Jonathan Fryer

Human Rights in Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th April, 2015

This week I have been in Istanbul attending the inaugural conference of the International Human Rights Coalition for Iraq (IHRCI), which aims to not only publicise human rights abuses on all sides in Iraq but even more importantly to document them assiduously so that prosecutions can be brought against the perpetrators. The late Saddam Hussein was a gross human rights violator, but the situation since he was overthrown by the illegal US-led invasion of 2003 has been far from perfect. Violations by both the US and British occupying forces have been widely reported, as have the savage practices of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) that has emerged in both Iraq and Syria. But far less well-known are the killings, kidnappings, torture and other outrages carried out not only by Iraqi government security forces (especially while Nouri Al-Maliki was Prime Minister) but also by Shia militia groups and others. There was some distressing testimony, including chilling videos, from Iraqis at the Istanbul conference, including details of the vicious treatment of some of the inhabitants of Tikrit since it’s liberation from ISIS. IHRCI intends to use legal channels to bring well-documented cases against human rights violators, initially inside Iraq where possible but also internationally where not.

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The Great European Disaster Movie

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th April, 2015

Bill Emmott and Annalisa PirasThe Great European Disaster MovieThanks to UKIP there has been a lot of discussion in Britain over the past year about a possible Brexit from the European Union. But there has been little realistic scenario-building about what would happen if the UK did leave (presumably after an IN/OUT referendum in which a majority vote OUT). However, the Italian film director Annalisa Piras has made a film imagining the fallout if a Brexit caused the EU to break up and be dissolved. The film was shown on BBC Four on 1 March (followed by a Newsnight discussion), but last night, at my lovely local Genesis Cinema in Stepney, and in conjunction with Cinema Italia UK and the NGO New Europeans, the full director’s cut was shown, followed by a debate including Ms Piras, the film’s executive producer, Bill Emmott (a former editor of the Economist) and others. The film itself mixes a fictional narrative centring on a British academic (played by Angus Deayton) explaining to a young girl sitting beside him on a plane going through a thunderstorm what the (now defunct) EU was all about. But most of the film is made up of news-reel material and interviews with politicians, journalists and others from a wide range of EU member states from France to Croatia. What happened in the Balkans in the 1990s reminds us that the possibility of War in Europe did not end completely in 1945, even if it is now unthinkable between EU member states. Indeed, footage from Kiev in Ukraine in the film underlined the point about the current dangers in the European neighbourhood; to confront them, Europe needs to be strong and united. Similarly, though the financial crisis nearly brought about the destruction of the euro and set back many member states’ economies only in solidarity can the 28 meet the challenges of global economic forces. Because there are so many interviews in the film the effect is kaleidoscopic, but my favourite without a doubt is one with a German lady of a certain age who proudly displays the iron crosses awarded to her ancestors over a century of conflicts, but who celebrates the fact that her children and grandchildren will never add to that collection by having to fight in a European war. The film’s ending is apocalyptic, as the plane is turned away from various airports and crashes (though the little girl parachutes out), which will doubtless reinforce criticism from Euro-sceptics that the movie is didactic and over the top. Despite that, it is in fact thought-provoking and deserves to be seen by a wider audience, not least students and other youth. They “get” the European project much more than their elders tend to do, and it is their future which is at stake.

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Postcards from the Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th April, 2015

