Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for December, 2015

I Still Have Two Great Ambitions

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st December, 2015

It’s that time of the year when people take stock of the previous 12 months and formulate resolutions that aim to make them personally or the next year better. I confess to  a lack of originality at this time, as the two great ambitions I have remain the same as in previous years, though at least one of them has got nearer to realisation. That is my ambition to visit every member state of the United Nations and, ideally, to do a piece of work there, be it an article, a radio broadcast or, in a few cases, a book. There are currently 193 UN member states and having recently been in Rwanda gathering material, I have been to 164 of them — so just 29 to go, which should be quite feasible.

The second ambition is to become a member of the European Parliament, something I have been aiming for since a long time, and nearly achieved twice. There won’t be another European election until 2019, but it is never too early to start campaigning, especially as 2016 will probably see an IN/OUT EU Referendum in Britain. I’ll be throwing myself into that whole-heartedly, as it is vital for so many reasons — not just personal — that the UK remains within the EU. Should the referendum go the wrong way, of course, there will be no more Euro-elections in Britain and so one of my ambitions would die. Which would mean I would just have to get some appropriate journalistic or lecturing commission and sail off to all those little Pacific island states I haven’t been to yet.

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Iran Lays out the Welcome Mat

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th December, 2015

Espinas Palace hotelThe successful conclusion of nuclear talks with Iran earlier this year means that the Islamic Republic has been losing its pariah status with much of the previously critical world. This should lead to far more inter-action between Iran and erstwhile enemies, including the “Great Satan”, the United States, and bilateral improvements in visa regimes. The head of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation, Masoud Soltanifar, expects that this warming of relations will lead to a sharp rise in the number of foreign tourists to his country, and in preparation for this, Iran has been building no fewer than 125 4-star and 5-star hotels to cater for the anticipated influx. A number of leading international hotel corporations have been involved in this frenzy of building, including France’s Accor Group and the UAE-based Rotana.
PersepolisAs someone who has travelled very widely in Iran, I can testify that it is indeed a treasure-house of cultural heritage, from the atmospheric ruins of Persepolis to the historic tea-houses of Isfahan and the rose gardens of Shiraz. It’s true that the capital Tehran is one of the most congested and polluted cities on earth, but even there there is much to enjoy, from the large downtown bazaar to the jaw-droppingly vulgar complex of palaces inhabited by the last Shah. Of course, 36 years after the Revolution that ousted the Shah, this is still a strict Islamic Republic in which women have to cover themselves, mixed swimming pools are a no-no and you won’t find anything stronger than a non-alcoholic beer to drink.  But for anyone who is willing to accept those cultural differences Iran is about to lay out the welcome mat and share its treasures with the world.

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2016: Doomsday for ISIS?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th December, 2015

AmadiYesterday Iraqi government forces retook control of the city of Ramadi from ISIS/Daesh, though much of its infrastructure was trashed in the process. This was a welcome development which prompted the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to declare that self-styled Islamic State will be crushed during 2016. Brave words, but I fear that he is being over-optimistic. The next target for the Iraqi army — with back-up from the United States and others in the anti-ISIS coalition — is the city of Mosul. That really would be a huge setback for Islamic State if it were to fall, not only because of its large size but also because of its key location in a region rich with oil. But retaking Mosul is unlikely to be easy.

ISISMoreover, there is another reason why Mr al-Abadi’s prediction is perhaps premature. Even if ISIS is eliminated in Iraq during the course of next year — and that is a big “if” — it is still well dug-in in Syria, where the HQ of its “caliphate”, Raqqa is located, and it is making progress elsewhere, notably in Libya and Pakistan. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS is a sort of franchise, though one with a clearer project in mind for the type of (to Western eyes dystopian) world it wants to see. Groups in other parts of Asia and Africa, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, which started independently have pledged a degree of allegiance or affiliation to IS. Furthermore, though some of the first wave of young jihadis have returned to their homelands, or been killed, fresh waves are being recruited, mainly through networks of friendship. That is why I believe that ISIS’s Doomsday will only come when its message has been successfully branded as toxic and un-Islamic and its perverse appeal is overwhelmed by something stronger and more positive.

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Bringing Burundi Back from the Brink

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th December, 2015

Museveni NkurunzizaToday, here in Entebbe, Uganda, the first round of peace talks aimed at averting mayhem in the central African state of Burundi are scheduled to begin. Given the way that things have deteriorated so rapidly over the past few weeks, especially in the Burundian capital Bujumbura, where dozens of bodies have turned up on the streets, it might have been useful to have convened the talks earlier, but the man charged with overseeing them, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 30 years, has been busy campaigning for re-election. The crisis erupted in Burundi this April when incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he was not stepping down at the end of his constitutional second term, but would instead stand for re-election. There was an attempted coup by a group of military officers against the government the following month that failed, and Mr Nkurunziza was duly re-elected in a poll boycotted by much of the opposition.

