Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Early test for Iran’s new president

A test of the resolve of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani appears to be developing even before he takes office on 3 August.

While Rouhani has said one of the aims of his presidency would be to negotiate constructively with the West to ease tensions over the country’s nuclear program.

This has brought a positive response from some quarters in the United States with a series of prominent citizens and former lawmakers urging President Obama to re-engage with Iran after the change in leadership.

However, Iran Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says that the US is “not to be trusted” and that he was “not optimistic” about any negotiations with the – a coded message to Rouhani not to push too hard for better relations with the country that conservative elements in Iran still refer to as “The Great Satan”. 

While his opponents in the recent presidential poll were falling over themselves to show their allegiance to the Supreme Leader, Rouhani avoided the subject. He is said to favour an interpretation of the constitution whereby he represents the sovereignty of the people and the Supreme Leader represents the Sovereignty of God.

In a country where Islam is woven deeply into the fabric God’s representative has always had the final say, something the Ayatollah highlighted when he said he had “not in the past forbidden” outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to negotiate with the US and five other world powers over the issue of Iran’s “natural right” to enrich uranium for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Israel firmly believes that the object of the enrichment program is to produce a nuclear bomb to use against the Jewish State. Western countries claim past United Nations inspections have only seen the innocent side of the enrichment program and that more suspect nuclear facilities are being hidden – something that Iran denies.

In an article planted as an obvious hint to the international community, the English language Tehran Chronicle quoted Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as saying that he hoped that the election of Rouhani would herald a new era of cooperation with Western nations.

This is a significant change from the hated rhetoric of the past when both Israel and Iran threatened to rain down destruction on each other with Obama repeatedly saying the military option was “not off the table”. It is to be hoped that Rouhani’s ascent to the leadership will present an opportunity for more constructive attitudes on all sides.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

If it must be Manus Island…

An open letter to Andrew Leigh, Federal MP for Fraser

Dear Mr Leigh,

After a long, hard look at the Australian Government’s new policy on refugees attempting to come to Australia by boat, I have come to the reluctant conclusion it is the best that can be done at present.

Politics is the art of the possible and it is quite clear that with the resolute opposition to boat arrivals that exists in many areas of Australia, especially in some marginal seats in Western Sydney, no government is going to be elected on a softer policy than is now being put in place.

The Opposition’s alternative of towing the boats back to where they came from, is ill-thought out and fraught with danger. It leaves the burden of deciding which boats are seaworthy and which aren’t on the shoulders of naval and coast guard officers; it will lead to desperate attempts to scuttle the boats at sea, and that’s even before we take in the possibility of confrontation with the Indonesian Navy.

The comment by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that new arrivals should be sent to Manus Island immediately without health checks for such highly infectious and lethal diseases as tuberculosis, beggars belief.    

That said, as it stands, your Government’s own policy is still well short on compassion.

 I ask you, if the boat people have to go the Manus:

·         How quickly can the facilities be upgraded to basic humanitarian standards?

·         Will people in the camps have to live under canvas, and if so will you do your best to ensure that this is for the minimum time possible.

·         Will there be proper medical and recreation facilities on site?

·         Will the Australian Government have oversight on how Manus is run?

·         Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said the project will be revenue-neutral.  How can this be? Does this mean that Australia’s foreign aid in other areas will be cut? If so, will you make a stand against this?

·         Will there be proper facilities for the United Nations refugee body to process the inmates of Manus and will the Australian Government assist with resettlement in Papua New Guinea or in a third country?

Finally I would suggest that while this policy is designed to stop the boats – and may well do so – there are certain to be people left in limbo who will not want to resettle in PNG, will be too afraid to return to their country of origin and will have difficulty finding a third country to take them. Will you ensure they will not be forgotten and left to rot in detention?

Mr Leigh, sitting in one of the safest Labor eats in the country, you will certainly be a member of the next Parliament whichever party wins. Please do you best to ensure that Australia’s future policy on refugees is as humane and free from politicking as possible.  

-          Graham Cooke

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Unhappy echoes of an old murder

One of the most extraordinary decisions in British legal history has resulted from an application for compensation by a man jailed for eight years for a crime it is now agreed he did not commit.

