All The More Reason

Grâce à qui?
June 28, 2006, 2:48 am
Filed under: Religion

I watched an interview the other day with a French Jewish rabbi. His name is Joseph Haïm Sitruk. During this interview, he discussed how he had suffered a stroke in 2001. It inspired him to write a book about his life, entitled Rien ne vaut la vie. The following quote from him is quite similar to what he said inspired him to write his biography during the interview, and certainly speaks to the same sentiment.

“Je suis un survivant de la prière”, explique le rabbin Sitruk, aujourd’hui âgé de 61 ans, à quelques journalistes, “j’ai voulu faire connaître au plus grand nombre l’extraordinaire expérience que j’ai vécue, en reconnaissance à Dieu qui m’a sauvé la vie et à tous ceux qui ont prié pour moi”.

So, he is a survivor thanks to prayer, and he wanted to let know as many people as he could his experience, in gratitude to God who saved his life and to those that prayed for him. Well, when Sitruk made mention of his sentiment that prayer had saved him, I waited for a few moments to see how much gratitude and respect he had for the hospital that took care of him. It turns out that he didn’t think to mention who were the doctors and nurses that treated him.

In this instance, Western medicine is treated as casually as oxygen. It is an absolute necessity, but due to its extreme necessity its withdrawal would be considered cruel and inhumane. The MRIs, auto-respiratory machines, painkillers, x-rays, the sheer knowledge: all of it counts for nothing compared to those that prayed for him. To be fair, I don’t doubt that when he finally woke from his coma Sitruk took great pains to thank his medical team. But it was not their efforts that he sung the praises of when on centre stage. One way he could have shown his respect would have been to learn and explain some aspect of modern medicine that kept him alive during his twenty-six days in a coma. At the very least, it would make the interviews he gives more interesting.

I bet though, that somewhere within Sitruk lies the hope that his doctors do not listen too closely to his message. After all, if they took him at his word, then the next time his health chose to quit on him, prayer would really be the only thing that could save him.

Jonathan Smith


The Conservative Myth of a ‘British’ Bill of Rights.
June 26, 2006, 11:49 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, has said that he wants Britain to have a Bill of Rights. The new document would replace the Human Rights Act 1998 and mark a 'British way of doing things' , with 'a balance between rights on the one hand and also security on the other'. Some reasons why this proposal is not what it seems:

Firstly, the content. Britain, along with 45 other States, is a member of the Council of Europe and, as such, must adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights. This document was drafted in 1950 (by British lawyers, incidentally) and, as well as protecting European human rights, has served as a litmus test for former Soviet bloc countries that wished to enter the motley family of European nations.

Since Britain has no written constitution, and hence no formal protection of human rights, any British citizen wishing, prior to 1998, to pursue their rights under the ECHR had to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.The Human Rights Act 1998 simply corrected this anomaly by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. British citizens could now enforce their rights within their own jurisdiction. This was not only more efficient, it also allowed British judges to influence the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg court.

David Cameron is proposing that the Human Rights Act be repealed. Unless he is also proposing that the United Kingdom withdraw from the ECHR and hence the Council of Europe- joining Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on the sidelines of the European Community and, incidentally, automatically catapulting us out of the European Union- the only result of its repeal would be to return Britain to the inefficient and unsatisfactory pre-1998 situation.

This brings us on to the second objection to Cameron's proposal. The BBC website reports that the Conservatives plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a 'US style Bill of Rights'. This is utter nonsense. A 'US style Bill of Rights' would empower judges to strike down legislation that did not conform with its provisions, requiring a marked increase in the power of the judiciary. Whilst this may not be a bad idea, it is not the idea that the Tories have come up with (nor is it ever likely to be proposed by a Conservative Party wedded to the classical, Diceyan school of parliamentary sovereignty). Their plans would amount to a considerably diluted Bill of Rights 'lite'. The US constituion is entrenched and can only be altered by a reinforced majority of Congress. Dave's document would simply be another piece of law, with the same legal force as (say) the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, that could be repealed or altered at will by the government of the day. The only proposal for entrenching the document is that the Parliament Act could not be used to force alterations through the House of Lords. This is the only reasonably radical aspect of the Conservatives' proposal; it would afford the second Chamber a more powerful role in respect to 'constitutional' legislation, but it would still fall far short of effecting any profound constitutional change.

Britain should have a Bill of Rights. There is much to be said for the claim that it could help to foster a 'British' identity at a time where British society is more atomised than ever before. Simply tacking it on to a crumbling and anachronistic constituional settlement though will serve absolutely no purpose: a more radical approach is required. The only way to protect human rights effectively is through a codified, properly entrenched constitution. Anything else is a conservative fudge.

Michael P

Jack Lang
June 26, 2006, 2:53 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Jack Lang is running for President of France next year. In a recent interview, he shared the platform with the writer Maurice Druon, who had fought against the Nazis in the Second World War. When discussing the current state of France, Druon was asked for his opinion. He stated that he thought France would come alive again, and he also had a suggestion for how to fix her current woes. He suggested that in lieu of having unemployment insurance, welfare, and pensions, the republique should have a simple policy where every citizen was entitled to a certain sum every month regardless of their current employment status or age. Thus, a three-month-old baby would receive the same amount as a fifty-year old, even if one or both were millionaires.

