Call for an inquiry over UK Government complicity in torture

Norm summarises the need for an inquiry into five charges of UK complicity in torture in Pakistan, made in a report by Human Rights Watch.

Article 4.1 of the UN Convention Against Torture reads:

Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.

Commentary in The Guardian, from where I took the picture of Rangzieb Ahmed’s damaged nail beds.

Contact your MP (this site makes it easy) asking for an inquiry. HRW’s recommendations (as copied from The Guardian piece).

The British government should:

  • Order a full and independent public inquiry with subpoena powers to establish whether British security services have been complicit in torture or other ill-treatment in Pakistan and elsewhere.
  • Adopt measures to address the criticism of the government’s counter-terrorism policy, including in reports by the parliamentary joint human rights committee and the House of Commons Foreign affairs committee, so as to ensure that British policy and practices on counterterrorism meet the UK’s international obligations regarding torture or other ill-treatment.
  • Investigate allegations of complicity by the British security services in the torture and ill-treatment of terrorism suspects in Pakistan. Where sufficient evidence of wrongdoing exists, prosecute those responsible, regardless of position or rank.
  • Publish without delay current and past guidance to the intelligence services on the interrogation of suspects overseas.
  • While cooperating with Pakistan on counter-terror and law enforcement activities, take all necessary measures to ensure that torture and ill-treatment of suspects or others is not used, and act to stop it should it occur.

If you want to throw some money at this, I think a good bet is the investigative and legal human rights charity Reprieve, whose representative I heard pitch at a vetted fund-raising event a few months back. Here’s their most recent post on this matter.


Honduras elections under a coup

The Honduras elections are today. The question is, can there be free and fair elections under this coup?

  • My attempts to make sense of the Honduras coup.
  • A letter calling for restoration of President Zelaya or else non-recognition of the election results, signed by British musicians, polemical authors and politicians such as Lowkey, Brian Eno, Caroline Lucas and John Pilger, as well as some more credible people.
  • What the Honduras people have been found to want – an end to the coup and the reinstatement of Zelaya in advance of elections as scheduled in the electoral calendar (i.e. now). That poll was in early October – by the end the majority had increased to three quarters.
  • The coup leader Micheletti isn’t on the ballot; Zelaya couldn’t be on the ballot because he has reached the end of his term. The coup government look unlikely to win and are polling 16 points behind the National Party.
  • Honduras’ Congress was due to vote on Zelaya’s reinstatement on the 2nd (i.e. after the election – how does that work?) but the Supreme Court (which is said to support the coup) has since ruled that he can only return if he faces charges (yes, the charges which he wasn’t permitted to face when he was bundled out of the country at gunpoint in his pyjamas). This is a mess. Well, it’s a coup. Expatriating Zelaya was unambiguously unconstitutional – if there were allegations against him he should have been impeached.
  • The feeling is that because keeping Zelaya’s supporters down has involved violent repression, these elections will be violent, and will not end the upheaval in Honduras nor the heart wrenching poverty which makes Hondurans vulnerable to populists like Zelaya. However, the coup has endured and the elections are now here. Can they be a reset button for Honduran politics? Can they be free and fair, is the question.
  • For some reason I can’t find predictions, just silence on this, or what seems to me to be dogma, along with impotent outbursts about setting precedents.

Soon we’ll find out.

Update: The National Party won comfortably. Scroll down this New Centrist post a bit for more.

Update 2: the coup and election outcome is being blamed on the Jews.. British and Spanish media (yes, The Guardian) are muttering about a concentration of power in the hands of “Jewish families” or people “descended from Jewish and Palestinian immigrants”.

Update 3: Amnesty is investigating some detentions.Nobody is reporting that there was mass unrest or intimidation on polling day.

Update 4: turnout was comparatively high, no reports of large numbers of ballots spoilt to register protest.

Killed for being thirsty

Camels were imported to Australia as freight animals in the 1840s, used up and thrown away when they were replaced by motor vehicles.

They thrived in the wild; their numbers are now estimated at a million.

Currently humans and camels in Australia are suffering water shortages and camels are winning out. People are scared to go out and their infrastructure is being wrecked – this is clearly intolerable for the 350 residents of Docker River, many of whom feel unsafe leaving their homes. The situation is quite unambiguously a failing on the part of the Australian government in neglecting these camel colonies. And now they seem to be on the verge of another failing – they propose to drive the camels into the desert and kill them.

