Saturday, August 24, 2013


The Syrian government has declared variously that the missile attack on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus early on Wednesday did not take place at all, that it took place but that no chemical weapons were involved, and that chemical weapons were indeed involved but that they were inflicted by rebel forces. These statements cannot all be correct. Is any of them true?

There can be no doubt that an attack did take place. Many civilians died; the opposition claims more than a thousand. That people did die is beyond argument. Also not disputed is that the area where they died is characterised by resistance to the government’s attempts to quell the civil unrest – let us not prejudge anything by calling it a civil war – for the last two years.

Dead Syrian children

Moreover, all the recorded evidence so far offered to the world shows people suffering in a way that is not commensurate with an attack by conventional weapons. The victims are not showing blast injuries. Their motor functions are affected, particularly the breathing instinct. The spread of this effect on humans is evidently much wider than any structural damage in the area. There can be no doubt that, whatever killed these people, it was not explosives.

Was it a chemical agent? Only an impartial examination at the site can determine this to general satisfaction. Whether such an examination is possible depends wholly on the Syrian government itself. If Assad denies the inspectors, we shall be entitled to draw a conclusion, as I will consider in a moment.

Meanwhile, I want to try to examine the government’s notion that the footage widely circulated across the world is, in some sense, a “fabrication”. Presumably that would mean that the convulsing children that we have seen are actors, that people are playing at being dead. Is this at all credible? I submit that it is not. Given the chaotic nature of what we see, it would require remarkable creativity to “stage” such chaos without any glitch that revealed deception. Is any of the material released at all questionable? If it were, wouldn’t someone have noticed by now?

Dead Syrian adults

So it seems pretty conclusive that these things are established: i) that there was an attack; ii) that many civilians died; iii) that some kind of non-blast weapon was responsible for the casualties.

Now we come to the bottom line for the Assad government: the attack was inflicted by the rebels themselves. Does this argument have any merit? Well, it is certainly possible to suggest a motive for the rebels: that they wish to blackguard the Assad regime and “shame” foreign governments into intervening on behalf of the insurrection. William Hague’s increasingly bullish statements since Wednesday morning suggest that, if that was the aim, it is having some traction, at least with the British government. Obama remains carefully non-committal.

But is it possible to stand up the argument that the rebels would inflict such a grotesque death on the families of its own people, even if the exercise could be held to have a chance of tipping the argument about intervention?

Hague: bullish

I am reminded of a Jewish friend with family in Israel who told me in all seriousness that, when Israeli planes attack the Gaza strip, Palestinians lay their small children on the roofs of their homes so that they are more likely to be killed and hence the Israelis can be accused of war crimes. Although she has a Cambridge degree and has worked in current affairs broadcasting all her adult life, she could not recognise black propaganda when it was offered. I gently pointed out the notorious precedent that the Nazis spread lies about the morality of the Jews in order to make them appear less than human and so more dispensable, but she wouldn’t make the connection. People are willing to believe anything, however far-fetched, if it reflects badly on their enemy.

If the Syrian rebels did this themselves, a lot of people would necessarily be in on the exercise. How could the rebels be sure that no one would expose the deception? Yet we still await the first report of any defector from the opposition’s cause, decrying the tactics of the rebels, whereas several highly-placed officials in the Assad regime have left the country in disgust. Moreover, it is known that the Syrian government has developed chemical weapons: that is not at issue. When would they deploy such weapons, then, if not in a situation that they themselves account a profound threat to the state? It is always possible that Syrian rebels have gained access to chemical weapons, but there is as yet no independent evidence of it.

The UN inspectors ought to have the expertise to determine whether chemical weapons are in opposition hands. They are presently in Syria but the government will not permit them to visit Ghouta. Why so? That there are inspectors in the country at all is only as a result of protracted negotiations. The government says it cannot guarantee the inspectors’ safety. The rebels have said they will ensure that the inspectors are safe in Ghouta. If the inspectors are prepared to go, what argument remains to Assad? We must conclude that he fears what they will discover. If he wants to stay credible, he needs to pre-empt that conclusion.

Obama: non-committal

If there were an international consensus that the Assad government used chemical weapons against its own people, that would change the game, if only in that (once hostilities cease, if they ever do) Assad could be brought before the international court to face charges of war crimes. But there is no such consensus. Alexander Lukashevich, the Russian foreign office spokesman, declared that a homemade rocket carrying unidentified chemical substances had been launched from an area controlled by the opposition.

