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Friday, 23 May 2008

23 May 2008

There’s a rather interesting debate under way – just below the radar for now, but attracting increasing attention among foreign policy scholars and analysts – about whether the world needs a more effective institution than the United Nations.

The problem with the UN, according to its critics, is that any old nation can join – and every member has a vote. Yes, including Burma, Zimbabwe, north Korea and sundry other places whose governments don’t exactly meet with universal approval.

So why not set up another body, whose members would have to pass certain agreed political standards? The US Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain, has been championing the idea of what he calls a “League of Democracies”.

This is what he said in March: "If I am elected president, I will call a summit of the world's democracies in my first year to seek the views of my democratic counterparts and begin exploring the practical steps necessary to [create a League of Democracies] …This organisation could act when the UN fails to act—to relieve human suffering in places such as Darfur, combat HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, fashion better policies to confront environmental crises, provide unimpeded market access to those who endorse economic and political freedom, and take other measures unattainable by existing regional or universal-membership systems."

But he’s not the only one toying with the idea – so is Barack Obama, and according to the Financial Times, so too is the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who it quotes as saying: “You can see the dangers. You don't want to set up something which undermines the ability of the international system to get to grips with difficult issues. Equally though . . . should people with the same values work effectively together? The answer must be yes.”

The FT’s foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman is not impressed. “Almost all of America's closest democratic allies have deep reservations about a league of democracies. The Europeans are committed to the UN and would be loath to join an alliance that undermined it. They are also suspicious of America's democratic evangelism.”

So is it a non-starter? I’m not so sure. Look at NATO, for example, which expects of its members that they will have achieved what it calls “certain goals in the political and economic fields”. These include “settling any international, ethnic or external territorial disputes by peaceful means; demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and human rights; establishing democratic control of their armed forces; and promoting stability and well-being through economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility.”

Or take the European Union, which has what it calls “Copenhagen criteria” which need to be adopted by all aspiring EU members: “Membership requires that a candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and, protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.”

So there’s nothing all that outrageous about international institutions setting out rules for membership. The big problem with the “League of Democracies” idea, it seems to me, is that it risks once again dividing the world into two blocs of nations, much as it was during the Cold War. In one bloc, much of north and south America, Asia, and nearly all of Europe (not including Belarus), plus some of Africa; in the other bloc, Russia, China and all of the Arab world, where there isn’t a single functioning democracy (Lebanon and Palestine come closest, but neither is in great shape at the moment).

I put these thoughts on my blog a couple of days ago, and there have already been some interesting responses which you might like to look at. And we hope to be discussing the idea on the programme one night next week, so do listen out for it.

I think I can safely leave the Crewe and Nantwich commentary to others, except to say this: the last time the Tories won a by-election seat from Labour was Ilford North in 1978. I was there – it was the first British election I covered, and Tessa Jowell was the losing Labour candidate. A year later, Margaret Thatcher was swept to power.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

16 May 2008

What would you do about getting aid into Burma? The military regime are still restricting flights – and they really don’t want to let in any foreign aid workers. Tens of thousands of people – perhaps even hundreds of thousands – are dying as a result of Cyclone Nargis.

If you heard the programme on Tuesday, you’ll have heard me pressing the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, about it. He insisted that “all options” remain open, up to and including – in theory -- some form of military involvement in the aid effort.

Remember Bosnia? Aid convoys were sent in with military escorts. (It didn’t do too much good, in fact, because they soon got involved in protracted stand-offs with local militias at roadblocks. Sometimes, the aid was hijacked; more often, it simply sat there, for days, as the two sides indulged in lengthy negotiations.)

So why not helicopter the stuff in? Well, what happens when you land? Who distributes it? Who administers the medicines, staffs the field hospitals? If you drop relief supplies from the sky, huge amounts are damaged, the rest often goes to the youngest and strongest who can reach it first. Problems, problems.

I asked Mr Miliband about the new United Nations doctrine known as the "responsibility to protect" - or R2P in the jargon - which lays down that the international community has a responsibility to act to protect people who are at risk of genocide or ethnic cleansing. But might it also apply in cases of natural disaster?

"It certainly could," he said, "and we have been absolutely clear in New York that all instruments of the UN should be available. But no one should think that there is an easy or quick answer to this.”

Whenever we see appalling images of human suffering on our TV screens, whether as a result of conflict, or natural disaster, our immediate reaction is “Something must be done to help these people.” Just look at the outpouring of help that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami.

The relief agencies are poised and ready to move. They have stockpiles of supplies in warehouses all around the world, and teams of aid workers standing by. But there’s not much they can do if the government in place says No.

The commentator Martin Jacques argued yesterday in a piece on The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog: “All the talk of military intervention is thoroughly irresponsible. Above all, it is a disgraceful distraction from the overwhelming priority, which is how to help the people of Myanmar (Burma) in their hour of need.”

His favoured course of action is to get Burma’s neighbours involved – and that’s what the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is now doing. A regional summit is due to be held on Monday. Will it make a difference? We’ll see …

But I’m afraid I have to confess that part of me has some sympathy with the Comment is Free reader who responded to Jacques’s article as follows: “For the effing nth time, just get the effing aid in. Christ on a bike: how hard can it be?”

So I end where I started: what would you do?

