European Union Heads of Government met in emergency summit in Brussels today to discuss what to do about Ukraine. Although there was not complete agreement about how forcefully to react to provocative moves by President Putin and pro-Russian forces inside Crimea, everyone understood the need to prevent a further escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Interestingly, Romania offered to act as an honest-broker between the EU and Moscow, which is a promising development; certainly, diplomacy will remain Europe’s tack for the time being, though European Council President Herman van Rompuy warned that various economic sanctions will be imposed if Russia does not change its tune soon. As it is, preparatory talks for the panned G8 Summit in Sochi have been abandoned, and the mood in both Washington and London is in favour of cold-shouldering Russia from the G8, which could possibly revert to being the G7. Meanwhile, ominously, the state-oriented Russian TV channel Russia Today showed viewers a map of Russia into which Crimea had already been incorporated. And the Crimean regional government’s parliament voted to hold a referendum to secede from Ukraine, to be held on 16 March — i.e. in 10 days time. That not only violates Ukraine’s constitution but would also make any proper debate about the pros and cons of the status quo, independence, devo max or incorporation into Russia impossible. So the situation remains extremely tense. However, the EU is right to try to pursue the diplomatic route — while offering financial and moral assistance to the provisional government in Kiev — rather than inflaming the situation further.
Posts Tagged ‘Russia’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th March, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th January, 2014
It’s incredibly easy and cheap to spy on people these days — wherever they are. That was the (depressing) core message of the presentation by Gus Hosein, Executive Director of Privacy International at an Association of Europe Journalists (AEJ) UK briefing at Europe House in Westminster this lunchtime. Technology means that just as George Orwell foresaw, Big Brother can and probably does watch all of us all of the time — only Big Brother could be of a variety of nationalities (or none, in the case of multinational corporations), not just those who, elected or not, in principle have a mandate to rule over us. What is more, a very significant proportion of the equipment used in this new surveillance world is manufactured by companies based in the UK. Gus Hosein identified three main areas of concern: (1) “Upstream collection”: for example the way that Google and others have agreed to allow access to electronic traffic by the NSA (US), GCHQ (UK) et al. By tapping into fibre optic cables underseas, they can literally monitor everything we send electronically, and GCHQ-monitored material captured off the coasts of the UK and Cyprus (sic) play an important role in this. (2) “Tailored Access Operations”: effectively, black ops done from a computer terminal which can compromise networks and computers anywhere in the world, through hacking and related techniques. They can, for example, turn on or off the microphone in your mobile phone without you realising. (3) “Sabotage”: the heavy stuff, which introduces “vulnerabilities” into supposedly secure systems. So can anyone have confidence in the security of any transaction by digital means? Alas, no. So who are the “baddies” in our surveillance world? Line up the usual suspects: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Israel — but also the US and the UK. Moreover, British companies have been selling the relevant surveillance technology to regimes such as Egypt and Bahrain (as I know, having been refused entry to Bahrain last time I landed there). So should we be worried? You bet. Particularly now we are in the age of what is known in the trade as “Big Data”, whereby what might appear seemingly innocuous information about us all is stored to make predictions about us (our likely purchases, as well as our beliefs or potential actions) that even we did not realise ourselves. And did you think it was smart to have a high-tech fridge or washing machine? Think again: it could literally be monitoring you and your movements. I asked Gis Hosein about drones, about which I have been quizzed at length on Iranian TV. Do we really need to fear the sophistication of new technology there as well? By now you won’t be surprised by the answer. “Drones can be flying hacking machines,” he replied, “which is what the police and security services would be interested in, more than mere surveillance.”