“All this cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation,” his statement continued. “This is supported by the fact that the criminal act was committed near Damascus at the very moment when a mission of UN experts had successfully started their work of investigating allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons there ... Moscow considers important an objective and professional investigation into what happened. And we call on all those who have the possibility to influence armed extremists to make every effort to end provocations with chemical agents”.

Moscow mouthpiece Lukashevich

Of course, if the Russians want to argue that the occurrence of this “criminal act” at the time of the US inspectors’ visit argues for it being an attack by rebels, one might counter that it could just as well be a double bluff, that the Assad regime launched the attack fully intending to tell the inspectors that it must be the rebels’ action. If the rebels are capable of staging an atrocity to look like the work of the government, the reverse is just as feasible and even more likely to be doable.

Russia’s alliance with Syria ensures that the UN’s hands are tied in any attempt to approve some anti-Assad action through the security council. As with so many other international crises, the fact that certain powerful nations may wield a veto leaves the UN powerless and raises the stakes for those nations that would be prepared to make some intervention. I have argued before that the UN’s charter needs to be rewritten and, at the risk of exasperating my regular readers, I am now going to argue it again.

No substantial rewrite of the charter has occurred since it was first drawn up in 1945. The time has long past when the UN needs to be given power independent of individual member states, power greater than any individual member, indeed greater than the sum of individual members.

The veto has to be scrapped. No nation, neither China nor Russia nor the US, can be permitted to continue to block the business of the UN and to override the will of a majority of members. All nations should have the same stake in the global community.

Support for Assad

The UN needs to have the power – by which I mean the military power – to intervene in any breakdown of peaceful coexistence and to impose a cessation of hostilities. This might be between any two or more nations squaring up to each other – say, Israel and Lebanon or Azerbaijan and Armenia – or within a sovereign nation where the ruling party is fighting any kind of insurrection – Somalia or Colombia or Libya or Egypt. Where the UN deems it necessary, its troops would depose the government and take over the day-to-day management of the nation’s affairs. After all, whatever else you may believe about Assad, he has patently lost control of his nation. He is, to borrow Norman Lamont’s resonant words, “in office but not in power”.

How could the UN muster such power? I propose that each member nation be obliged to contribute to the UN’s peace-keeping forces the same level of funding, personnel and matériel that it commits to its own national defence. So if, for the sake of argument, the US’s total military budget were $800bn, it would be required to commit the same amount to the UN force. The Swiss government’s share of the UN force bill might be $4bn. In this way, the UN would be furnished with military might sufficient to overwhelm any conceivable national militia and its troops would be as international as possible. With a scheme like this in place, most nations would see both the necessity and the opportunity to scale down their domestic expenditure on what they term defence. That in itself would render the world a more stable place.

Such an imposition on all member states would profoundly alter the psychology of defence. The UN needs to establish as a baseline that any engagement in military combat is intolerable to the community of nations. As it is, the “just wars” are always those fought by a nation’s own troops. From the outside looking in, other nation’s wars are, at the very least, regrettable. More often they are indefensible. And, however righteous the combatants, all wars occasion atrocities on all sides. It is idle to pretend that other people’s wars are crueller and bloodier than those in which we take part.

But, I hear you object, you cannot ride roughshod over the sovereignty of individual nations. To that I say: the game has changed. Nations are no longer discrete entities whose disputes remain within their borders. Look at the flood of refugees from Syria into neighbouring countries. How can those countries, none of them wealthy, cope with the demands that Syria’s folly makes upon them? And why should they be required to do so? Furthermore, what is the cost to the planet of all this destruction visited upon it? Why should other nations be expected to clean up the mess of this – it needs to be stated – indulgence by the government and the citizenry of Syria?

The UN needs to be an organisation that holds as its core belief not only that waging war is destructive and regrettable but that waging war will not be tolerated by the community of nations, however wealthy and righteous and self-important the combatants might be. So my revamped UN would have the power – both judicially, by statute, and literally, by force of arms – to police the planet and snuff out any outbreak of hostilities within hours. All the members of the UN would have to agree to accept this awesome global authority and to isolate any nation in every practical manner until the UN deemed that its full membership of the community of nations had been earned again.

UN inspectors arrive in Damascus

If this dispensation had been in place, the hostilities in Syria would have been halted in the first week. Assad would have been obliged to resolve the contradictions in his nation or step down in favour of a temporary administration controlled by the UN that would have addressed the differences among the populace and set up fair and free elections. By the way, under my new model UN, every nation would be obliged to allow a comprehensive delegation from the UN to oversee and examine national elections and to declare whether they have been acceptable, the UN’s final judgment being paramount and not subject to appeal. Any head of state or indeed any individual candidate found to have transgressed would be barred from future office.