Burundi 2A few days ago, the African Union announced that it was preparing a peace-keeping force of 5,000 troops to send to Burundi to prevent more bloodshed. But President Nkurunziza declared firmly that they would not be welcome. Hence the added importance and urgency of the talks here in Entebbe, for which representatives of different Burundian parties have been arriving. The challenge for reaching an accord is enormous as there is a central disagreement: the President’s opponents are demanding that he step down, while he and his supporters are insisting that he will stay. Next year is the 10th anniversary of the peace accord that brought an end to 12 years of civil war in Burundi, in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed. And large numbers of Burundians fear that the country is once again on the brink of such a devastating conflict. At least 200,000 refugees have fled the country, many to neighbouring Rwanda. Unconfirmed reports meanwhile suggest that in Rwanda, some Burundian exiles are preparing to return to their homeland to fight if the opportunity arises.

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The Yawning Centre Ground

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th December, 2015

Jeremy CorbynCameron EU 1With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn widely being predicted to purge his Shadow Cabinet of several right-wingers and Britain’s Conservative government rapidly becoming the most intolerant and anti-progressive since the dark days of Mrs Thatcher, there is a yawning centre ground in British politics. In principle, this offers an ideal opportunity to the Liberal Democrats as a third force. But to occupy that ground successfully won’t just happen; it has to be engineered. The way NOT to do it was illustrated in the final stages of May’s disastrous general election campaign, when a party political broadcast was aired showing a woman driving a car (while not wearing a safety belt, as thousands of TV viewers noted with disapproval) wondering whether to turn left or turn right but in the end deciding to go straight ahead. A neat idea from a PR firm’s point of view, perhaps, but as a political message totally vacuous. The LibDems were suddenly neither one thing nor the other, and nothing in particular; no wonder many of our wavering supporters went elsewhere.

Tim FarronThe late, lamented Charles Kennedy understood that the Party must not be seen as the soggy centre, and was good at articulating a narrative of being “actively forward”. That is something Tim Farron needs to emulate. Tim has rightly seized on human rights as a core Liberal principle, highlighting in particular the humanitarian crisis relating to refugees and migrants on the one hand and the disgraceful record of Saudi Arabia and some other badly performing countries on the other. But human rights — and indeed wider civil liberties — are always going to be a minority discourse, so the LibDems need to craft a “radical forward” political platform that draws more people away from left-leaning Labour and right-leaning Tories. With the Green Party wilting, environmental issues can be reclaimed by the Party. And so must the issue of fairness, often talked about in LibDem literature but as yet not turned into a campaigning message — one that is passionate, one that is angry about the growing inequalities within British society and one that challenges the Conservative head-on. The Tories may have been our Coalition partners between 2010 and 2015, but there is no doubt that they are our political opponents now.

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Keeping Christmas Special

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th December, 2015

nativity sceneOver the past few days, Brunei, Somalia and Tajikistan (to name only those I have spotted in the news) have banned celebrating Christmas. To that list one can of course add Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the only permitted religion. I find it sad that the Islamic fundamentalism — much of it promoted by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi imams — should lead to such prohibitions. After all, Jesus is a prophet recognised in Islam as well as in Christianity. I have spent several Christmases in more inclusive Gulf countries such as the UAE and there it is not just the Christians who enter into a spirit of celebration.

church congregationThis year I am spending Christmas in Rwanda, which is a predominantly Christian East African country, mainly Roman Catholic. Last night in the market near my hotel there was a brisk trade in artificial Christmas trees and associated decorations and it was only last night that the hotel started playing Christmas music in the restaurant. That struck me because that’s how Christmas used to be in Europe and North America: arriving suddenly and offering just a few days of merry festivities. These days, alas, thanks to commercialisation, that sometimes magical intensity has been lost. The shops are full of Christmas merchandise in October, Christmas lights go up in major high streets at the end of November and stay up well into January. Everyone is encouraged to consume as much as possible for as long as possible, including food and drink, until we are physically and mentally bloated and desperate for Christmas to be over. That’s a pity, as Christmas should be a significant occasion, both spiritually and as a time to be close to loved ones, whether family, partners or friends. Perhaps in the West we need to remember how to make Christmas special, and keep it that way.

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The Wrong Christmas Present

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd December, 2015

Ron DermerThe Israeli Ambassadot to the United States, Ron Dermer, is sending out Christmas presents in his host country. Nothing unusual about that, one might think, given that the US has been Israel’s staunchest ally for decades and is the major impediment to the recognition of the State of Palestine. But these are not ordinary Christmas presents; they are all products deliberately sourced from illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights, which Israel seized in 1967. To add insult to injury Ambassador Dermer refers to the West Bank products as coming from Judeia and Samaria, which is how those supporting a Greater Israel incorporating the Palestinian West Bank designate the area. Mr Dermer says his gesture is in deliberate defiance of the international Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) campaign organised by some in the Palestinian solidarity movement. The EU, to its credit, recently insisted that all products from illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied territories must be labelled as such, so consumers could make their own mind up whether they wish to buy them.

