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Thursday, 24 July 2008

25 July 2008

I don’t get to meet many alleged mass murderers in my line of business – which is probably just as well, because I don’t much enjoy it.

My two encounters with Radovan Karadzic – in the days before he was indicted for genocide and war crimes, and was being wined and dined by European government leaders – remain imprinted on my memory as two of the most unpleasant experiences of my career.

The first time we met was at the height of the siege of Sarajevo. You may remember it: night after night, our TV screens showed people being shot at by snipers and shelled from the surrounding hills. So there he was, in the studio, the man everyone held responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in a vicious civil war.

I remember telling my colleagues that I would refuse to shake his hand. They ushered him into the studio ahead of me, I sat down opposite him and immediately began the interview. No pleasantries, no chit-chat. When it was over, I muttered a curt “thank you” and walked out.

On the second occasion, we met at his London hotel. He was late, and when he finally arrived, I saw him come into the lobby together with his wife, laden with shopping bags from some of London’s best-known department stores. Again, I tried to keep the pleasantries to an absolute minimum.

He was, as many others have remarked, a man with a remarkable capacity for, shall we say, claiming as true things that few others believed. During the siege of Sarajevo, he insisted in our interview that there were no Serb snipers shooting at civilians. No Serb mortars being fired from the hills; no Serb guns firing at UN planes bringing in relief supplies; no “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim and Croat villages.

So now he is to face his accusers at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. His capture is a remarkable symbol of how a democratically elected government can dramatically change the political weather. I find it hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he was arrested just four days after the appointment of a new head of Serbia's police intelligence agency, replacing a man who was said to be a close ally of the former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Don’t expect Karadzic’s trial to start any time soon. I’d guess early next year is the earliest likely starting date, and proceedings will be, as they always are in such cases, lengthy. And expect to hear a lot about “command responsibility” – will the prosecution be able to prove that Karadzic himself was personally involved in the decisions that led to the killing of thousands, including the slaughter of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica?

Article 7 (3) of the international war crimes tribunal’s statute lays down that the fact that crimes "were committed by a subordinate does not relieve his superior of criminal responsibility if he knew or had reason to know that the subordinate was about to commit such acts, or had done so and the superior failed to take the necessary and reasonable measures to prevent such acts or to punish the perpetrators."

So it won’t be enough for Karadzic to argue that he never ordered any massacres. (If you want to see the detail of what he’s charged with, you can find it on the tribunal’s website here. But I warn you: it doesn’t make pleasant reading.) The key allegation is that he “planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted the planning, preparation or execution of the destruction, in whole or in part, of the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat national, ethnic, racial or religious groups.”

Or to use just a single word, genocide.

Friday, 18 July 2008

18 July 2008

Good news about the crime figures for England and Wales yesterday, wasn’t it? According to the double-page headline in the Daily Mail: “A knife attack every 4 minutes.”

Sorry, wrong headline. But even The Guardian found something to worry about: “Crime rates expected to soar as economic difficulties deepen.” Same figures, different headlines. Confused? So am I.

Here’s how the Home Office put it in its announcement yesterday: “Crime in England and Wales fell by ten per cent since the previous year according to the 2007/08 British Crime Survey, and fell by nine per cent according to police recorded crime statistics.”

Over the same period, said the Home Office, the risk of becoming a victim of crime has fallen from 24 to 22 per cent, and both overall crime and the risk of victimisation are now at their lowest ever levels since 1981. Violent crime, vandalism and vehicle-related thefts have all fallen (by 12 per cent, 10 per cent, and 11 per cent) and domestic burglary has remained stable.

Which all sounds pretty encouraging, doesn’t it? So why, in heaven’s name, do we read almost every other day of another ghastly knife crime, resulting in the death of another teenager on a city street? Well, for one thing, the survey on which these latest statistics are based doesn’t talk to people under the age of 16 – so they will be of scant comfort to the families of Sunday Essiet, Amro Elbadawi, Lyle Tulloch, Arsema Dawit and David Idowu, to name but five of London’s 21 knife murder victims so far this year. (The Home Office is now considering extending the remit of the British Crime Survey to include under 16s.)

And of course, our perception of crime (two-thirds of us think crime rates are going up) does not stem from a cool analysis of the latest official data: we read the papers, we watch the telly, and we gossip over the garden fence. And fear of crime can be nearly as damaging to the social fabric as crime itself.

As it happens, I was chairing a debate organised by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College, London, last night, to discuss the government’s record on youth crime. (Its new Youth Crime Action Plan published earlier this week promised another £100 million “to stop young people from starting lives of crime” – to be spent on better prevention and support for victims; expansion of family intervention projects; and increasing the number of ASBOs and parenting orders.)

What the record shows is that since Labour came to power 11 years ago, the amount of money pumped into the youth justice system has gone up by no less than 45 per cent in real terms. Over the past few years, the number of first-time young offenders has dropped slightly – by about five per cent – but overall the youth crime picture hasn’t changed much. So what happened to all the cash?

Well, most of it seems to have gone on keeping young offenders behind bars. Only about one-third has been spent on the sort of social welfare programmes that youth justice practitioners believe are most likely to reduce the number of young offenders.

Talk to the professionals, and they tell you that many young offenders are themselves victims, whether of abuse in the home or of crime outside it. They may have mental health problems, they may be homeless, or alcohol or drug abusers – yes, they need to be punished if they offend, but they also need help. And sometimes, perhaps, as with parenting orders, it’s not clear whether what’s on offer is meant as a punishment or as help. (We’re going to be discussing some of these issues on tonight’s programme, by the way.)