The way I feel about camels is the way I feel about mice. If you don’t like them using your stuff, then make your stuff mouse-proof or camel-proof. Design out the problem. If it’s “very expensive and time-consuming”, so what? Why should we expect our relationships with animals be cheap or straightforward? Give some consideration to whether it’s so easy to say who is the more invasive animal and remember who initiated this particular invasion.

And if there are too many and you can’t share (for example camels are descending greedily on re-vegetation projects) then take contraceptives. Or – OK – interfere with their fertility.

To gun them down by helicopter is indescribably savage, cruel and utterly short term. Camels are capable of great suffering. I can’t find anything scholarly, but they probably have significant higher level thinking skills – they are certainly social and have relationships. Don’t these things count for anything? I have no words to express how horrific it is that gunning them down could even be considered.

The meaning of Climategate

The Copenhagen Summit on climate change is approaching, and the politics are overheating.

Over 1000 private emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU – site is currently down, post-hack).

At The Telegraph, James Delingpole is trying to convince us that climate change is a figleaf over a one-world government globalisation agenda.

Bob from Brockey sent me a Wall Street Journal piece by an author who doesn’t seem to believe that in the physical sciences the ‘peer review’ process precludes the publication of work which puts up “alternative hypotheses” without solid basis for their relevance. More of such understandings below.

The author objects to the following, reproduced from a stolen email sent by Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann:

“This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the “peer-reviewed literature”. Obviously, they found a solution to that-take over a journal! So what do we do about this? I think we have to stop considering “Climate Research” as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board…”

Note how Michael Mann calls these people ‘skeptics’. I’m not sure this is a good term – or at least, it reflects badly on skepticism. I wish there were a better word which stopped short of ‘denier’ but recognised the role of loyalties and strongly-held beliefs. Reckon I might have to put ‘skeptics’ in scare quotes, which is something I only do when I’ve run out of words.

Anyway, these ‘skeptics’ hope to convince us that the unprecedented scientific consensus that we (humanity) are responsible for this period of climate change is a fiction, and only sustained by suppressing the work of heroic lone voices like the Climate Research journal.

But Climate Research has been politicised for a long time. Former editor Clare Goodess (researcher at CRU) relates the resignation of half its editorial board in 2003. After the publication of a skeptical paper (Soon and Baliunas, 2003) many climatologists protested and the publisher, Inter-Research, initiated an investigation into the peer review process.

“This left many of us somewhat confused and still very concerned about what had happened. The review process had apparently been correct, but a fundamentally flawed paper had been published. These flaws are described in an extended rebuttal to both Soon and Baliunas (2003) and Soon et al. (2003) published by Mike Mann and 11 other eminent climate scientists in July (Mann et al., 2003). Hans von Storch and I were also aware of three earlier Climate Research papers about which people had raised concerns over the review process. In all these cases, de Freitas had had editorial responsibility.

My main objective in raising the concerns of myself and many others over the most recent paper was to try to protect the reputation of the journal by focusing on the scientific rather than the political issues. Though I was well aware of the deliberate political use being made of the paper by Soon and Baliunas (well-known ‘climate sceptics’) and others. Chris de Freitas has also published what can be regarded as ‘climate sceptic’ views.

Eventually, however, Inter-Research recognised that something needed to be done and appointed Hans von Storch as editor-in-chief with effect from 1 August 2003. This would have marked a change from the existing system, where each of the 10 editors works independently. Authors can submit a manuscript to which ever of these editors they like. Hans drafted an editorial to appear in the next edition of Climate Research and circulated it to all the other editors for comment. However, Otto Kinne then decided that Hans could not publish the editorial without the agreement of all of the editors. Since at least one of the editors thought there was nothing wrong with the Soon and Baliunas paper, such an agreement was clearly never going to be obtained. In view of this, and the intervention of the publisher in editorial matters, Hans understandably felt that he could not take up the Editor-in-Chief position and resigned four days before he was due to start his new position. I also resigned as soon as I heard what had happened. This turned out to be the day of Inofhe’s US senate committee hearing and the news of the two resignations was announced at the hearing . Since then, another three editors have resigned.”

Hans von Storch, resignee editor-in-chief mentioned there, now Director of the Institute of Coastal Research at Geesthacht, has (hastily) updated his web site with a restrained account, and a call for action. There’s a link from it to a recent paper – von Storch, H., 2009: Climate Research and Policy Advice: Scientific and Cultural Constructions of Knowledge. Environmental Science and Policy;12(7) 741-747 - which I have just read. It’s about the practice of ‘Bringschuld’, the communication of danger on the horizon as a moral obligation of the scientist.