Imagine the different course of events in Egypt over the last two and a half years. Mubarak would have lost control of the country to a UN peace-keeping force. He might still have been tried and imprisoned by the courts. Free elections might still have brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Had there been demonstrations against Morsi, they would have been permitted. But what was, by any objective measure, a military coup this summer would not have been allowed to take place. And so there would have been no massacre of protesters.

Well, you will say, none of the security council nations is going to surrender its veto, so this is a pipe-dream. I could simply snap back: ok, so what’s your solution that won’t simply make matters worse? At least I am making a concrete, constructive proposal that has yet to be tried and found wanting.

I am realistic, though. There is only one means by which what I propose could be achieved. Someone would have to run for the US presidency on a programme that included this proposal for the revamping of the UN. The chorus of abuse that would argue that this would be an abject surrender of American power and self-importance would need to be argued down. The candidate would have to win the argument and win the election and then embark on a long and hugely testing round of diplomacy to persuade sufficient of the other security council nations to agree. Yes, it’s a big ask. But what is the point of going into politics if it is not with the intention of changing the world?

Thursday, August 08, 2013


Is there a more wan figure on the world’s political stage than that of Morgan Tsvangirai? He has known Robert Mugabe for more than thirty years, having begun his political rise in Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party when he was immediately marked for preferment. Now, I have never met Mr Mugabe and I only know of his career through the highly partial medium of the British media. But this much I know: that Mugabe is the wiliest African leader since Jomo Kenyatta and the least scrupulous since Idi Amin. If I know that, Tsvangirai must know it too.

Morgan no free man

How come, then, that he has allowed himself to be so comprehensively outmanoeuvred in the Zimbabwean elections held at the end of last month? Did he not guess that Mugabe would stop at nothing to defeat him in the presidential ballot that has overwhelmingly extended the old fox’s rule for another five years to add to the 33 years he has already enjoyed? Mugabe is 89 years old.

In the presidential ballot, Mugabe defeated Tsvangirai by nearly two-to-one. In the House of Assembly, ZANU-PF won three times as many seats as Tsvangirai’s MDC grouping and hence has a sufficient majority to introduce whatever constitutional changes that Mugabe fancies. For the MDC, the election was an utter disaster.

Mugabe: giving nothing away – absolutely nothing

Whistling in the dark, Tsvangirai now says that “the fraudulent and stolen election has plunged Zimbabwe into a constitutional, political and economic crisis. Instead of celebration, there is national mourning”. In fact, there is remarkably little evidence of either crisis or mourning. Zimbabweans know that Mugabe stole the election but they also know that there is precious little that they can do about it. The wider world deplores the myriad scandals and manipulations that accompanied the vote but Obama and Putin, Cameron and Merkel have much more pressing problems to face.

Tsvangirai says that the MDC will “boycott government institutions” and challenge the election result through the courts. Good luck with that. The unspecified government institutions will not notice (save that, without an MDC presence, it will be that much simpler to carry out Mugabe’s wishes) and the courts will doubtless find the evidence of ballot theft inconclusive – after all, the judges are all Mugabe appointees. So unless something very unexpected happens, the outside world will hear no more of Morgan Tsvangirai and probably very little of Zimbabwe until such time as Robert Mugabe passes peacefully in office and we discover whether he has arranged anything effective about the succession.

A stylish poster campaign

The absurdity of it all is that, for the past five years, Tsvangirai has been Zimbabwe’s prime minster, in office and in power in a coalition with ZANU-PF under Mugabe’s presidency. Was he asleep at the wheel? Did he not anticipate that Mugabe would strain every sinew to ensure that the coalition would be ended at the 2013 election? Could he not have taken pre-emptive action to guard the sanctity of the election? Suddenly to bleat after the event that it’s turned out to be unfair seems, at the very least, ineffectual.

Democracy Zimbabwe style: but what's in those boxes?

Mugabe allowed observers of the ballot only from friendly neighbouring nations and, hearing their complacent views of the conduct of the election, you realise that they would not have been much of a challenge to buy off. Tsvangirai should have insisted that a large UN team be allowed to monitor the election. Indeed, it ought to be a condition of continued membership of the UN that all member nations allow UN observers to attend national elections. There is no country – not even Britain or the United States – where some sharp electoral practice cannot be detected.

What is an open secret in Harare is that Tsvangirai has spent considerably more of his time as prime minister in chasing women than in shoring up his power base and planning to try to outflank his ruthless opponent. His first wife Susan was killed in a head-on car crash that Tsvangirai was the only Zimbabwean outside ZANU-PF not to blame on Mugabe’s intelligence officers. Perhaps he was glad to be rid of her. He very quickly ceased to behave like a mourning widower and he remarried last autumn, though his philandering has evidently not been scaled down since.