Postcards from the Middle Eastwetlands LebanonThe British naturalist and Christian missionary, Chris Naylor, has spent much of his working life so far in Arab lands, and like many others before him he was seduced by the difference from Britain. He and his wife’s first appointment in 1989 was to Kuwait, which is not the easiest or most interesting place in the Gulf for an expatriate to live, though they managed to make a visit by car the following year to see some of the great historical sites in Iraq, Mercifully, they were on leave in the UK  that summer when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, though they had to fret about colleagues and friends (and all their belongings) left behind. Four years later, by now with two small children, they moved to Amman in Jordan, before settling in the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon and later Beirut for well over a decade. Accordingly, Naylor’s paperback book of memories, Postcards from the Middle East (Lion, £8.99), is really a selection of postcards from the Gulf and the neighbourhood plus a very long letter from Lebanon, to which the family became deeply attached. Initially working as a teacher, Naylor switched to being a conservation activist and administrator and much of the book is about the wetlands in Lebanon where he did much of his work, but seen against the counterpoint of political developments, including the Syrian occupation, 9/11, Rafik Hariri’s assassination and the Israeli-Hezbollah war. Family unity (a third child now having materialised) clearly kept the Naylors grounded through stressful times, as did the fellowship of Lebanon’s large Christian community. But the author clearly felt an empathy with the Lebanese in particular that transcended ethnic and religious boundaries and which inevitably left him feeling a sense of loss when eventually he and his family decided to relocate back to England. This book therefore has many threads and while specialists in the Middle East may not find much of great import in it, though the conservation material may well be new to them, as an account of cross-cultural accommodation and acceptance as well as of the learning process needed to live in a wildly different society it certainly has its pertinence and charm.

Link: https://www.facebook.com/PostcardsMiddleEast

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The Leaders Debate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd April, 2015

Leaders Debate 1I was worried that last night’s leaders debate on ITV would be a fiasco, with seven contending figures, but in fact it held well together under the firm but fair chairmanship of Julie Etchingham. I thought Prime Minister David Cameron looked rather pained for much of the time, but then we all knew he did not really want to be there, though he carried on manfully. Ed Miliband was more persuasive than I have seen him on previous occasions, though he failed really to brush aside the embarrassing legacy of the last Labour government or to rebut the recent accusations about Labour and zero hours contracts. Nick Clegg had none of the novelty he enjoyed in 2010, but robustly differentiated the LibDems from the Conservatives while taking justifiable credit for certain LibDem wins in government. Nigel Farage was like a stuck gramaphone record, blaming everything on the EU and “uncontrolled immigration”, but he knows his corny old tune is popular with a dismayingly significant proportion of the electorate, not least the elderly, who are more likely to vote. However, it was the women who really gave new vigour to the event. Nicola Sturgeon was deeply impressive — even if some of what she said I find alarming, as it shows how far the SNP will be prepared to push should there be a hung parliament in which they are the power-brokers. Natalie Bennett did not wilt, as she had done in earlier car-crash radio interviews, though her great list of idealistic wishes — free education, eye and dental care, care for the elderly, 1% of GDP as overseas aid etc — would bankrupt the country if implemented. Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru was the one politician who was new to me and although she was the weakest of the pack she did get in the one killer remark of the evening, when she rounded on Nigel Farage, who had just said non-UK nationals should not qualify for free anti-HIV treatment, by sternly telling him he should be ashamed of himself, to warm applause from the audience. I wonder how many TV viewers hung in there for all two hours, however; was it just political nerds like me?

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Unity in Diversity, Newham Style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st April, 2015

Gandhi statueThe London borough of Newham is the most diverse community in the United Kingdom, which made the holding of most of the 2012 Olympics there particularly apt. In the streets one is likely to hear every language of the globe and a majority of the people are either brown or black. So it’s not surprising therefore that Britain’s largest single ethnic minority, those of Indian origin, are well represented. Last night the Indian High Commissioner, Ranjan Mathai, was the guest of honour at a dinner for several hundred people at East Ham town hall put on by the Indian Muslim Federation (UK), with the theme Unity in Diversity. The poor High Commissioner had to wait for two hours of preliminaries and other speeches before he was able to deliver his delicately crafted text — with inevitable and appropriate references to the Mahatma Gandhi — which struck a more harmonious note than some of the previous homilies, including one from an American pastor from Forest Gate who, in the manner of evangelicals, rhapsodised about his wife and the love of Jesus, neither of which seemed especially apt to an overwhelmingly Muslim audience.