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: AEJ, Big Brother, big data, China, Cyprus, Europe House, GCHQ, George Orwell, Gus Hosein, Iran, Israel, North Korea, NSA, Privacy International, Russia, sabotage, surveillance society, tailored access operations, UK, upstream collection, USA | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th September, 2013
Just because the House of Commons recently voted against military action in Syria does not mean that Britain or indeed the West can walk away from the tragic situation there. As I said in a speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow this morning, we still have a moral obligation to act under Responsibility to Protect (R2P). That is the evolving doctrine in International Law that when a country’s government is unable or unwilling to protect its population from humanitarian catastrophe or gross human rights abuses the international community must. Military action is only a last resort under R2P, and I am not alone in being relieved that we have not gone to war over Syria, as I fear it would only have made the situation worse. But we need to work closely with Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, to get action taken, over and above the considerable amount of humanitarian aid that Britain and some others have been providing. I praised the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for sticking his neck out in calling for the Assad regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and indeed the UN Security Council should pass a resolution to that effect. Moreover, there has been a UN Commission on Syria in existence for over two years but the government in Damascus has not let it in to investigate. The UN (and again Russia) should use every means to force it to allow the team in, as it did with the chemical weapons inspectors. In the meantime, we should have no illusions about the Assads and their cohorts; this is a regime that has no compunction about shelling hospitals, persecuting doctors who treat the wounded or even torturing children in front of their parents. The situation in Syria today is a stain on the modern world and the international community — including the Arab League — must find a way of getting rid of it.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd September, 2013
I don’t always agree with (Lord) David Owen, but he made a valid point in an op ed piece in today’s London’s Evening Standard when he suggested that the G20 Summit in St Petersburg later this week could offer an important opportunity for negotiations to find a way out of the Syria impasse. The host of the Summit, of course, is Vladimir Putin, who is Bashar al-Assad’s closest European ally. And the G20 brings together an interesting mix of developed, emerging and developing countries: the Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, UK and US, plus the European Union. It is clear that there is stalemate on the ground in Syria; Assad is not losing, but he’s not winning either, and in the meantime yet more people get killed — over 110,00 already — and more refugees are created. The Syrian economy, as well as the country’s infrastructure and heritage, is being systematically destroyed. Despite the UK Parliament’s rejection of a military option last Thursday, it is still possible that the United States (if President Obama persuades Congress), France and Turkey may take part in a strike. But what exactly would that achieve. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wrote in a piece in this morning’s Daily Telegraph that it would be possible to call another vote in the Commons and that the aim of any military strike should be to punish Bashar al-Assad. Well, there is a growing consensus that the Assad regime was responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack; the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was the latest authority to state that today. But as I said in a live interview on BBC Radio London this evening, surely the way to “punish” Assad and his clique would be to bring them before the ICC in The Hague, to face charges of crimes against humanity. I genuinely believe that is the best outcome, though I have no illusions about how difficult it may be to get him and his cohorts to The Hague. In the meantime, surely the prime concern must be to prevent as many deaths and as much suffering as possible. And the only plausible way to do that is convene the Geneva 2 peace conference that has been in the air for some time now. It may be uncomfortable to sit down with a dictator, but that may be the only sensible option — and it won’t happen unless Mr Putin is on board.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Barack Obama, Bashar Al-Assad, Boris Johnson, David Owen, G20, Geneva 2, ICC, NATO, Russia, St Petersburg, Syria, Vladimir Putin | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th August, 2013
The Government’s defeat last night over its motion on intervention in Syria was always on the cards given the deep divisions of opinion within all three main parties. It was interesting that some of the strongest speeches against going down a road that could lead to UK military strikes came from Tory rebels. Clearly memories of the way that the House was lied to over Iraq 10 years ago played its part, but there was also a realisation that a sizable majority of the British electorate is against going to war. At one level I am pleased about that; as a Quaker, that is hardly surprising. But I am anxious that we should not throw the Syria baby out with the bathwater. Last night’s Commons vote should not be an end to the affair. Assad supporters in Homs were out in their cars honking their horns in victory once they heard about the UK vote, but now it is important that Britain and other Security Council members work hard to get a negotiated end to the bloodshed in Syria. That means getting both Russia and Iran on board. I have no illusions about how difficult that may be, but that is not a reason not to try. The killing and destruction and dispossession have got to stop and in the meantime the UK and other countries that were braced to go to war should spend some of the resources they would have devoted to that on humanitarian assistance instead. Syria’s neighbours Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are all struggling under the weight of the refugee influx and deserve support. The Arab League, which has never really lived up to its potential, should also now step up to the plate and take a leading role in promoting a diplomatic solution. The blatant truth is that on progress so far, the armed rebels in Syria are never going to win militarily and frankly the country would probably descend into anarchy if they did. The military benefits of any external strike were always doubtful too. But to reiterate, just because the House of Commons has given the thumbs down to a course of action which could have led to war must not mean that we just turn our backs on Syria’s agony and walk away.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th June, 2013