Barry George was convicted in 2001 for the murder of television personality Jill Dando in April 1999. From the very beginning the evidence against him seemed flimsy and after repeated appeals by his lawyers he was granted a retrial in 2008 and was acquitted.

However, his attempt to gain compensation for his years behind bars ended this month when he was denied leave to appeal against a decision by the Supreme Court that he was, in effect, “not innocent enough”.

It is impossible not to believe that this amazing verdict is based on George’s background which, since the original trial, has become common knowledge. He has serious emotional and mental problems, diagnosed in childhood; he had a typical Walter Mitty complex, posing at various times as a policeman and an SAS officer; more seriously he had past convictions for sexual assault and attempted rape. Before the Dando trial he was diagnosed as suffering from Asperger syndrome and epilepsy and was judged to have an IQ of 75.

However, the main case against him rested on the evidence of a witness who had seen a man in Dando’s street four-and-a-half hours before the late morning murder “who might have been George” and a minute speck of firearm residue on George’s coat. At the retrial an expert witness testified that this could easily have resulted from someone wearing the coat at a fireworks display weeks, even months before.

Miss Dando was killed by a single shot to the head on the doorstep of her flat in Fulham, London, about a couple of kilometres away from where George lived. No-one heard a shot and it appears that the murder weapon had been pressed hard against her head when it was fired. This would have the effect of deadening the sound and lessening the chance of blood splattering onto the assassin.

In other words, the killing had the hallmarks of a cold-blooded professional hit man, not the mixed-up, low IQ Barry George.

Dando was a high-profile television journalist. She fronted the Crimewatch program, which appealed to the public for clues to unsolved crimes. There were possibly underworld figures who would like to have seen her investigations halted. Another theory was that she was targeted by a Yugoslav terrorist group in retaliation for the NATO bombing of the Belgrade television station three days before, during the Kosovo crisis, which resulted in the deaths of several local television personalities.

The police have steadfastly rejected these theories saying they have no evidence of an underworld connection and that insufficient time had elapsed since the Yugoslav bombing for a retaliatory strike to be organised.

To my mind the Yugoslav connection carries some credence, especially if a trained agent was already on the ground in London, which in those troubled times was quite likely.

In the meantime, Dando’s family have no closure and George has no justice.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Only the jihadists will win in Syria

Reports from the Syrian battlefronts indicate that the Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban, have now joined their al-Qaida allies in the Syrian rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

The Sunni fighters will be ranged against the Shi’ite forces of Assad which are receiving support from the Lebanese Hezbollah.

This development will probably be welcomed with glee by some in the West. Terrorist groups fighting each other, what could be better? Let’s hope they kill each other off.

Sober analysis suggests exactly the opposite. Now the West loses whoever wins this civil war – and it also loses if no-one wins and if the war drags on.

All the current combatants are getting access to sophisticated weaponry. On Assad’s side it comes from Russia desperate to keep its only Middle East ally in power, while the rebels are being supplied and bankrolled by Sunni Arab states that see this as a holy war against the hated Shi’ite oppressors.   

If the war ends the victors will keep their weapons and the vanquished will probably be able to withdraw with theirs. Then all well-armed and battle-hardened jihadists can get back to their core business of attacking the infidels.  

An indefinite conflict also bodes ill for the West. Tehreek-e-Taliban commanders in Pakistan say they have already set up camps in rebel-held Syrian territory where inexperienced volunteers receive their military training before being sent to the front. They also act as rest and recreation areas and field hospitals for treating the wounded.

Such a sophisticated operation means that increasing numbers of young people from all over the Muslim world will find their way to Syria. Already there are reports of Indonesians either fighting, or ready to fight there.  A good percentage of these volunteers will become permanently radicalised and the West will be in their sights.

Speaking to Reuters, a prominent Pakistani author and expert on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, said Tehreek-e-Taliban was now acting like a global jihadist with the same agenda as al-Qaida.

“This is a way, I suppose, to cement relationships with the Syrian militant groups and to enlarge their sphere of influence,” Rashid said.

And caught in the middle are millions of Syrian civilians, helpless as their country and their futures descend into dust.      

Thursday, July 11, 2013

One Child Policy comes home to roost

The recent story about a Chinese court ordering a woman to visit her elderly mother every two months underlines a deepening crisis that threatens to undermine the social fabric of the country.