I’m now in a hurry so I’ll dump rather than digest:

On postnormalisation of science and a new awareness of  the role of ‘cultural constructs’ in scientific communication:

“The quality of being “postnormal” was introduced into the analysis of science by the philosophers Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1985 S.O. Funtowicz and J.R. Ravetz, Three types of risk assessment: a methodological analysis. In: C. Whipple and V.T. Covello, Editors, Risk Analysis in the Private Sector, Plenum, New York (1985), pp. 217–231.Silvio Funtovitz and Jerry Ravetz (1985). In a situation where science cannot make concrete statements with high certainty, and in which the evidence of science is of considerable practical significance for formulating policies and decisions, then this science is impelled less and less by the pure “curiosity” that idealistic views glorify as the innermost driving force of science, and increasingly by the usefulness of the possible evidence for just such formulations of decisions and policy. It is no longer being scientific that is of central importance, nor the methodical quality, nor Popper’s dictum of falsification, nor Fleck’s idea of repairing outmoded systems of explanation (Fleck, 1980); instead, it is utility that carries the day. The saying “Nothing is as practical as a good theory,” attributed to Kurt Lewin, refers to the ability to facilitate decisions and guide actions. Not correctness, nor objective falsifiability, occupies the foreground, but rather social acceptance.

In its postnormal phase, science thus lives on its claims, on its staging in the media, on its congruity with cultural constructions. These knowledge claims are raised not only by established scientists, but also by other, self-appointed experts, who frequently enough are bound to special interests, be they Exxon or Greenpeace.”

von Storch recognises that scientific findings are socially situated, and that the skills and sensitivities of a cultural theorist are required when entering into communication with the public:

“In order to give our analysis depth and substance, we need the skills of the social and cultural sciences. My personal experience, which is admittedly limited, informs me that up to now, however, these sciences have largely kept their distance. What I have heard are occasional and general hints that everything would be socially constructed and relative—which I consider mostly signs of an unfortunate refusal to go into concrete detail, which would be unavoidable for any real synergy. It is annoying when colleagues from these fields obviously fail to notice that the scientific and cultural constructs are falling away from each other; instead, they content themselves with cultural constructions as circulated by the popular media and vested interests.”

He refers to science as a proxy battlefield whereby politicians present politics as subservient to science, and so the political battles are accordingly played out in the laboratories and scholarly publications. Policy-makers wait to see who “wins”, but science is supposed to hold itself open, to explore where there is a lack of resolution. Science is about question-finding; it should not be about propagandist tactics.

von Storch then goes on to discuss risks inherent in the representation of climate change as a catastrophic event for three different actors: scientists, politicians and the media:

“Science, or more precisely: the scientific institutions react to this risk by implementing professional “press relations”—which are oriented to “representational principles of the mass media.” Policy-makers protect themselves by creating a “hierarchy of knowledge, or of advice,” with advisors to the Chancellor, Climate Service Centres and the like. The mass media seek the attention of the public by selectively presenting scientific findings that either agree or conflict with the cultural construct, or else by staging controversies, by which means yet another cultural construct is served; namely, the construct of the allegedly arbitrary nature of scientific evidence.”

He ends by acknowledging that his view is limited to Central and Northern European experience, and hoping (in fact, I think it’s a yearning) for a reconciliation of cultural construction and scientific construction, concluding:

“The insight of two competing types of knowledge has a number of practical implications for science. One is, that science itself is under permanent influence of non-scientific knowledge claims, such as ideological or pre-scientific claims. They influence the scientist in his way of asking and in her request for evidence before accepting answers. Claims, which are consistent with cultural constructed knowledge are easier accepted as accurate than results, which contradict such claims. Another issue is the transfer of scientific understanding into the policy process. Here, the scientific understanding should help to prepare policy design – which must not be misunderstood as enforcing certain designs – by clarifying the natural science part of the issues.”

Besides the security breach of a university’s secure system (which I’ve passed over but which is terribly important), this is what the story of Climategate is really about . It isn’t that climate change is suddenly not human-induced. The consensus that it is is overwhelming. The real story (an old story) is that science is politicised. Consequently it falls to politicians to take responsibility for asking the right questions, coping with uncertainty and acting on the findings. We know that rigorous, disinterested climate scientists are being marginalised and unrecognised as authorities because they are cloistered. Policy-makers must pursue both relations and public relations on their behalf as a matter of urgency.