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated Court in Strasbourg is a favourite Aunt Sally of right-wing Conservative MPs and Britain’s tabloid Press (which these days, alas, includes the broadsheet Daily Telegraph), but unjustly so. The Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as it is more formally known, has since its drafting in 1950 and later adoption by the Council or Europe done a huge amount of useful work in promoting the Rule of Law throughout Europe (including Eastern Europe, Russia and Turkey; only the dictatorship of Belarus is outside the fold), as well as providing individuals who feel their rights have been violated by their own State to seek redress. Despite the fact that the Court is a separate institution from the European Union it still gets tarred with the Brussels brush by virulent Europhobes, who seem to believe that the United Kingdom has completely abandoned its national sovereignty to foreigners — not that many of these anti-Europeans seem particularly worried about the fact that US influence is far more marked in various aspects of British public and foreign policy, not to mention our culture. Two things have been like juicy bones to these frothing xenophobic hounds. First, the Court’s ruling that it was wrong for the UK to deprive all prisoners of their rights to vote, no matter how short their sentence or trivial their offence. Theresa May could easily have got round that issue by accepting that prisoners with a sentence of less than six months should still retain their vote, but others not — a compromise that would have satisfied Strasbourg. The other even more famous ECHR “outrage”, of course, relates to the prolonged delay in the expulsion of the vile Islamist extremist Abu Qatada because there has not been up till now a credible assurance from his home country, Jordan, that evidence that might be used against him in any trial in Amman would not have been obtained by torture. Now I, like almost everyone in this country, long to see the back of Abu Qatada, who has milked the system here, including claiming benefits. But we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by saying, oh well, as he is so wicked it does not matter if witnesses against him have been tortured. When we accept that, then we surrender our commitment to human rights (as the last Labour government alas did, with respect to extraordinary rendition). Moreover, it is utter nonsense for Theresa May to float the idea — seized on by relish by some of her backbench MPs and the right-wing Press — that Britain could temporarily withdraw from ECHR so it can expel Abu Qatada, then reapply once he is out of the way. Anyone who knows anything about International Law and diplomacy knows that is shamelessly playing to the gallery while undermining the very foundations of our credibility as a nation. What is really lacking, I believe, is a concerted campaign in Britain to champion what the ECHR actually achieves, in which politicians, NGOs and the enlightened media should participate. It is not just the future of our involvement with the Strasbourg Court that is at stake but our values as well.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st May, 2013
By a spooky coincidence, while the House of Commons was debating the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, Liberal International British Group (LIBG), in collaboration with Liberal Youth, was holding a long-planned meeting on LGBT Rights in Russia, at the National Liberal Club. Through a skype link we had a long exchange with a brave young lesbian in Moscow, who for her own protection I shall simply call “A”, and who declared that essentially LGBT individuals have no fundamental rights in Russia. She is fortunate in having parents who accept her, as well as her boss at work, but the prevailing atmosphere is homophobic, from the government, the Orthodox Church and a large swath of public opinion. Neo-nazi groups are particularly hostile — a point Peter Tatchell also made, when he came to address the meeting, taking time out from following the House of Commons debate. Peter was of course badly beaten in Moscow some years ago when he was attending a Gay Pride event. Such events are now generally banned and Peter argued that probably there are other ways that LGBT groups can campaign for improvements in their situation. Earlier I had asked A whether LGBT individuals feel any common cause with political dissidents, journalists and others who are also suffering harassment, including death in the worst cases, so I was interested when Peter emphasized the point that human rights restrictions in Russia should be seen as a whole. He also made the point that many Russians reject Western values (a phenomenon I have noticed in parts of Asia and Africa), so what we may think of as universal rights or norms can appear to them alien and unacceptable. It is no coincidence that it is among the ultra-nationalists that one finds the highest levels of intolerance.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd January, 2013
It’s 40 years since Britain joined the EU and siren voices among UKIP and the Tory right are arguing that it’s time to turn the clock back and pull out. They couldn’t be more wrong. On the contrary, this is the time for the EU to integrate more — as the eurozone now seems destined to do — and Britain should be an enthusiastic participant. In the 1950s it was clear to the Founding Fathers (sorry, ladies, they were all men) of what developed into the EU that a degree of economic integration, notably between France and Germany, was necessary to make wars between western European states impossible. That goal was so smoothly achieved that European peace is taken for granted, especially by the young. A second huge victory since 1989 has been the absorption of formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe ino the EU. This year, Croatia will be the next. But there is an urgent reason why EU integration should move ahead, namely the way that the global economy is developing, with the rise of new heavyweights including Brazil, Russia, India and China — the BRICs. As EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso has rightly pointed out, by 2050 not a single individual European country will be among the world’s top 10 economies* — not even Germany. So in order to compete — indeed, to survive as an economic force — Europe must unite further and start operating more as not just a single market but also a single economic force. It would be madness for Britain to stay out of that, condemning itself to a form of offshore irrelevance. It is not the Europhiles in Britain who are unpatriotic, as some of our critics allege, but rather UKIP and the Europhobic Tory right who want to consign us to the role of an historical theme park.