Robin WalesHowever, for all its diversity, Newham is a one party state, and for all the kind hospitality of our IMF hosts, that could not have been more obvious. All 60 local councillors in Newham are Labour (many were present and several spoke) and the borough has a Labour mayor, Sir Robin Wales (who sent his apologies for the dinner). Among the speakers before the High Commissioner were Lyn Brown, who until this week was Labour MP for West Ham, and Stephen Timms, similarly until this week Labour MP for East Ham. Despite the fact that Parliament has been dissolved and we are now in a general election, both were introduced as being the current MPs (and neither corrected that mistake). Moreover, a couple of the IMF speakers openly urged everyone in the room to vote Labour. No representative of any other party was invited to speak, though there were some present. So in effect it was a big rally for the Labour Party. So will it apear in Ms Brown and Mr Timms’ election expenses?

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Michael Bloch’s Jeremy Thorpe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th March, 2015

Jeremy Thorpe 1Thorpe biographyJeremy Thorpe was the Liberal Party’s most charismatic leader since David Lloyd George, whom in many ways he tried to emulate. I first met him when he came to speak at the Oxford Union while I was Secretary of the university’s Liberal Club and I was dazzled by his wit, his talent for mimicry and his genuine interest in everyone he spoke to. All those charms, and more, are evident in Michael Bloch’s magisterial biography (Jeremy Thorpe Little, Brown £25), which means that the reader gets a good idea of the substance of the man before his catastrophic downfall in 1979, when he was a co-defendant in a trial on a charge of conspiracy to murder. The supposed target of this plot was the sometime model and horseman Norman Scott (né Josiffe), with whom Thorpe developed a most unfortunate relationship, which he then spent many frustrating years trying to shake off. His constituency association in North Devon adored him, as did much of the electorate until his disgrace — and even after that, many friends and political acquaintances stood by him. Very soon after the trial — at which he was acquitted — it became obvious that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but it is tribute to his fortitude (one might even say his cussedness) that he lived for another 25 years, mostly confined to the beautiful house in Orme Square which his second wife Marion received as part of her divorce settlement from Lord Harewood with trips to their other two homes in North Devon and Suffolk. Marion’s loyalty to Jeremy was quite extraordinary and is rightly acknowledged as such in Michael Bloch’s book. Neither Jeremy nor Marion were particularly happy about the book’s being written, and having read it in draft nearly two decades ago, Jeremy insisted that it not be published while he was alive. That was a pity in many ways, as he could not have wished for a fairer and more scrupulous biographer, who over 500 impeccably researched pages gives a brilliant picture of the man, warts and all, critically but ultimately affectionately.

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Liberalism versus Islamism

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th March, 2015

imageimageWhen the International Office of the Liberal Democrats first mooted the idea of a fringe meeting at this weekend’s Spring conference in Liverpool on issues surrounding radical Islam some voices urged caution, fearful this could inflame tensions. But what is a Liberal party for, if not to stand up for the freedom of expression in a tolerant, diverse society? The recent bloody excesses of ISIS in Syria and Iraq — one of whose victims was the noble aid volunteer from my home town of Eccles, Alan Henning — have highlighted the need to tackle the scourge of Islamism head-on. This is absolutely not the same as criticising the religion Islam, whatever some critics might say. Islamism, the radical ideology that seeks to impose its own extreme interpretation if Islam on society is as far from the core values of Islam as the Spanish Inquisition was from the core values of Christianity. Indeed, as (Baroness) Kishwer Falkner — a secular Muslim LibDem peer of Pakistani origin — declared at the controversial fringe meeting last night, ISIS are essentially fascists, far more extreme than just extreme. Maajid Nawaz, the LibDem candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn at the forthcoming general election also spoke passionately of the need to defend the right of people to have any religion or none, or even to change religion if they wish — though apostasy is a capital offence in some conservative Islamic states. Such issues were reprised in a plenary debate at the conference this morning, when a very detailed motion on protecting freedom of expression was overwhelmingly passed. I spoke in that debate, highlighting the fact that journalism has become a much more dangerous occupation than when I first started as a teenage cub reporter for the Manchester Evening News in Vietnam. These days, journalists are often deliberately targetted, not just in the Middle East but in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Russia. It is essential that we champion the principles of free expression enshrined in both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including in relation to the media. As the late US statesman Adlai Stevenson once said, a free press is the mother of our liberties — something we should bear in mind this Mothering Sunday.

