Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Early thoughts about Guinea

The recent coup in Guinea following Lansana Conte's death earlier in the week has been as poorly reported in the western media as I expected it to be, so I've done a bit of trawling around and communicated with a journalist friend of mine based next door in Sierra Leone, because on a personal level, I was pretty worried about this one.

The risk that the whole region surrounding Guinea could well be impacted by any potential trouble there is, in my opinion, a well founded one. So it's pretty important for an area that has only recently experienced fighting (Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau in particular) that it doesn't happen.

The military, under Moussa Camara and the National Council for Democracy and Development have taken control of the country and ousted the ministers that served under the 24 year and seemingly less than democratic rule of Conte. Yes there is a curfew, and yes there will be tanks on the streets. I'm no specialist on these things, but I think it's fairly reasonable to assume that these are fairly sensible measures for a poor and vastly underdeveloped country that's just come out of 24 years under what amounted to a dictator, in a region with a recent history of terrible, terrible violence. Simply to maintain law and order in such an uncertain transition period, these measures are probably necessary. There are however, reports of civilian involvement in the new ruling council and of involvement in particular with the trade unions. Not to forget of course, that the word on the street, as I have heard it, is that the people are pretty happy about all this too.

Camara has promised democratic elections for late in 2010 (in which he says, he will not be standing himself) and strong measures to stamp out corruption. Now, I'm not so sure that to be punished by execution for corruption is something I would advocate for and neither am I entirely sure that waiting two years for elections is a reasonable time length either.
However, the speediness of the UK, EU, US and African Union (with the exception to date of Senegal's President Wade) to condemn the coup is in my mind, one of the more worrying things about the whole scenario.

Democracy doesn't come easily to countries who have not experienced it. Why should it? It's not a commodity, something that can be branded across a nation overnight. Having free and fair elections is not just about people being able to turn up and mark their crosses on a piece of paper without intimidation or fear of interference. It's also about candidates and parties having the resources and the opportunities to develop policies and present them to people and to give them a choice. Elections are not easy to organise at the best of times. Take a country with limited infrastructure and resources and where opposition parties have been intimidated, banned and whatever else for a number of years and it must be a logistical nightmare.

The International community wish for a return to civilian rule and elections in the early part of 2009. That looks a lot to me like they want to get their candidate in quick before anyone else has the chance to get themselves sorted out and, God forbid, the people of Guinea actually get chance to have a think and a say about what they want.

There are certainly strong reasons that say the coup is not a good direction for Guinea. It remains a worry and there is still a threat to the security of Guinea and of the whole Mano River region. It's definitely one I will be keeping an eye on, whilst being naive and reasonably hopeful that this is one country that will find free and fair elections at its own pace, without the bloodshed or destruction that its neighbours saw.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mr. Biafra Writes to Washington

Punk rock rabble-rouser and astute political activist Jello Biafra has submitted a plethora of timely and sensible policy proposals to our incoming president and soon-to-be disappointment-in-chief in an Open Letter to Barack Obama.

For example, on drug policy reform:

Prohibition is as absurd and fruitless today as it was when Eliot Ness ran around shooting up Chicago trying to stamp out illegal beer.

Well worth reading, although it seems doubtful as to whether the President-Elect and his team will be seriously considering any of the suggestions, much less adopting them as policy, under the new administration. Which is a shame and a measure of how disappointing the Obama presidency is likely to feel just a short time from now.

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After the Watershed

Bob Sommer looks back on the political watershed eight years ago when the American democratic republic was suspended in favour of (at least) eight years of kleptocracy and dictatorship. Never again, Information Landmine hopes, although we note that Jeb Bush is reportedly already thinking about what lies ahead in 2012 or '16.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Bullshit Libertarians

This seems like an encouraging sign:

In yesterday’s Cato Unbound lefty economist Dean Baker sees the possibility for common ground between libertarians and progressive in fighting corporatism
IP is a pretty good litnus test of whether self-styled libertarians can walk the walk. Lots of people seem to be happy to call themselves libertarians when the issue is lowering their taxes and scrapping social safety nets, but they seem to go a bit quiter when issues of corporate welfare come up. This means that, in practice, as Roy Edrosso points out, "libertarian" ends up being what people call themselves when they're trying to get laid, and need to divert attention from the fact that the fact that they're conservatives.

So, for example, Tim Lee and Will Wilkinson - yes - Richard Epstein - meanwhile, seems to be operating on a pretty straightforward policy of "Freedom will be maximised if we consolidate power in the hands of as few companies as possible." Or something like that. Dick.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Are all asylum seekers in Britain here illegally?

Further to my post below, it seems appropriate to write a little bit more about asylum seekers. I have two reasons for doing so.
First, I can't let a comment like this one sit there without an answer, and I feel that the answer needs to be up here for anyone to read easily. Second, this is the kind of question that many representing asylum seekers try and fail to answer. Got to have a go then really haven't I...

So, the first answer is no. Asylum seeker is a legal right under international law - Article 14 in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

By definition, that means that there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. In 2003, there was a Press Complaints Commission response to journalists using the term as it was considered 'inaccurate.'