Its root cause can be traced back to the introduction of the draconian One Child Policy in the late 1970s.

As the West discovered years ago, education, rising prosperity and changing social mores can be very effective restrictions on high birth rates, but this was simply not understood by the 1970s Chinese leadership well versed in the authoritarian traditions of Mao Zedong. In its view, birth rates could only be controlled by strict rules coupled by harsh penalties for non-compliance.

The results were laws stating that Chinese couples could have just one child. There were plenty of exemptions and the law was often flouted in the more remote areas of the country, but for around 40 per cent of the population having just one child became an enforced norm.

The results are now becoming apparent. Traditionally, the care of old people in China has been a responsibility of the next generation down. That was fine when there were plenty of children to share the task, but young marrieds in China today are faced with having to look after two sets of parents, and as people live longer, grandparents are also coming into the equation.

As one young executive in Shanghai put it: “I cherish my parents, and I respect my wife’s parents, but we have our own lives and sometimes we are just too busy making a living to visit them often.”

The One Child Policy has also skewed China’s sex ratios as couples decided that a boy was more likely to be able to support them in old age. The latest census figures suggest nearly six boys are being born for every five girls

With very few exceptions little has been done to prepare for the inevitable results of the policy. China’s social security system is rudimentary. Care homes for older people do exist, but they are more akin to the workhouses of 19th century Britain. For older people in China who are not able to save enough for private care, retirement is a bleak prospect.

Faced with this problem China’s authorities have reverted to type. The Elderly Rights Law states that adult children must look after the “spiritual needs” of their parents and makes it an offence to neglect or snub them.

Unsurprisingly, the most enthusiastic supporters of the legislation are the lawyers who will deal with its breaches.

“It’s difficult to put into practice, but not impossible,” insists Beijing lawyer Zhan Yan Feng in an interview with the BBC.

“If no amicable settlement is reached, courts will force a person to visit parents certain times every month. If this person disobeys court rulings, he or she could be fined or jailed.”

Quite what this would do to ease the plight of elderly parents is difficult to ascertain.        

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lessons in reality for Muslim leaders

The last few days and weeks have been a painful lesson for two of the Muslim world’s most prominent leaders – the old ways of governing don’t work anymore.

Both Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi are discovering their offices no longer carry with them the carte blanche authority to rule as they wish; that people who feel they have significant grievances will protest, and if they do it in sufficient numbers, the very legitimacy of the government will be under threat.

The two are not exact parallels: Turkey has a longer, if somewhat chequered experience of democracy and Erdogan has been in power since 2002 winning three elections in a row.

Moreover he remains reasonably popular – although opinion polls have shown that popularity has shrunk since his AKP Party won the 2011 election with almost 50 per cent of the vote. Many Turks give him credit for strong economic growth and rising middle class prosperity.

Morsi, on the other hand, was elected just a year ago, ending decades of one-party and military rule by a series of strongmen. Much more than Erdogan he is seen to be connected to the religious right. His Muslim Brotherhood Party, banned under the previous regime, won in a tight contest against secular opposition. But its victory rested on shaky ground.

As one commentator put it: “For years the Brotherhood was seen as a symbol of opposition to the regime; also many Egyptians voted for it simply because they were Muslims. Now they are beginning to realise just what a Government run by the Brotherhood can mean.”

Demonstrators who are currently turning out in their millions to demand Morsi’s ousting cite his failure to deal with security and the economic malaise, but underlying this is the fear that the country’s secular tradition is being undermined in favour of Islamic fundamentalism.

The same feeling exists in Turkey, although here the trend has been much more subtle. However, Australian businesswoman Hatice Sitki exposed it anecdotally while visiting Istanbul.

Dr Sitki found that references to Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and a champion of secularism, only a few years ago to be found everywhere in the city, had virtually disappeared, to be replaced by verses from the Koran.

Faced by massed protests, both men have reacted — in the sad tradition of Mummar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad — with indignation that the people are daring to challenge their authority.

The examples of Libya and Syria loom large — but the international community would desperately want to avoid the prospect of two of the Muslim world’s most populous and powerful States being plunged into similar chaos.