Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for October, 2010

Quaker Voices on Israel-Palestine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st October, 2010

Well over a hundred members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) from around Europe gathered at the Chant d’Oiseau conference centre in Brussels all this weekend for an often passionate debate about the EU and peace-building in Israel and Palestine, organised by the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA). The event got off to a measured start, with a presenttation by the EU’s representative in East Jerusalem, Christian Berger, but as he was talking under Chatham House rules, I cannot report anything he said. However the following morning was an intense experience for many not yet steeped in the modern tragedy that is occupied Palestine, as Jean Zaru (pictured), Clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting, gave a heartfelt exposé of the realities, including the exodus of many Palestinian Christians — including Quakers — who can no longer take the economic deprivation, the humiliation and the hassle. It’s the pettiness of so much of the treatment West Bank Palestinians receive at the hands of Israeli soldiers and officials that wears people down, on top of outright violence and abuse from an extremist minority of ideological Jewish settlers. At least Jean Zaru is able to travel relatively freely and to take her powerful message round the world. She campaigns for women’s rights, as well as justice for the Palestinians and working with peace groups that include both Palestinians and Israelis. Last year she was given the Anna Lindt award in Stockholm in recognition of her toireless work. As well as the small, historic Meeting House in central Rammalah, there is a Friends International Centre attached, and European and North American Quaker volunteers go regularly to the occupied territories, as ecumenical accompaniers to Palestinians negotiating checkpoints, or to help harvest olive crops or to gather information on the ground.

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Alistair Carmichael’s Food for Thought

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th October, 2010

Keeping Liberal Democrat MPs in line is worse than herding cats, according to LibDem Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael MP, speaking only half tongue in cheek at tonight’s Food for Thought social event put on by the Kensington and Chelsea local party. As Alistair is, under the Coalition arrangements, Deputy Government Chief Whip as well, his task is not a particularly enviable one, particularly at a time of deep public spending cuts and curtailed social security benefits. He had some tough questioning from the floor about social housing policy and university tuition fees, to mention but two themes, but he dealt with these with both humour and firmness. As he reminded the audience — notably swelled byGLA list hopefuls from different parts of London — Britain does not have a LibDem government but a Coalition, in which there has had to be a degree of give and take. Despite the fact that the Conservatives have only one MP in Scotland and are still seen by many residents of Scotland’s central industrial belt as anathema, Alistair was reasonably confident that the LibDems north of the border will not get punished too much for guilt by association when the Scottish Parliament elections come round next May. If the Coalition hangs together as planned, then Westminster MPs will not have to face the electorate again until 2015. Besides, Alistair, as MP for Orkey and Shetland, has just about the safest LibDem seat in the country — Jo Grimond’s old fiefdom, that has only been held by a non-Liberal three times since 1832.

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Western Sahara: The Forgotten Injustice

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th October, 2010

A delegation of British MPs and Peers, including Mark Williams (LibDem), Jonathan Evans (Conservative) and Jeremy Corbyn (Labour), went in a delegation to see Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP today, to protest yesterday’s fatal shooting of a 14-year-old Saharawi boy, Nayem el-Garhi, by Morrocan security forces. The boy was attempting, along with his brother and a number of others, to enter a protest camp which has been set up outside El Aauin (Laayoune) by 10,000 Saharawis who wish to draw attention to the ongoing occupation of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara that has endured since 1975. When Namibia became independent, many British media incorrectly reported that the decolonisation process in Africa was complete, but that was not true. Though Saharawi forces (the Polisario) managed to defeat Mauritanian troops who had occupied the southern part of the territory after the Spanish withdrew and succeeded in getting their withdrawal, the Moroccans are still there and have been settling many tens of thousands of Moroccans in the territory. An enormously long earth wall separates the occupied part of Western Sahara from the desert fiefdom of the Polisario, many of whose supporters live in refugee camps just inside Algeria, as they have done for decades now. In 1991 (just one year after I visited the Polisario-controlled areas), the UN brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario, which was meant to lead to a referendum in which the Saharawis could choose their destiny, but this has not happened. Bizarrely, MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission to the Western Sahara, has no mandate to monitor the human rights situation there, unlike other such missions elsewhere in the world. The current protest camp — which Moroccan forces have effectively blockaded — was set up a fortnight ago to highlight the situation at a time when a UN special envoy, Christopher Ross, is visiting the region. As Mark Williams comments, ‘We cannot continue to ignore the brutality of the Moroccan authorities against those who peacefully demonstrate for their rights to independence. The first step is for the Security Council to implement human rights monitoring in Western Sahara.’


