrecy far from traditional battlefields. The report grades the U.S. government on its transparency record, marking the government according to a five-point scale ranging from “no/almost no transparency” to “complete transparency.”

Here we set out how transparent the U.S. government has been, present a new framework for transparency and our evaluation of U.S. practice between 2002-17, and run through the different reasons why transparency is important. We finish by looking ahead and providing some key data points that will aid in assessing the Trump Administration’s approach to this issue. We believe our model can also be applied to other countries, including U.S. allies and adversaries alike.

How Transparent is the U.S. Government?

Overall, we found that despite some important, if belated, steps toward greater transparency between 2010 and 2016, the U.S. government has been highly secretive. While the Bush era and the early part of the Obama presidency were marked by almost complete secrecy in this area, in the latter part of President Obama’s tenure the government made several key disclosures. These included the release of information about legal and policy constraints on, and procedures for, the use of lethal force abroad, as well as basic statistical data on civilian casualties. Notably, the U.S. government also started to provide official acknowledgments and release basic information about specific strikes in Somalia from 2014, and in Yemen from 2016. These reforms and disclosures were significant, not least because they showed how greater transparency was possible even in the face of internal resistance within the government. It will be important to see whether they are maintained, built upon, or discarded by the Trump administration.

The U.S. government, however, is still secretive in a number of important areas. Nearly all past strikes and civilian casualties remain unexplained, and operations and strikes in Pakistan remain cloaked in secrecy. Our research reveals that the government has officially acknowledged just over 20 percent of the more than 700 reported strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen since 2002. There is a dearth of information about accountability for wrongdoing and the legal basis for specific strikes, and the U.S. government has also failed to explain key legal and policy rules, the specific terms that are relevant to such an assessment, and how they apply.

Our key conclusions are:

  1. The U.S. has improved transparency about the legal and policy rules applicable to the use of lethal force overseas, but the rules remain vague and poorly explained.

  2. Drone strike and lethal force practices are highly secretive, there has been limited, or no information provided to families or the general public about specific strikes, and civilian casualty data lack sufficient detail.

  3. The U.S. government has provided information on decision-making processes, particularly for the military, but the CIA’s decision-making processes remain highly secretive.

  4. The U.S. government has disclosed post-strike military investigative procedures and some aspects of Congressional oversight processes, but there is little or no transparency regarding specific follow-up, or actions taken to ensure accountability in individual cases.

In the report, we set out a concrete agenda for reform and a number of specific recommendations for the U.S. government and other governments. These include calling on the U.S. government to:

  1. Record, acknowledge, and explain to families and the public every civilian death, providing the name of the person killed.

  2. Provide detailed explanations for all past and future cases in which there are credible allegations of unlawful killings or civilian harm. In particular, provide urgent responses to ten serious cases that civil society groups have raised with the U.S. government.

  3. Promptly release the results of all government investigations into specific strikes, subject only to redactions where families of those killed, or those injured, have requested privacy or to ensure their physical safety, or only as strictly necessary for legitimate national security reasons.

  4. Disclose the legal basis for individual strikes, including by releasing all Office of Legal Counsel and other agency legal memoranda that set forth the grounds for the use of force against all persons targeted, whether U.S. citizen or non-citizen.

Evaluating Government Transparency and Secrecy about the Use of Lethal Force

We analyzed U.S. practice in four key areas: transparency about applicable law and policy; transparency about actual strike practices; transparency about government decision-making processes; and transparency about accountability. With a focus on U.S. practice in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen—where, for many years, strikes have been carried out far from traditional battlefields and in great secrecy—we graded the U.S. government’s record against a five-point color-coded scale ranging from “no/almost no transparency” to “complete transparency.”

Too often, the debate about transparency has become stuck in generalities. By breaking down transparency into its component parts, we hope to encourage a more specific and nuanced discussion about different types of information and the extent to which transparency is needed. Some of the key questions that we sought to answer were:

What kinds of transparency are important, and why? In which areas have positive steps been taken toward transparency? What exactly do U.S. government disclosures tell the public about U.S. policy and practice on the use of lethal force? What is unclear, uncertain, secret, not known?