Now, Jack Lang's response to this was to compliment the writer on his various achievements in life, and to state the great amount of respect he had for him. He also put his arm around the man. And yet, he added, he thought that political issues of this kind were far too complicated to be resolved in such a manner.

Perhaps if Jack Lang truly did respect Maurice Druon then he would have stated why he thought this idea was so ridiculous as not to justify a rebuke or explanation.

Jonathan Smith 

This is a bit worrying, isn’t it?
June 23, 2006, 11:52 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Please tell me if you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of

(g) Jews 

Very unfavourable:

French Muslims            9% (General Public- 3%)

American Muslims         2% (General Public- 2%)

German Muslims           5% (General Public- 5%)

British Muslims            33% (General Public- 3%)     

Source- Pew Global Attitudes Project

Michael P

What is the point of international law?
June 22, 2006, 12:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

John Stuart Mill writes very well about the dangers of received wisdom. For Mill, a free market in ideas was essential, lest everyday discourse descend to the level of the banal and hackneyed. ‘The general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth’. Mill writes in On Liberty, ‘it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.’

The currency used in this free market though can often be tarnished by resort to cliche and barely thought through soundbites. It is almost impossible to have a conversation about Iraq, for example, without these rhetorical shortcuts cropping up in the conversation.

One particularly smug placard-hogger at the time of the war was the phrase ‘No War for Oil’. Simply asking, ‘Why not?’, would usually be enough to expose the placard holder’s knowledge of world oil markets. Like the many headed Hydra, another set of half-baked memes would suddenly pop up: ‘plunder’…’imperialism’…’Chomsky’…’Haliburton’. Anyone playing buzzword bingo would have a full house in no time.

The most frequently uttered maxim of the anti-war movement though was, and still is, that the intervention in Iraq was ‘illegal’. Again, taxing supplementary questions, such as, ‘Why was that then?’ would usually uncover a rather scant knowledge of the issues at hand. For people who claimed to care so much about international law, the proponents of these stunningly original insights often seemed to know surprisingly little about it.

In a way though, the slack-jawed placard-istas are not the people one ought to be worried about. Most of them would have been exercised about The Evils of Globalization (TM) a few years ago (whatever happened, I wonder, to ‘The Wombles’?), and will be swept away by the current of whichever cause becomes fashionable in the next few years. Of most concern are those who do understand international law, but still cling to a dangerously conservative conception of how the international community should operate.

International law does not exist as a free-standing body of rules. It is a constantly evolving mass of doctrine and custom, shaped by the actions of its participants. In (say) 1923, the idea that the ‘international community’ (such as it was) should intervene in another state’s affairs without there being a direct self-interest in doing so would have been met with a certain amount of incredulity. State sovereignty reigned supreme and any violation of this principle was ‘illegal’. Looking back at Abyssinia, Manchuria and so on, one sees the concept of international law being used as a cloak to disguise cringingly ineffectual foreign policy.

The birth of the UN should have overcome this anomaly, but its institutions have also been used as a shield for these conceptions of international law. It is true that the UN Charter was established to ‘maintain international peace and security’ and to ensure the ‘surpression of acts of aggression’. How could its aims be otherwise in the wake of the bloodiest war in human history? This is not to say, however, that the UN should be a pacifist organisation. It should use its good offices to achieve peaceful, diplomatic solutions, but should these attempts fail (and a brief glance at recent history will reveal that they often do) it must be prepared to use force.

It is depressing that so many people find it impossible to carry through the argument to this fairly obvious conclusion. To characterise the inviolability of state sovereignty as the be-all and end-all of international law is not only undesirable, but involves a woeful, and perhaps willful, misunderstanding of the UN Charter’s evolving interpretation. The maintenance of international peace and security is more complex than simply preventing State X from launching an attack on State Y. Indeed, it may sometimes require the use of force, especially when states feel that they can violate the human rights of their own people with impunity. This should not be shocking. It has been an established rule of law ever since 1948 when the Genocide Convention was ratified, and has continued to apply (albeit inadequately) in the context of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Kofi Annan recently wrote of the emergence of a ‘duty to protect’ in international law. Where states are ‘unwilling’ or ‘unable’ to protect their citizens from harm, it should be the duty of the international community to step in and do so. Overcoming this mental barrier is the key to creating a truly progressive body of international law. The UN Charter itself states that the United Nations should promote ‘respect for human rights’. This should be a duty, not a mere aspiration.