Getting spliced for a second time

The tragedy is that the coalition of MDC and ZANU-PF achieved a fair amount in repairing the damage caused by Mugabe’s heedless conduct of the national economy while unrestrained by coalition. Tsvangirai, having ensured a fair ballot, could have fought on his economic record. He might even have won. Instead, he survives only as an ineffectual footnote to one of the longest and most destructive reigns in modern African history.

Saturday, August 03, 2013


The appointment of thirty new peers this week has raised once again the concurrent debates about the undemocratic nature of the upper house, the dubious nature of political preferment for favours bestowed, the habit of successive governments of packing the benches with their placemen and women, the stalled nature of Lords reform and the absurdity that the chamber is nowhere near sufficiently capacious to seat every member on those occasions when most of them wish to attend simultaneously (for instance, at the state opening of parliament).

It will be no matter of surprise to my regular readers if I inform them that I have a solution to these problems that is practical and, as befitting the thrust of this blog, commonsensical. Here is that solution.

The Lords host the state opening

There remains a great deal to be said for a public body to which useful members of society may be appointed and where such people may avail themselves of a public platform and indeed of a vote on matters that are important to them. Ed Miliband’s raising of Doreen Lawrence to the peerage has been widely hailed and is considered a valuable widening of the upper house’s constituency far beyond the narrow considerations of party advantage. Many more of the new additions, however, look like unmerited rewards for donations and for party line-toeing.

So let party leaders continue to raise worthy individuals to the peerage, though under much stricter conditions – I will return to those. Meanwhile, let all members of the upper house submit themselves to election in the following manner. Once every five years – preferably at a mid-point between general elections – let all members of the upper house (including the Law Lords and the Lords Spiritual, but with exceptions that I will explain) be listed on a website, each one illustrated with a standardised face-on portrait and each permitted a short statement (with a strict word limit) as to why she or he should remain in the house.

Their party allegiance (or crossbench or other status) would be listed, along with their full baronial title and, where appropriate, a name by which they are more widely known. Their attendance and voting records should also be listed. Those not required so to submit themselves would be those peers recruited since the previous Lords ballot, so that no one would be obliged to submit to a vote whose service had been of less than five years.

Doreen Lawrence, now a baroness

Voters would be allowed to place a vote against, say, up to twenty individuals on the list. Then the votes would be counted and the members whose names appeared among, say, the bottom one hundred of the list would lose their seats. The number being rejected could be adjusted until the composition of the house was more suitable, though the five-yearly vote ought still to eliminate a significant number of the least popular members. During the years between votes, party leaders would be permitted to appoint new members, but without exceeding the overall limit that has been agreed and – a crucial point, this one – without altering by a single member the balance of allegiance that was achieved in the previous vote.

To make the upper house an elective assembly in this unprecedented manner has many strong points. Peers would know that they do not enjoy a ticket for life and that they will need to be seen to be useful members. The elections would not be the costly affairs that conventional localised ballots cannot avoid being; indeed, there is no advantage to be had in making the lords a second chamber of constituency-representing delegates. People who would be ornaments to the house but who have no appetite for jumping through the cost, time, media and abuse hoops that conventional election campaigns impose will still be able to enter the house easily and through a merit that may not be perceived by a wide public (because of specialist expertise, for instance); five and more years in the Lords would allow them to make their mark if they are so minded and to earn continued membership.

The upper house full and in session

Voting via the internet is a practical solution to the lack of local campaigning and local ballot boxes, but of course it would have to be rigorously policed. Voters would need to register on the election site, though they ought then to be able to vote anonymously. Some mechanism would have to be set up to prevent multiple voting, not so much by large numbers of people as from the same computer.

So it would have to be contrived that no more than (say) twenty votes (for twenty different candidates) can be cast from one source. No doubt every computer at Tory Central Office would be used to cast twenty votes for Tory peers, but these votes would be counter-balanced by the votes cast from the other party HQs. In any case, it would be a fine judgment how to configure dozens of votes among, in the Tory party’s present case, nearly 230 candidates. The size of the field would help to neutralise attempts to pack the vote.

This solution would be cost-effective, democratic (certainly more democratic than the arrangements obtaining now) and useful in challenging peers to justify their sinecures. But it retains – and indeed enhances – those characteristics of the upper chamber that make it an important foil for the Commons. I commend this proposal to the house.