The report includes a framework against which the U.S. and other governments that use lethal force abroad can be evaluated: a set of human rights-based “Ensuring Transparency in the Use of Force Benchmarks.”  These benchmarks were designed by the authors of the report and are “grounded in the interests and rights of people impacted by U.S. strikes, international law, and the promotion of the rule of law and democratic accountability.” Built into the framework is a recognition that secrecy is clearly necessary in certain circumstances—for legitimate national security reasons or to protect individuals whose lives may be at risk, for example. The framework is intended to aid policymakers, journalists, and others to assess government transparency and secrecy in the use of force over time.

In terms of legal and policy transparency, the U.S. government receives mostly low grades. Following years of almost complete secrecy, and following litigation and heavy domestic and international pressure, between 2010-2016 the U.S. government publicly explained important elements of its legal reasoning, the legal basis for strikes, and key policy standards. However, important details remain unclear:

Numerous memoranda explaining the legal basis for specific strikes and operations remain secret. Key legal and policy terms relevant to understanding who, how, and in what circumstances the U.S. government believes it can kill are not clearly defined, affording a wide latitude for interpretation with the potential to undermine constraints on the President’s authority to kill. Without adequate disclosures explaining how the United States interprets, defines, and applies key terms it is difficult both to understand precisely what are the United States’ views of the legal and policy limits on the use of lethal force and to assess whether the United States is accurately interpreting its binding international legal obligations.

Calls for transparency have been particularly vocal in relation to transparency about specific strikes and U.S. practices, where for many years there was almost complete secrecy. There have been changes. In 2014 in Somalia, and in 2016 in Yemen, the U.S. military began officially and regularly acknowledging strikes. However, for earlier strikes, and almost all strikes in Pakistan, there is almost no official acknowledgment at all.

The United States has almost never disclosed the names of civilians killed. It released details of investigations and assessments in relation to just a handful of the hundreds of strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and has not given adequate responses to non-governmental organizations that have for years requested explanations about specific strikes in which there is credible evidence of civilian casualties and potential unlawful killings. It has officially named only one U.S. civilian, and one Italian civilian killed in a strike in Pakistan, as well as several other U.S. citizens it said were “not specifically targeted.” The unusually extensive information released about the strike that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto shows that the government can and should disclose such information about all such strikes. What message does this double standard send to the vast majority of those killed and injured in U.S. strikes who are citizens of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia?

Importantly, the U.S. government also began releasing civilian casualty data in 2016, and again in 2017. However, the U.S. government’s figures have been the subject of some debate, and criticized by a number of commentators. As the government has provided only very basic statistics, it is difficult to engage in a serious review or analysis of the U.S. government’s numbers. A more detailed breakdown is needed, including at least by country and location, and also by age and sex.

The U.S. government has provided more information regarding how decisions are made, particularly in recent years. In 2016, pursuant to litigation brought by the ACLU, the U.S. government released its Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) about the institutional actors and processes involved in deciding to launch a strike in areas “outside of active hostilities,” although a number of important exceptional procedures remain unexplained.  This policy does not cover all targeting decision-making processes. For situations not covered by this policy, there is a glaring difference between CIA and military transparency. The U.S. military has disclosed a series of documents outlining its targeting decision-making process in generic form. However, it is very difficult to find publicly available information about CIA targeting decision-making processes.

The U.S. military is, and has been for some time, transparent about its accountability processes and protocols. However, again, very little information is available for the CIA. In terms of congressional oversight mechanisms, since 2012 there has been greater transparency, but a full assessment of congressional oversight is hindered by a lack of detailed information about recommendations made and actions taken by the executive branch in relation to the use of force. This makes it difficult to assess how meaningful this oversight is.

Crucially, there is no clear and accessible mechanism for those injured and the families of those killed in strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen to bring forward allegations or to claim and receive compensation or condolence payments, nor is there much publicly available information about compensation or condolence payments provided. In U.S. courts, the government has also sought to prevent scrutiny of its strikes abroad by arguing for a broad application of the state secrets doctrine.

Why is Transparency Important?