So what would you do about youth crime?

Friday, 11 July 2008

11 July 2008

Let’s see if I can break the habit of a lifetime and take something that a politician has said at face value. (I exaggerate, as you know, but only slightly …)

It’s just four weeks since the man who once thought he was destined to be the leader of the Conservative party, David Davis, dramatically resigned as an MP because, he said, he felt he had to do something to halt the “relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms”.

Last night – surprise, surprise, after neither Labour nor the Lib Dems could be bothered to put up a candidate against him – the good voters of Haltemprice and Howden sent him back to the Commons to pick up from where he left off. Except that now he will languish on the backbenches, and his reputation, at least in the Westminster village, has suffered a substantial dent.

My point is this: Mr Davis said – and let’s just for a moment assume that what he said was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – that he wanted to give British voters “the opportunity to debate and consider one of the most fundamental issues of the day … the ever intrusive power of the state into their daily lives, the loss of privacy, the loss of freedom and the steady attrition undermining the rule of law.”

This is how he set out his case: “We will have the most intrusive identity card system in the world, a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, and a DNA database bigger than that of any dictatorship, with thousands of innocent children and a million innocent citizens on it.

“We've witnessed a sustained assault on jury trials, that bulwark against bad law and its arbitrary abuse by the state; shortcuts with our justice system that have left it both less firm and less fair -- and the creation of a database state, opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers.”

This is all serious stuff. So did the nation rise to the challenge? Did we have the debate? Did we rally in support of the Lone Tory Ranger as he rode into battle against the power of the state? Er, no, actually, we didn’t.

Many of us, I suspect, would agree that deciding how to strike the right balance between the need to ensure our security and the need to guarantee our freedom is, as Mr Davis said, “one of the most fundamental issues of the day”. So why aren’t we ready to answer his call for a national debate?

Is it because we think that the government has got the balance right, so there is no need for any further debate? (The opinion poll evidence, by the way, is highly contradictory.) Is it because the issue is so complex that we just don’t know what to think, so we concentrate on trying to cope with rising household bills instead? Or is it perhaps because we’re not really sure what David Davis was up to, and we’re not in the habit of leaping to debate things just because an MP says he thinks we should?

When Mr Davis resigned, the media by and large were scornful of what was seen as a bit of shameless political grand-standing, an act of personal vanity by an MP bored with the humdrum nature of life as a front-bench spokesman. But the reaction in the blogosphere was overwhelmingly favourable … at last, people said, a politician who is prepared to put his principles first.

So, I ask again, why no debate?

Friday, 4 July 2008

4 July 2008

Suppose I gave you a choice: you can live either in a secular state, in which religion and politics are kept strictly apart, or you can live in a democracy. But you can’t have both – so which would you choose?

Suppose you’ve had a democratic election. The party that won has traditions rooted in religion – and although it denies any intention of allowing its religious beliefs to impinge on its policies, you’re not convinced. Worse than that … you strongly suspect that its leaders do intend to lull you into a false sense of security and then turn your country, step by step, into a fundamentalist theocracy.

Would you be justified in stopping them, by any means necessary, up to and including military force? After all, your country was founded on secular principles: are they not more important, enshrined as they are in the constitution, than the results of an imperfect electoral process?

Yes, I know I’ve over-simplified, but these are the questions at the heart of the deepening crisis in Turkey. And how they are resolved could have an immense impact on Europe’s relations with its neighbour to the east over the coming decade.

Remember, Turkey wants to join the EU (it already belongs to NATO). But remember also that four times in the past 50 years, the army has stepped in to “protect” the country’s secular traditions. Just this week, two senior retired generals were arrested in connection with allegations of a coup plot.

And the ruling AK party is facing a legal challenge to its very existence from the country’s chief prosecutor, who wants to ban 71 of its most senior figures from public life for five years, on the grounds that there is a "real and present danger" of it creating an Islamic state. Among the people he wants to ban just happen to be the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the President, Abdullah Gul, whose wife created a furore last year because she prefers to appear in public with her hair covered by a hijab.

So here’s some background for you: when Turkey arose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, its first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, insisted that it must be a secular republic. (Article 2 of the constitution says: “The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law.”) Kemalism has become a quasi-religion, a secular faith embraced for decades by the country’s intellectual, nationalist and military elite.

But what happens to the democracy bit of the constitution if voters choose to back a party that is rooted in Islamism? The AK party, which has won the last two elections, owes its success in large part to support from Turkey’s emerging rural middle class – and it is challenging the long-established political dominance of the urban, secular, liberal elite.

So this isn’t just an argument about Islam in politics. It’s also a good, old-fashioned power struggle between a deeply entrenched political elite and a new breed of politicians, many of whom are what we would call “modern” Muslims.

An example: when I went to meet an AKP mayor just outside Ankara last year, I was intrigued to find that the two young women working in his outer office both wore their hair uncovered. So did a newly-elected female AKP MP whom I interviewed the day after the election. So don’t imagine that AKP women look as if they come from Iran. They don’t.

But neither should you under-estimate the importance of the debate now under way in Turkey. The old cliché has it that the country has always stood at a cross-roads between Europe and Asia, and between Christianity and Islam. It now stands at a political cross-roads too.

Oh, just one other thing: I know you’ll be thrilled to know that the Beard Liberation Front has just named me Hirsute Broadcaster of the Year 2008. (Look at the picture at the top of the page and you’ll understand why.) I am, as you can imagine, deeply honoured.