To read:

Update: “Professor Henry Brubaker, of the Institute for Studies, said: “While there will always be debate over climate data, it’s important to remember that the state of the world’s icebergs and glaciers remains wholly dependant on which group of tedious, hectoring arseholes is currently winning the argument.” HT Weggis.

Patrick Philippe Meier on Evgeny Morozov

With Iran in mind I’m reading iRevolution with interest. iRevolution is run by Patrick Philippe Meier, doctoral scholar of individuals’ use of technology in times of crisis, of digital activism in oppressive regimes, and of the Internet as a form of political control. It’s a very good blog.

Evgeny Morozov spoke at the RSA a while ago (vid and mp3), and now he’s in Prospect. His view is that dictators and the bloggers and commenters in their pay benefit more from the Web than dissident activists do, and it’s a view which seems to be gaining some ground. He believes that after a slow start, the repressive regimes are finally and irreversibly appropriating the technologies, and the free world should take responsibility for assisting the dissidents.

Patrick Philippe Meier had lunch with him. They take different views strategically and tactically.

Patrick addresses a number of Evgeny’s arguments, with references to some more recent literature. He calls for fewer anecdotes, more data and scholarship, and more attention to people as opposed to tools. From near the end:

“I disagree with Evgeny’s recommendation that the West should be prepared to step in and help the dissenting voices, providing free and prompt assistance to get back online as soon as possible. I’m not a big fan of external, top down intervention models. They don’t work in the field of conflict early warning and conflict prevention. In fact, they fail abysmally.

I would rather take a people-centered approach, local-training-of-local-trainers, something I have referred to elsewhere as a bottom-bottom approach. In other words, lets help foster more resilient digital communities by helping to build internal capacity that minimizes the need for external intervention and maximizes self-learning.

This is why I’d recommend watching a little more Tom & Jerry. Jerry often finds himself trapped in his little mouse hideout because Tom has a gazillion mousetraps set up right outside. If Tom also starts censoring the Internet and blocks the use of mobile phones as well, then Jerry needs to draw on more than just technology to get out of this tight spot. External intervention is hardly possible in some circumstances but if Jerry is somewhat conversant in nonviolent civil resistance, he’ll have a few creative tactics up his sleeve to get him through to the next episode.”

Extremely interesting.

(In defence of anecdotes – anecdotes, in their place, are what you use to form the hypothesis to get the funding to collect data about the new and so-far unstudied phenomenon.)

Bloggers are responsible for the comments they attract

I feel a deep debt of gratitude to Harry’s Place for reasons I set out in my last, and in more depth here, but basically I agree with Marko – Harry’s Place’s commenters are Harry’s Place’s problem. I’ve raised this – too mildly – in the past here and in messages.

I missed most of the examples Marko points readers to, but the Laurie Penny stuff particularly disheartened me – as well as being personal, it was aimless. I meant to say something, couldn’t quite grasp the nub of it, and I’m glad that Marko did. Following his experiences by reading the comments trails he links to is pretty dispiriting, too.

What is going on beneath the Harry’s Place posts – particularly those on Islamists – worries me, because British Jews need Harry’s Place, which is so vigilant about antisemitism, to be serious about anti-racism in its own back yard. Anti-Islamists need Harry’s Place to be serious about anti-racism. Anti-racists need Harry’s Place to be a serious opponent of the BNP, but I know at least one person who favours both.

Commenter Zkharya is broadly right I think:

“I like HP. I like the freedom. I like, by and large, the company. There is a problem with Islamophobia.

But if you like Israel, there aren’t too many internet forums to hang out that are vaguely as sociable or linked up to other issues.”

I’d qualify that. I think the gender mix on Harry’s Place is poor, and the linking to other issues has large gaps (environmentalism, a critically important movement which continues to harbour misanthropic and anti-industrial tendencies, needs Harry’s Place’s attention, for example).


“One point I’d say she [Laurie Penny] does have is her focus on bullying on HP. Under the banner of free speech, HP is happy to have and sometimes encourage a degree of entirely personality-based vilification and abuse of individuals on the basis of their opinions (as opposed to any political actions) which has nothing to do with politics with either a small or a large p.