Israeli settlementAmbassador Dermer is no stranger to controversy. A close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he arranged for Netanyahu to speak to the US Congress behind the Obama administration’s back. He doubtless thinks he is being clever with his Christmas present gesture, whereas what in fact he has done has been to underline the arrogance of the Israeli occupation, with its constant use of brutality, intimidation and humiliation against the Palestinians. But the tide is not running in the direction Mr Dermer and similar Greater Israel fanatics want. Yesterday, Greece became the latest country to agree to recognise the State of Palestine, by a unanimous vote in the Greek parliament. Almost two-thirds of the member states of the United Nations have now done so. By continuing the occupation and building ever more illegal settlements Israel is losing the friends it once had in the international community. And with people like Ron Dermer in key diplomatic positions it will soon have no friends at all.

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Coming to Terms with Genocide

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd December, 2015

imageIn 1994, when Rwanda was seized with a killing frenzy, I was working for BBC World Service at Bush House in London, writing analysis pieces about what was going on. It was clear that the then government in Kigali was orchestrating the massacre, with the Interhamwe militia and later ordinary Rwandans taking part in the brutal slaughter, mainly of men, women and children of the Tutsi minority. Some brave souls did hide or protect potential victims, at great risk to their own lives, but others joined in the blood-letting, some under duress. Over a period of 100 days perhaps as many as a million people were slaughtered, many thousands of them inside churches where they had sought sanctuary. For three months the international community essentially stood by, until the French declared rightly that something must be done, and a force of Rwandan exiles from Uganda moved in. It was largely because of the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu fanatics set out to exterminate the Tutsi just as surely as Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews, that the Canadians, among others, worked out the theory of humanitarian intervention known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial 21 years later, earlier this week, I tried to come to terms with what drives people to instigate or participate in a genocide. The methods used in Rwanda were often sickening, as people were slashed to pieces with machetes or babies had their heads smashed against walls. Some victims were buried alive. What drives people to abandon their humanity in such an extreme way? Greed, envy and other deadly sins, certainly, but also fear, especially when the dreadful killing machine has started moving. Almost every family in Rwanda was directly touched by the genocide and many come to the gardens of remembrance at he Kigali Genocide Memorial to feel reunited with their loved ones, an estimated 259,000 are buried in the grounds. It is a calm, beautiful place for reflection, but I challenge anyone to come out of the exhibition halls, with their graphic photographs and moving video testimony of the bereaved, to emerge with a dry eye.


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Rwanda and Regional Integration

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st December, 2015

imageAs a small landlocked country in the heart of Africa, Rwanda would have limited economic possibilities if it tried to go it alone. But by cooperating more closely with some of its neighbours it can gain many benefits. A degree of regional integration — without undermining national sovereignty — is accordingly being promoted through the Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIP), which held its latest Summit in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, just over a week ago. The NCIP groups Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, and as of this Summit Ethiopia as well. As the name suggests, the initiative is project-focussed, in particular promoting the development of railways in the sub-region and in improving both the road network and the efficiency of the port of Mombasa in Kenya, on which the land-locked members — in other words, all of the countries except Kenya — depend for many of their exports and imports. Tanzania is currently only an observer, but logically it would make sense if it joined NCIP too and integrated the port of Dar Es-Salaam into overall planning.

Regional integration has had something of a chequered career in East Africa, notably the East African Community that brought together Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda but failed to live up to its expectations. By being project-focussed the NCIP probably has more chance of success and it confirms a trend towards regional integration that is happening all round the world as a by-product of globalisation. The European Union is, of course, by far the most advanced example of regional integration, as well as being the most ambitious, having political as well as economic dimensions and grouping no fewer than 28 countries. Not everything is running smoothly in the EU, but it is too important to fail in a world where new economic giants are rising. Africa is beginning to understand that as well, and although the continent-wide African Union is provably over-ambitious as a model of integration for the foreseeable future, smaller sub-regional groups such as the NCIP are feasible and promising.

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Rwanda: Green Light for Kagame

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th December, 2015

Rwanda referendumRwandans this week voted in a referendum in favour of changing the country’s constitution by a provisionally announced margin of 98.4% to 1.6%. The changes were notably to remove the current limitation of the president’s terms of office. The incumbent, Paul Kagame, 58, took power in 1994 in the turmoil after the country’s genocide and was subsequently elected twice as President. Under the constitution (before amendment) he would have been precluded from standing for a third term, but with the changes that the voters have approved he could in theory keep getting elected until 2034, though he has given no indication he wants to stay that long. The United States and the EU, which are major aid donors to this landlocked East African country, had urged the government in Kigali not to proceed with the term limit changes as they believe that the era of African rulers staying in power for decades without allowing alternative leaders to emerge has long passed. Moreover, attempts by the sitting presidents in neighbouring Burundi and DR Congo to run for an unconstitutional third term have caused massive unrest there. But that has not been the case in Rwanda, where Mr Kagame has overseen a remarkable period of national reconciliation and economic growth. To outside observers, the figure of 98.4% in favour of constitutional changes might seem fishy, but some individuals who are not happy with the changes told foreign journalists it was not worth voting in the referendum as everyone knew what the result would be and there was blanket coverage in the local media urging a Yes vote.

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