While improved transparency is not the complete answer to the many concerns related to the U.S. use of force abroad, it is of critical importance. Transparency matters for the families of those killed and injured, compliance with international law, protecting the rule of law, democratic accountability, deterring wrongful behavior—particularly important when there is a heightened risk of abuse—and U.S. leadership and credibility. The report also explains how different types of transparency matter for different reasons:

Transparency about the facts—who was killed, what happened and where, for individual strikes and in overall statistics—matters to those injured and families of those killed in strikes, whose suffering currently remains unacknowledged and unaccounted for. It matters to the general public, who require such information to engage in informed debate about their government’s actions, and to hold their elected representatives to account. Transparency about the laws and policies being applied to strikes, about the facts of strikes, and about the government’s decision-making and accountability processes, is essential for the rule of law, deterring abuse, enabling oversight, and establishing accountability for abuse. As a prerequisite to accountability, transparency is necessary to ensure that a government adheres to domestic and international legal limits. Rules that are secret fundamentally undermine the rule of law, and rules that lack clarity lend themselves to abuse and weaken the capacity of external actors to assess whether a rule is being implemented in practice. As former U.S. government officials have noted, transparency enhances U.S. government credibility and builds trust with key partners. Transparency is also required by binding international law.  International law requires governments to be transparent about state conduct, and permits only narrow exceptions for secrecy in limited circumstances. Victims have a specific right to a remedy, which includes rights to disclosure and the truth.

Looking ahead: Data Points to Assess the Approach of the Trump Administration

It is still too early to make a full assessment of the Trump Administration’s approach to these issues, although there is already ample cause for concern. U.S. strike acknowledgments in Yemen, for example, have become even more generalized, with the U.S. military at times acknowledging 80 strikes at a time over a period of several months, rather than the more individualized acknowledgments that were the norm at the end of Obama’s tenure.

There are a number of key data points that can be used to assess whether transparency is improving under Trump, staying the same, or if this administration will instead repeat the mistakes of the early Obama years of excessive secrecy—an approach that undermined counterterrorism efforts and increased the suffering of the families of those killed and injured. A selection of these data points are listed below:

Legal and policy standards. Will the Trump Administration release a compendium of what it assesses to be its legal and policy rules on the use of force, as the Obama Administration did in December 2016? A Presidential Memorandum issued at the same time requires the National Security Council to coordinate a review and update this report on at least an annual basis.

Legal justifications. Will the U.S. government release the legal basis for specific strikes and operations, for example, pursuant to the ACLU’s litigation on the disastrous January raid in Yemen? Will the Trump Administration be transparent about any changes to the policy standards it applies to strikes, which are reported to be the subject of discussion within the Administration?

Strike acknowledgments. Will the Department of Defense, U.S. Central Command, and U.S. Africa Command regularly and individually acknowledge strikes? Will the CIA ever specifically acknowledge strikes that it has carried out? Will any strikes in Pakistan be specifically acknowledged?

Civilian harm. Will civilian casualties in individual cases be acknowledged? Will the names of civilian victims of strikes be released? Will the U.S. government continue to release its annual report on civilian casualties—the last one was issued by the Obama Administration in January 2017—and will it supply the much-needed additional details?

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Do you speak Mingrelian?

Mon, 2017-06-26 04:19

A major language in western Georgia could struggle for survival – because it’s not considered one.

Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi, residence of the last princes of Samegrelo (Mingrelia). Photo CC-by-NC-2.0: Silber_Mel / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When you raise a glass with Edemi Izoria, you can practice the fine art of toasting in Georgian or Russian, but he will be most pleased if you add his native language, Mingrelian.

Izoria, a short man with a white beard, is in many ways a typical host in Zugdidi, the quiet plains town that serves as the administrative centre of Samegrelo. After sitting down on his vine-covered veranda, it only takes a few minutes and he will convince his guest this western province of Georgia is not merely the cradle of Georgian civilisation, but of mankind as a whole. And while his wife will serve local delicacies like lamb stewed with tarragon and ghomi, steaming white polenta with chunks of cheese in it, the retired doctor will expand his theory that the ancient Egyptians spoke a proto-Mingrelian language when devising their hieroglyphs.

But Izoria is atypical in that he actually speaks up for Mingrelian, having established a small regional advocacy group called “Aia”. During an hour-long interview earlier this month, he argued that the ongoing “Georgianisation” of his homeland needs to stop. “We need Mingrelian in kindergartens and schools. Not as a subject but as language of instruction,” he says.

Mingrelian is a strange phenomenon, not only for linguists. Despite the fact that the language is probably spoken by probably more than 300,000 people, mostly in Samegrelo and the neighbouring breakaway state of Abkhazia, it remains to this day a largely unwritten language and enjoys practically no institutional protection in education or culture. It is hard to think of another language in Europe that has so many speakers and so little status.