*A new entry at number 10, however, could well be Turkey, which makes it all the more important that Turkey be embraced into the European family.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 12th November, 2012
Being a Liberal in Russia is a risky vocation, as putting one’s head above the parapet politically is an invitation to harrassment, arrest, criminal proceedings and heafty fines or imprisonment. High profile anti-establishment activists such as Pussy Riot get lots of foreign media attention and noises of sympathy from the outside world, of course, but even in their case that did not stop two of their number being sentenced to two years detention each in different gulags. Alas, as the leader of Russia’s Liberal Party Yabloko, Sergei Mitrokhin, detailed in a speech at Westminster this lunchtime, the long arm of President Putin’s law is getting firmer. He highlighted three aspects of particular concern regarding the current political situation in Russia and the crackdown against Liberal forces. First, there are the political reprisals, which have seen key Yabloko activists charged — often on false evidence — for demanding action against high-level corruption, for example. Second, Sergei stressed the hardening of laws and the suppression of civil rights under various amendments to the legal and civil codes. One good (i.e. bad) example is an amendment which will mean that Russian NGOs receiving grants from international bodies must now register as “foreign agents”. And last but not least in the litany of adverse developments, is what Sergei called the “clericalisation of the state”, in other words the way that a very conservative form of Russian Orthodoxy has now been melded into a state ideology which is dangerously nationalistic, anti-Western and anti-Liberal. Today’s gathering, at Portcullis House, was sponsored by Simon Hughes MP, Lord Alderdice and Liberal International, and in the discussion period after Sergei Mitrokhin’s speech I inquired exactly what helpful actions groups such as LI and the British Liberal Democrats can take to help Yabloko, without jeopardising its activists. Training in election strategies and techniques is something that I and others from the LibDems have done in various parts of the world, through the all-party Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and that may be the best answer — other than heartfelt moral support.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: John Alderdice, Liberal Democrats, Liberal International, Pussy Riot, Russia, Sergei Mitrokhin, Simon Hughes, Vladimir Putin, Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Yabloko | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th October, 2012
This evening I took part in a lively and well-attended debate at the University College London (UCL) Debating Society, speaking on behalf of a proposition in favour of international intervention in Syria. I pointed out that there already has been intervention of various kinds on both sides of the conflict for several months, with the Russians, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah notably helping the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad try to cling onto power, while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — not to forget jihadis from all over the world, including the UK — have backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other armed opposition groups, including the Muslim Broherhood. So the real question to answer is: what sort of intervention is desirable? I emphatically ruled out an Iraqi-style US-led invasion (which I, along with the Liberal Democrat Party, vociferously opposed in 2003). But I also excluded a Libyan-style intervention (which I did support), as the situation on the ground in Syria is so utterly different; as Syria’s population density is much greater and there are no big centres of opposition strength, such as Benghazi. No great military intervention would be likely to achieve much except raise the casualty levels, which probably top 35,000 deaths already. On the other hand, the world cannot just stand by and watch Assad and his cronies slaughter the Syrian people (and destroy the country’s rich cultural heritage in the process). We are morally and legally obliged to do something, now that the Responsiblity to Protect is part of International Law, i.e. that when a leader is unable or unwilling to protect his own people then there is an obligation on the international community to come to their aid. I argued that Lakhdar Brahimi’s new plan — which involves a ceasefire and a UN-organised peacekeeping force — should receive strong international endorsement as a good starting-point. I believe even Russia could be won round to this, as Moscow is desperate for some face-saving exit from its current embarassing alliance. Today, even Assad said he would go along with the plan, though the FSA has turned it down. A ceasefire is an essential step in the direction of a workable and lasting solution, but clearly the departure of Assad and some of his closest associated would have to be part of the package.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bashar Al-Assad, Free Syrian Army, FSA, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Responsibility to Protect, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UCL, UN, University College London | Leave a Comment »