Friday, 9 May 2008

9 May 2008

BALI -- It may surprise you to learn – there again, it may not – that from time to time we journalists like to get together and think for a day or two about what we do and how we do it. And that’s what I’ve been doing this week, so I hope you’ll forgive a rare bout of navel-gazing.

It’s more than just narcissism, of course. Because for better or for worse, we journalists can influence how you think of the world we live in. The stories we choose to report, the words we use to report them, the pictures we choose to broadcast – all play their part in shaping your perceptions of what’s going on.

The conference I’ve been at had as its theme “Ethical journalism in extreme conditions” – and it was attended by more than 130 of us from 60 countries, all the way from Afghanistan to Venezuela. And what I found most interesting was listening to journalists from countries which are or have been mired in conflict – Sri Lanka, Kenya, Israel/Palestine, and in Aceh, here in Indonesia – about how they cope with living and working in “extreme conditions”.

What does a journalist do when his own government (Sri Lankan in this case) denounces him for having “raped the truth” and published “reportage most foul” about military casualties in a recent battle? How does he react when he is accused of playing a “feverish role in the terrorist propaganda machine” and when armed men have burst into his home?

What do Kenyan journalists do when their country is engulfed in post-election violence and they know that what they publish could exacerbate the tensions? The choice, said one of them, was information, or inflammation: so were they right not to publish the tribal/ethnic identities of the victims and perpetrators of the violence? Did they short-change their readers? Maybe, but was it for a greater good?

And how did Indonesian journalists react during delicate and secret peace talks designed to end a bloody secessionist war in the province of Aceh? When they got hold of some secret documents, but the government said the talks would be derailed if the material was published, what should they have done? Publish and be damned? Or accept the government’s judgement that something greater than an exclusive story was at stake?

None of these is an easy question to answer – but for these journalists, they were real, immediate dilemmas that they had to decide under great pressure and at a time of great tension. No journalist expects sympathy – after all, we all choose to do what we do with our eyes open – but I thought you might be interested in some of the issues that go beyond our more parochial British concerns.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Norwegian and Indonesian governments, and in his introductory address, the deputy Norwegian culture minister Wegard Harsvik quoted Albert Camus: “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance.”

He went on to say: “Good journalism can help us understand. It can help us understand conflicts, both near and far. And good journalism can help us understand precisely which conflicts really are far away and which are closer than they seem. It can help us understand which conflicts we are part of ourselves and which we are not – because sometimes we are not even aware that we are part of a wider conflict. But local actions can have global effects, as illustrated by the [Danish] cartoons controversy, climate change, and increasing food prices.”

Which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad summary of the principles underlying what we try to do on The World Tonight.

Friday, 2 May 2008

2 May 2008

So, did you vote yesterday? (You’re forgiven, of course, if you don’t live in England or Wales.) Being the well-informed, involved citizen that I know you to be – what else could you be, as a loyal subscriber to this newsletter? – I strongly suspect that you did. As you know, I’m a great fan of the democratic process, so gold stars all round.

Now, as you picked up that stubby little pencil and marked your X, what was your motivation? Do you always vote for the same party, come what may? Did you decide to send Gordon Brown a message (“Keep up the good work; don’t let the media hyenas get you down” – or alternatively: “Take that, Mr Brown, and the sooner you go, the better.”)?

Or were you one of those rare people who voted on local issues? Your local parties’ policies on public libraries, perhaps, or what they’ve been saying about community policing and vandalism.

The point is, as we discussed on last night’s programme, local councils these days have only limited powers. Most voters have only a sketchy idea what their council can and can’t influence – hospitals, schools, police, all the things that matter most seem to be largely out of their hands.

So should councils have more powers? Should they be able to set their own level of council tax without being subjected to a “cap” from Whitehall? Is it right that local councillors depend on central government for nearly 80 per cent of their cash?

Ah, but suppose you discover that the people living in the next town have much better schools and social services than you do. Is it fair that the quality of what’s on offer depends on where you live? Or is that what happens anyway? No wonder the reform of local government finance always seems to get bogged down in mind-numbing technicalities.

But I do find it rather shameful that only a third of voters tend to turn out at local elections. I bet a lot of the ones who don’t vote complain bitterly when the bins don’t get emptied or the streets don’t get swept.

Mind you, where I live, I think I got just one election-related piece of literature through the door, and that was a letter from my local MP asking me to vote for her party’s local candidate. None of the parties seemed very interested in my vote, or in the votes of my neighbours, so it’s not really surprising that the turn-out tends to be low. (In London, we seem to have been an exception this year, for which you can thank Ken and Boris, the terrible twins, who at least brought a bit of pizzazz to the whole business.)

I’ve never been persuaded that making voting compulsory is a good idea – I like to think that the freedoms that come with democracy include the freedom not to be interested in politics – but I do think that politicians need to do much more to energise and involve voters. If they’re not interested in me as a voter, why should I be interested in them?

By tonight, we Londoners will know who our mayor will be for the next four years – and the rest of the country will perhaps have a slightly better idea about whether David Cameron has begun to turn his party into an election-winning machine again or Gordon Brown is managing to hang on in there.

But you won’t need reminding, will you, that in 2004, Labour did abysmally in the local elections – and then a year later won a third successive victory in the general election.