This may be where we reach a fork in the argument. If one accepts that there are such things as ‘universal’ human rights, then the logical corollary is that there should be some means by which these rights can be enforced. If this fundamental precept is not accepted, the conversation is over before it has begun. Resort to moral and cultural relativism is too often used by repressive regimes as a self-serving justification for their crimes. Sadly, the ‘inviolable sovereign’ argument serves a similar purpose. International law can change, and can change the world for the better. Unless put to the dialectical sword, it risks becoming so much dead dogma; and the UN risks becoming a patsy for gangsters and murderers masquerading as ‘governments’.

Michael P

June 21, 2006, 11:31 am
Filed under: Former Yugoslav Republics beginning with M

Many apologies to the avid reader of this blog for my prolonged absence; I have been ensconced in the Macedonian mountains. Actually, Macedonia is one of the few countries to which the travelogue cliche, 'X is a land of contrasts' cannot be applied. Macedonia is a land of no contrasts. There are just mountains. And trees. A tremendous place nonetheless.

Being of pioneering spirit, we decided to take the antiquated train service between Prilep, the hometown of our hosts and Skopje, the capital city. The train itself was fairly delapidated, but the stations were even worse; rusted facades, crumbling buildings. Our Macedonian friend informed us that the last time these stations had been upholstered was in 1979. Why so? This was the last time that Marshall Tito had deigned to visit the southern Yugoslavian province of Macedonia. So, yet another example of how dictators may be bad for civil liberties, but certainly know how to run a railway system.

It was interesting for me to note just how much nostalgia there was for the days of Tito. The people who expressed this point of view were mostly young adults, so it may be possible to put it down to a nostalgic ardour for their childhood, but it cannot be denied that, materially at least, Macedonians enjoyed a higher standard of living in the days of the one party State.

Although having emerged from 'Balkanisation' relatively unscathed compared to its fellow Yugoslav brothers and sisters, Macedonia is still having a pretty rough time of it. Poverty is widespread and corruption is rampant. Petar, our host, described Macedonian democracy thusly: 'One party gets in for four years and steals, then the other party takes over – gives the other party four years to spend its money- and steals more.'

Even at the level of the factory floor, nepotism is the order of the day. Prilep, in the south of the country, is a tobacco town. The farming of this crop is an arduous business. In order to pick at the optimum time, farmers- mostly gypsies- must get up at 3am in the morning. Once harvested, the tobacco is sold to the State owned factory in town. The price that farmers can expect for their crop is related to the 'grade' of the harvest. However, the 'grade' is not, as you might expect, related to the quality of the product. The correlation between the number of friends or relatives you have working in the factory and the revenue you receive is likely to be much stronger. A relatively small example of corruption, admittedly, but from mighty oaks…

There is some cause for optimism though. Macedonia, like many other Balkan states, has its eye on EU membership, and EU investors have their eyes on Macedonia. Skopje is littered with building works which, unlike most of the buildings you see on the side of the average country road, are actually being built according to a set timetable, rather than according to when the next wad of dinars land on the table. The hope must be that good governance will follow, but, like the train between Prilep and Skopje, Macedonia has a rickety path to travel.

Michael P

On Largesse
June 21, 2006, 3:53 am
Filed under: On...

(Any and all pieces by this author should not be considered opinions endorsed by anyone else with this site)

The cher ministre for foreign affairs in France, Monsieur Philippe Douste-Blazy, has a new plan. Starting July 1st, plane tickets purchased in France will have a toll of one to four euros added to their price. The gains will be used to purchase medicine for third world countries to fight tuberculosis, aids, and malaria. The program is called Unitaid.

I saw an interview with the ministre recently where he described in part, that his motivation had come from a wish to do something more with his position. However, he also emphasized the political consequences of this effort. Individuals were far less likely to try and come into France without papers to get treatment if they knew that they could be treated in their own country.

Watching this interview, I wondered why airlines had not instituted a policy on their own, out of their own goodwill. Someone working for the company could have even done a cost-benefit analysis to see if the positive publicity generated from doing this service would outweigh the extra charge to their customers. Perhaps managers of airlines also have wishes to do something more with their power. But more specifically, I wondered why the French people had not set up private institutions on their own initiative to generate funds to purchase this medicine. Charity.

The best argument I can give for Douste-Blazy is that it would cost too much money for individuals to create these organisations on their own. In other words, it would be more efficient for the government to handle these types of operations. I am not so sure. I would argue that this is the extension and the abuse of one's power for personal ego-gratification and the fortification of the ministre's office.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the preceding sentence. Part of the reason why I cannot is that the interviewer did not ask him the question. Indeed, what interviewer would wish to be painted as the individual against Unitaid? “What, you were against helping people dying of Aids? For shame.” But someone should be asking these questions, and should be asking them repeatedly. Otherwise, this ministre, or the one after him might place a tax on condoms to help orphans. You are not against helping orphans, are you?

Jonathan Smith

Michael P adds…

I would not even be so charitable as to describe the French government's behaviour as 'largesse'. It is entirely selfish. The Unitaid initiative is a mere trifle in comparison to the enormous damage that France's unstinting support for the Common Agricultural Policy has done to the continent of Africa. Reforming that abomination would do far more good, but ,unsurprisingly, France continues to say 'tant pis!'.