Linguists point out that Mingrelian and Georgian parted ways in the eighth century BC – more than 2,700 years ago 

For centuries, speakers of Mingrelian have used their language as a vernacular for home and village, while Georgian was reserved for cultural purposes like reading, writing and praying. Georgian governments, both Soviet and post-Soviet, have taken pains to stress that Mingrelian-speakers are part of an indivisible Georgian nation. 

An explanation often heard among Georgian officials and intellectuals is that Mingrelian is a “dialect” – because it doesn’t possess a literature or writing system. While it is universally accepted that Mingrelian is part of the Kartvelian language group, which apart from Georgian includes Laz (spoken in northeastern Turkey) and the more distantly related Svan language, linguists point out that Mingrelian and Georgian parted ways in the eighth century BC – more than 2,700 years ago.

Edemi Izoria, a Mingrelian-language activist, displays one of his books on the local idiom. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

Mingrelian certainly sounds different from Georgian — and speakers like to boast that it is richer or “purer” than its larger neighbour (Georgian has an estimated four million native speakers). For instance, the verb “to pluck” (from a piece of bread) has at least four variants, tskitskonua meaning “to pluck off lightly”, ts’k’its’k’onua “to nip off squeamishly while eating”, zgizgonua “to pluck off bigger pieces” and zhgizhgonua “to tear off brutally”.

But despite this precision, the use of Mingrelian appears to be declining. While there are no reliable figures available, teachers and parents in both Zugdidi and Senaki, the biggest Mingrelian-speaking cities, say that children no longer speak the language when they enter school. Nato Inalishvili, who teaches Georgian at Senaki’s fourth school, says that just 20% of first graders are currently fluent in Mingrelian. And Izoria, the activist from Zugdidi, admits that even his own grandchildren have “tragically” failed to learn the language.

When asked why, locals point to a lack of prestige. “People are ashamed of speaking Mingrelian, they are even ashamed of sounding Mingrelian,” sighs Zviad Pachkoria, a truck driver turned activist from Senaki.

This problem is not new. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Niko Dadiani, a local nobleman, wrote to his Bishop that Mingrelian was a “despicable worm language” and that “even the peasants call Mingrelians worms”.

But it is hard to tackle, because Mingrelians have almost developed a habit of becoming great Georgians. The most famous example is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the country’s first president after the Soviet break-up in 1991.

“People are ashamed of speaking Mingrelian, they are even ashamed of sounding Mingrelian”

Although Gamsakhurdia was of Mingrelian descent, he hardly spoke the language. His nationalist slogan “Georgia for the Georgians” triggered ethnic strife and ultimately led to war with separatists, backed by Russia, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result, Georgia lost control of both territories, which to this day remain largely unrecognised Russian protectorates.

Because of the situation in Abkhazia, promoting Mingrelian as a separate language has become intrinsically linked to separatism in Georgia. Most of the roughly 200,000 Georgians that were expelled or fled the Black Sea region in the early 1990s were Mingrelian speakers, and up to 60,000 remain in the southernmost Gali region.

The Abkhaz authorities there produce a newspaper in Mingrelian, Abkhaz and Russian. This small bimonthly, Gal, has been published on and off since the 1990s and may never had much impact on public opinion. But as of spring 2017, there are plans to make the new channel Gal TV broadcast in Mingrelian (link in Russian).

The “Gal” newspaper is published in the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, in the Abkhaz, Mingrelian, and Russian languages. It is partly due to these initiatives by the separatist authorities that many Georgians view Mingrelian language activism with suspicion. Photo courtesy of Iko / LiveJournal. Some rights reserved.

The first attempts to produce a standardised written Mingrelian came in the 1860s, when the Russian Empire had conquered the region and Tsarist scholars analysed local languages. Attempts to create a writing system, initially on the basis of Cyrillic, soon triggered heavy opposition from Georgian elites, who suspected the Russians of carrying out politics of “divide and rule”.

Then in the 1930s, authorities in Soviet Georgia experimented with a Mingrelian script based on the Georgian alphabet. The experiment, known as the “Mingrelian Question”, foundered after Lavrenti Beria won the upper hand in a political struggle. After becoming leader of the Communist Party Georgian branch in 1931, Beria, who was himself of Mingrelian origin, decided that it was better not to lobby for what would easily be seen as his own nationality.