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Sam Rainsy and Cambodian Child Prostitution

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd October, 2010

The shocking reality of child prostitution in Cambodia today was the focus of a fringe meeting at the recent ELDR Congress in Helsinki, at which the country’s Leader of the Opposition, Sam Rainsy, was a guest of honour. A mortifying film was shown, which included interviews with current and former child prostitutes — mostly girls, but one boy — as well as some details of how members of Sam Rainsy’s party (along with some extremely brave local women) have been trying to help rehabilitate them and bring some of the abusive brothel owners and clients to justice. That is a horrendously difficult task in a country in which the police and the courts are susceptible to bribery and Sam Rainsy’s party has seen over 50 of its activists assassinated. Sam himself is currently having to live in exile in Paris, as he has been sentenced to 10 years in prison (for perfectly legitimate political activity), which the Cambodian courts say would be added to a previous two-year conviction if he were to return to Pnomh Penh. The most chilling parts of the child prostitution film dealt with the mothers who effectively sold their daughters into prostitution. One was so traumatised by what had happened to her and her family during the murderous years of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge that she said she would do it again. There are several international NGOs working to curb sex tourism involving minors in South East Asia, and several European governments have passed laws making it possible to charge their nationals who abuse children while in Cambodia. But as was underlined by the film, the vast majority of the brothels’ clients, sometimes paying a lot of money to take a young girl’s virginity, were locals, many of them powerful and viscious enough to be untouchable by justice.

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Tower Hamlets’ New-Style Mayor

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd October, 2010

The man Labour deselected as the party’s executive mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, stormed to victory in the first election of its kind last night, garnering over 51 per cent of the vote in first preferences among a field of five. He is a one-time Labour leader of the Council but trounced his successor, Helal Abbas. Eight other councillors have defected from official Labour into the Lutfur camp in recent weeks. The fight between the two became quite nasty, with leaflets being circulated accusing Helal of wife-beating. Outside York Hall, where the count was held, a large crowd of excited Muslim youths gathered, chanting, waiting to herald the new dawn in Tower Hamlets politics. Quite what that will mean is anyone’s guess. Doubtless Ken Livingstone, who infuriated many London Labour activists by endorsing Lutfur, will be amongst the first to congratulate him in the morning. Lutfur was at the centre of a Despatches programme on TV a few months ago, in which journalist Andrew Gilligan underlined his alleged links with radical elements in the Islamic Forum for Europe, and we can be sure that not only Gilligan but other London journos will be monitoring closely what Lutfur does as Mayor and what sort of team he manages to put together in the Town Hall.

Result: Independent (Rahman) 23,283, Labour (Abbas) 11,254, Conservative (King) 5,348, LibDem (Griffiths) 2,800, Green (Duffell) 2,300.

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ELDR and Demographic Change

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th October, 2010

The ELDR Congress that has been taking place in Helsinki since Wednesday is the largest ever and is indubitably one of the best. The high turnout reflects not only the growing number of member parties across Europe — the Liberal Party of Moldova and the Solidarity and Freedom Party of Slovakia were admitted into full membership at the ELDR Council today — but also the fact that so many member parties are now in government, including in the host country, Finland, and of course Britain. Given the very high level of the delegations from many countries, it is embarassing that the large UK contingent does not include a single MP, let alone a Minister — though there is a trio of MEPs: Catherine Bearder, Andrew Duff and Graham Watson (the last-mentioned standing for a Vice-Presidential post this year, with an eye for a possible Presidency in the future). I had hoped that when the party got a former MEP (Nick Clegg) as leader, it would take ELDR events more seriously, but alas no. It’s doubly a pity, as the theme of this year’s Congress — Demographic Change — is both pertinent amd urgent. At least we have had Gordon Lishman, a former head of Age Concern, playing a major role in the drafting of the theme resolution.


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China Image Film Awards

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th October, 2010

Sunday 10.10.10 was an auspicious date for the closing ceremony of the 2nd China Image Film Festival at BAFTA, which was a gala occasion with a black-tie dinner before a screening of Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s modern historical epic ‘The Founding of a Republic’. In between were the awards for the week and I was honoured to be invited to present the one for Best Film, which was won by ‘The Floating Shadow’ by Jia Dongshuo. I was interviewed by Xinhua TV (in English) before going on stage, though I did give the first part of my speech in my now rather rusty Mandarin. Gratifyingly, I understood a great deal of the dialogue in ‘The Founding of a Republic’, without having to sneak too many peeks at the subtitles. I often used to go to the cinema when I was a student in Hong Kong, though as I pointed out in my speech, this was during the Cultural Revolution, when there was a very limited diet of films from mainland China. One I remember vividly was ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ (there was a ballet of the same name) by Jin Xie. There were very few politically tolerated themes in those days, the anti-Japanese War, the Civil War and stories of noble peasants being among them. Forty years on, the Chinese movie industry has really blossomed and Chinese cinema has now taken its place among world cinema. ‘The Founding of a Republic’ makes no real criticism of Chairman Mao, but it does give a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of KMT President Chiang Kai-Shek and even more so of his son and heir, Chiang Ching-Kuo. Altogether a very nice evening, at which it was nice to meet up with Merlene Toh Emerson, Chair of Chinese Liberal Democrats, again.