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LibDems’ Liverpool Rally

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th March, 2015

imageWith just eight weeks to go until polling day, the opening rally at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in Liverpool had one clear aim: to enthuse the troops in a campaign that is all about survival. Not that I believe the LibDems face annihilation, much as the more strident sections of the Labour party might wish. But the feedback from those who have been out on the doorsteps up and down the country suggests that providing enough work is put in the party should hold far more parliamentary seats than the headline opinion poll figures imply, and could even pick up a couple. Former leader Paddy Ashdown is the campaign supremo and he gave one of his trademark performances in setting out why it is so important that there should be Liberal Democrats in government again after 7 May, to curb the cutting of the Tories or the accelerated borrowing of Labour. Unusually, he and other keynote speakers, including party president Sal Brinton and Welsh LibDem leader Kirsty William, were introduced by some tongue-in-cheek song and dance acts that certainly created a warm feeling in the hall. There were also some video links to some of the party’s key target candidates — all women — including Lisa Smart in Hazel Grove and Jane Dodds in Montgomeryshire. Any worries some people might have had that number of conference-goers this time might be down were visibly confounded. And for any who might have felt guilty about not being out on the streets campaigning, there is a phone bank operating in the main conference exhibition hall, with everyone being urged to make at least 10 canvassing calls.

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David Steel’s Golden Orpington Dinner

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th March, 2015

Each year the National Liberal Club in Westminster hosts a fundraising dinner for Liberal Democrat by-elections, named after one of the most famous of all: Orpington, seized from the Conservatives by the then Eric Lubbock in 1962. But last night’s over-subscribed David SteelOrpington dinner had a special slant as it marked the 50th anniversary of David Steel’s victory at a by-election in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles. Steel went on to become Leader of the Liberal Party, a presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament and an active member of the House of Lords. But in the tributes to him in speeches from such luminaries as (Baroness) Shirley Williams and (Lord) Jim Wallace, it was David’s internationalism that was highlighted, including his role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg used the opportunity to make the most political speech of all, rallying support for the current general election campaign, while stressing the need for Liberalism in a worryingly illiberal world. When David Steel first told the then Liberal Party to “prepare for government” he was much mocked, but Nick was able to say realistically last night “prepare for government — again!”. But for many at the dinner, the most stirring quotation was from the late Alan Paton’s classic South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country: “By Liberalism, I don;t mean the creed of any country. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the dignity and worth of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.”

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London Liberal Democrats’ Spring Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th March, 2015

Nick Clegg 4London LibDems rallyWith just two months to go to the UK’s parliamentary elections Liberal Democrats in the capital gathered at Southbank University this morning for a campaign lift-off featuring Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Justice Minister Simon Hughes. Nick’s capacity to remain bright-eyed and bushy-tailed despite all the vitriol poured over him by political opponents, on top of having a very demanding job, never ceases to amaze me, and (Baroness) Floella Benjamin paid just tribute to him in introducing him. He reminded us all — as we in turn will have to do on the doorstep between now and 7 May — of the real achievements Liberal Democrats have clocked up during five years in government, including raising the tax threshold, introducing the pupil premium for disadvantaged schoolchildren and the implementing the “triple lock” pension reforms. Nick and Simon Hughes also cited some of the things that LibDems have managed to stop the Conservatives doing, including sacking people at will and bringing in the Snoopers’ Charter. The British economy is performing better than any of its European competitors and at least some of the legacy of Labour’s financial mismanagement has been rectified. But huge challenges remain, including the need for accelerated building of affordable homes, not least in Great London. Simon pledged that housing will be at the heart of his own campaign to hold the Old Southwark and Bermondsey seat that he has represented for over 30 years. And after just one-and-a-half hours of speeches and Q&As, everyone piled out of the conference for a quick sandwich lunch at the nearby Ministry of Sound before hitting the streets, canvassing and delivering to hekp get Simon returned, blessed by some premature warm spring sun.

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