Most anwers would end there. But the question that's being asked above doesn't really relate to legal definitions, which is why so many of the people who attempt to answer the question don't manage to do so. What people are really talking about, is whether anyone in fact, has a right to claim asylum in the UK given we are an island and said people must encounter several borders in the process of arriving into the UK.

This situation is protected against under the third country rule. Essentially this means that as an asylum seeker, you have to apply for asylum in the first safe country you reach, or you can and will be returned there. But people who are claiming asylum have are fleeing from harm or persecution, so that may not be easy to find either conventional routes or travel using real documents. Some people do put this in the hands of traffickers, and therefore have little control over where they end up. Others will jump on a ship or whatever and end up where they end up. Some (max 500 per year) are taken directly from refugee camps under a scheme called Gateway Protection Programme, under a UN/Home Office deal.

It's useful to remember, that in the UK we really don't get that many of the world's asylum seekers, the numbers hosted by neighbouring countries in the developing world are huge. It's something like 2% of that the UK takes in.

We need to stop thinking about immigration and asylum in the same context. Controlled migration from outside the EU, migration within the EU, and asylum are three very, very different issues, in terms of politics, economics, ethics and law. Migration for economic reasons is not the same as claiming asylum.

So right now, let's take asylum. Assuming that this issue just keeps on coming up (which you know, given that I write on this blog, it will) then let me for the first time present an argument that I will doubtless return to time and time again:

Just say for a minute that you and your family were at risk from harm, from persecution, thought that you might die. If you thought you were in danger, real danger, would you stand up, carry on and hope for the best? Or would you try to escape? To run? To remove yourself from the dangerous situation?

These situations, are so often analysed and talked about from a western perspective. When you've never had to worry about infringement of a particular human right, you tend not to hold it in such high regard. I'm not sure people would have the same attitude if it were them, in their country who was at risk. Wouldn't we want, expect, someone to take us in?

Well I would. And where would I go? I'd go wherever I thought I would be most safe. And somewhere I thought I could live a reasonable life, possibly try and continue the work I'd been doing that caused me to flee in the first place (assuming of course that it was my political leanings and not my ginger hair that was the reason for my need to seek asylum elsewhere). If I could speak the language and knew something of the culture, then probably that would be an advantage too. Or maybe I've never been anywhere and I just know the name of a country where there is freedom and democracy and the government don't try to have you killed when you speak out against them or because you're a particular religion, sexuality or ethnic group?
I might aim for one place, that's kind of reasonable I think. And yea, if I couldn't get there, then I'd just run, just go anywhere.

I've never met an asylum seeker who hasn't told me that given the choice, they'd rather be at home.
But when your life is in danger, that choice isn't always there.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

On the bombings

Been a bit frantic of late, so not really had time to think much about the bombings in Mumbai, beyond the fact that they're horrific and that the prospect of increased tensions between India and Pakistan should have any sane person losing sleep.

But this, from Bruce Schneier, needs to be widely read:

  • Low-tech is very effective. Movie-plot threats -- terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists with biological agents, terrorists targeting our water supplies -- might be what people worry about, but a bunch of trained (we don't really know yet what sort of training they had, but it's clear that they had some) men with guns and grenades is all they needed.
  • At the same time, the attacks were surprisingly ineffective. I can't find exact numbers, but it seems there were about 18 terrorists. The latest toll is 195 dead, 235 wounded. That's 11 dead, 13 wounded, per terrorist. As horrible as the reality is, that's much less than you might have thought if you imagined the movie in your head. Reality is different from the movies.
  • Even so, terrorism is rare. If a bunch of men with guns and grenades is all they really need, then why isn't this sort of terrorism more common? Why not in the U.S., where it's easy to get hold of weapons? It's because terrorism is very, very rare.
  • Specific countermeasures don't help against these attacks. None of the high-priced countermeasures that defend against specific tactics and specific targets made, or would have made, any difference: photo ID checks, confiscating liquids at airports, fingerprinting foreigners at the border, bag screening on public transportation, anything. Even metal detectors and threat warnings didn't do any good:
  • "If I look at what we had, which all of us complained about, it could not have stopped what took place," he told CNN. "It's ironic that we did have such a warning, and we did have some measures."

    He said people were told to park away from the entrance and had to go through a metal detector. But he said the attackers came through a back entrance.

    "They knew what they were doing, and they did not go through the front. All of our arrangements are in the front," he said.

If there's any lesson in these attacks, it's not to focus too much on the specifics of the attacks. Of course, that's not the way we're programmed to think. We respond to stories, not analysis. I don't mean to be unsympathetic; this tendency is human and these deaths are really tragic. But 18 armed people intent on killing lots of innocents will be able to do just that, and last-line-of-defense countermeasures won't be able to stop them. Intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. We have to find and stop the terrorists before they attack, and deal with the aftermath of the attacks we don't stop. There really is no other way, and I hope that we don't let the tragedy lead us into unwise decisions about how to deal with terrorism.

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