That script was revived in the 1990s, when feeble attempts were made to publish Mingrelian texts.

Georgian suspicions that Moscow harbours plans to weaken their country by dividing up its titular ethnic group into smaller components were seemingly confirmed in 2010, when the Russian census listed Mingrelians as separate from Georgians (along with Svans, Adjarians, Ingiloys [Georgians from north-western Azerbaijan - ed.] and Laz). 

Even in Russia, most Mingrelian speakers reject the notion of an ethnic identity distinct from Georgian 

But the fact that almost 158,000 respondents stated that they were Georgians, while just 600 (less than 0.4%) identified themselves as Mingrelians (45 as Svans), shows that even in Russia, most Mingrelian speakers reject the notion of an ethnic identity distinct from Georgian.

While this shows that Mingrelian nationalism or even separatism is extremely weak, the Georgian government does not seem ready to change its official stance, which prevents Mingrelian and the neighbouring Svans, whose spoken language is even more distinct from standard Georgian, from receiving any significant assistance from state institutions.

Ketevan Jakeli, an adviser on minority issues to Georgian education minister Alexandre Jejelava, was adamant that while the government was doing everything necessary to protect national minorities, there was no way that speakers of Mingrelian and Svan should be included in these efforts. “These are not ethnic minorities. Therefore, they cannot fall under the provisions of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages,” Jakeli tells me at the education and science ministry in Tbilisi.

The Charter aims to protect minorities from discrimination and requires states to actively promote minority languages. It was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1998, one year before Georgia signed up to the European human rights watchdog. Yet Tbilisi has not ratified the Charter, which would give rights to 15 languages, including Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian.

Giorgi Bobghiashvili, a project coordinator at the European Centre for Minority Issues, a German think tank, says that attempts to achieve ratification were stymied in 2013, when Patriarch Ilia II, spiritual leader of Georgia’s immensely influential Orthodox Church, issued a statement saying that the Charter was “unacceptable, because it will strengthen separatist movements and create new grave problems for the country.”

According to the Rosetta Project, some 457 or 9% of all living languages now have fewer than ten speakers. Language death appears to be accelerating - which will pass away in the South Caucasus? Globe statue in Zugdidi, Mingrelia, Republic of Georgia. Photo CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: Orientalising / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When asked how Mingrelian and Svan could be protected, Jakelia, the Education Ministry adviser, warns against promoting these idioms formally in schools. “[In order to do so], you would have to tell these people that they are not Georgians. I do not advise you to do that,” she says. Jakelia was adamant that the only agency that could give such support was the ministry of culture. However the ministry’s spokeswoman Tiko Janjghava tells me that her colleagues did not have any such plans right now, referring all questions back to the education ministry.

When institutional support is lacking, perhaps modern technology can provide the answer. Although the internet often catalyses the usage of larger languages at the cost of smaller ones, it has also enabled Mingrelian speakers to publish more material than probably ever before in the language’s 2,700 year old history. The Mingrelian Wikipedia had more than 10,100 articles in mid-June. More and more Mingrelian posts are being published on Facebook.

However, there are shortcomings. Nona Kobalia, a journalist who writes a blog in Mingrelian on the website of Zugdidi’s Odishi radio and TV station, describes the Mingrelian Wikipedia as “terrible”. She complains of basic mistakes in vocabulary, syntax and grammar. “Some of it is so bad that it would be better had it been written in Georgian,” she concludes.

Kobalia added that the language urgently needs a state commission to standardise both spelling and lexicon. She believes that “currently there is absolutely nobody who cares about [Mingrelian].”

Nevertheless, the younger generation keeps publishing Mingrelian online. The Facebook group “Megrelian language” has garnered 24,000 likes since its inception in 2010. Mingrelian poems and songs by Gali-born performer Temur Eliava and Vienna-based jazz singer Teona Mosia have garnered tens of thousands of views on Facebook and YouTube. The Mingrelian learners’ group “Charga-Charga” has 14,000 likes. 

A like may not be much, but it is a start. And with an accelerating rate of global language loss, Georgians may need to reconsider institutional intransigence towards such an important part of their national heritage — whether they consider it a dialect or a language.

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