(Photo: JF with Merlene Toh Emerson and friend)

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Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th October, 2010

The Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee has awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in a move that will infuriate the government in Beijing. Mr Liu is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for his non-violent political activities, which include being a member of Charter 08, a group of brave campaigners for the respect for human rights and the rule of law in China. Freedom of expression and association are in principle guaranteed by Article 35 of China’s Communist constitution, but are in fact routinely violated by the authorities. As the Nobel Committee pointed out in its citation for Liu Xiaobo’s award, China has made huge advances economically over recent years, lifting hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. But that achievement has not been matched on the political front, as anyone demonstrating in favour of free speech and real democracy tends to get squashed quickly, accused of anti-State activities. The Committe stresses that human rights and Peace are inextricably linked. Liu Xiaobo is an academic who has lectured abroad as well as in China. He cut his political teeth during the po-democracy movement of 1989 — which was brutally cut short by the Tiananmen Square massacre — and his case has been taken up by a wide range of writers, including the Czech playwright and former President Vaclav Havel and International PEN. He well deserves the prize, which will add to the international pressure for his release. By awarding the 2010 Prize to him, the Nobel Committee has restored its reputation after last year’s misjudged decision to give the distinction to US President Barack Obama — a decision I described at the time as premature and actually counter-productive.

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The Spirit of the Quakers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th October, 2010

In the second half of the 20th Century, Quakers — or Members of the Religious Society of Friends, to give them their formal name — tended to hide their light under a bushel. Proselytising was a no-no, though they were not an exclusive sect. One just had to stumble across them, as I did in Vietnam, in 1969, at the height of the War. It was in Saigon that I attended my first Meeting for Worship, in the living room of a Scottish paediatrician and his wife. It was only later, while studying at Oxford, that I took the plunge and became a Member, having in the meantime flirted with Buddhism — as is referred to in a short extract from an essay I wrote a few years ago, now published in a new Quaker anthology, edited and introduced by Geoffrey Durham (Yale University Press, £9.99). Last night, I went to the book launch at Friends House, Euston, at which Geoffrey presented The Spirit of the Quakers with all the vigour and flair of someone whose background is in the performing Arts. He has been a central figure in the relatively new enterprise of Quaker Outreach — an acceptance that for all our stillness, Quakers ought at least to make their beliefs and practices known. The book offers snippets — and several whole texts — from 350 years of writing by Friends, providing a kaleidoscopic image of an evolving community of seekers after Truth. But as Geoffrey says in his Introduction, Truth is but one of four cornerstones of the quest and the testimony, the others being Equality, Peace and Simplicity.

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Debating the Labour Leadership

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 6th October, 2010

Last night, I spent an intensive but enjoyable hour-and-a-half on a live TV programme on the Bengali Channel S moderated by Ajmal Masroor debating the future of the Labour Party with Camden Council leader Nasim (Nash) Ali and two East London Labour activists. Interestingly, all three had backed Ed Miliband for national party leader, but a majority of the viewers who called in to the inter-active programme supported my line that Labour chose the wrong Miliband brother. Whatever legitimate criticisms may be made of David Miliband (re extraordinary rendition etc), he is the weightier political figure and would have made a more persuasive potential Prime Minister. Ed Miliband will really have his work cut out putting himself over to the British public — many of whom have only a rather marginal interest in politics, if any. There was some good cut and thrust in our TV debate, but not for the first time, I was astonished by the degree to which Labour activists are in a state of denial, deluding themselves that the Coalition is going to collapse at any moment and that the country will welcome Labour back with open arms. At one stage, Sonia Klein (who fought Ilford North for Labour in May) asserted that the Liberal Democrats are ‘imploding’. Dream on, Sonia! Some former LibDems who enjoy the comfort zone of Opposition may have defected to Labour, but the party in London has grown in size by over 20 per cent over the past few months and the recent LibDem Conference in Liverpool was the biggest and one of the best ever.

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