There’s no problem in my view with ridiculing and satirising of political positions, including inconsistencies and shifts therein. But it does seem to me that HP is complacent about personalised bullying on the basis of assertions about opponents’ insanity, encouraging others to bully, advocate violence towards and/or ostracise opponents on account of that or of opposition to a declared favourite or personal arbitrary preference of one collective member or another.”

I wish that Harry’s Place bloggers would look to their own back yard. Below the posts it’s like a frat party (yes I’ve been to a few during a year in the US – rarely felt so lonely).

The thing is, there’s a difference between attracting aggressive, obscene and bigoted commenters who pile in because you have interfered with their world view and they feel the need to disagree with you, and attracting the same who basically support your blog and feel at home there. The first is inevitable – when you are courageous and stick your neck out like Harry’s Place bloggers, your wages will include opprobrious comments. But if the people approving of you, defending you, or just hanging out, are aggressive bigots, and you don’t put an end to it, then, yes, it’s yours. You host it. You can’t disown it. You will be known for it. And it’s not feasible, as one HP author tried to do, to suggest a division of labour where you, the author, ask your moderate readers to take responsibility for the comments. You can’t rely on volunteers who haven’t volunteered – it’s your blog, it’s on your head.

Here is what Laurie Penny said:

‘you condone bigotry by allowing hateful, misogynist, racist, Islamophobic comments to be published on your site, and allowing bigoted, ignorant trolls to control the debate. I don’t apologise for that assessment: it’s you that needs to step up and look at what your site has become.’

I will limit my agreement with her to that.

Marko, defending this and told by Harry’s Place author Brownie to withdraw his “slurs” or “fuck off”:

“Here at HP, Brownie, you’ve provided a site in which pretty much anyone can make any slurs they want against anybody else. Slurs that should not see the light of day receive wide publicity, thanks to HP. When you provide a forum in which this sort of filth appears in print, and when you make a point about refusing to delete it, then you are condoning that filth as something legitimate; with a right to be heard. You are harrassing and victimising innocent people by allowing anonymous psychos to defame and abuse them in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.

So I’m sorry, but you have no right to complain about being slurred, when you have provided a forum that enables the slurring of so many other people.

For the record, I don’t think that you, Marcus, David T, Brett or any of the other regular posters here are racists. I do, however, think that your comments moderation policy is an utter, utter disgrace, and that you should be ashamed of yourselves. And I say this as someone who likes you as people and who mostly agrees with your politics.

Right, now I’ll fuck off.”

Harry’s Place has a problem. Unlike HP blogger Neil, I don’t think Comment is F***** – plenty of blogs manage to attract conversations which are respectful of the person, even while trenchant in opposition of their views. See for example Bob From Brockley, a blog with interests that overlap with Harry’s Place.

I think a more purposeful approach is in order on the part of the authors to putting themselves on the opposite side of the Islamophobes and bullies. I think it’s generally true of campaigns and things like campaigns that to define your support you have to frame what you’re against in terms of what you’re for. If this could be embedded into every post I think that would probably be all that was required.

In the absence of that, a moderation policy backed up with time taken to moderate.
Otherwise, it may be time to turn off comments. But that would be an act of defeat.

University leaders’ pusillanimity in the face of religious hatred on campus

I have been over-quiet on this blog about the steady, unwelcome encroachment of political Islam (and I do not mean Muslim values) into public life, and left it to others such as Shiraz Maher, Maryam Namazie, Nick Cohen and David T, whose wages are opprobrium and inadequate support. Nevertheless, they are solid, and gaining form.

Perhaps my acquiescence is down to being an alumna of City University, London, an institution where the Islamic Society invites homophobic hater Abu Usama to speak and Acting Vice Chancellor Julius Weinberg makes things cosy for them all.

As you can gather from this Independent piece, inviting Abu Usama is the equivalent of inviting white supremacist David Duke. Sad thing is, the ‘leader’ of the place where I currently work would probably have tried to say it was none of his business either, insisted on free expression, and left the apostates and rights activists to defend themselves. What is a university leader for, again?

Oh yeah, delivering New Labour policy to academics. Nick Cohen on New Labour policy.

And Julius Weinberg, in a position like his, he’s either with gay people and apostates or against them. And if he’s not willing to stand with them, he should resign. And while we’re about it, let’s revisit the University of East London which – mocking their Stonewall Diversity Champion accolade – hosted Usama last June.

Earlier this month a researcher interviewed me about what institutions should do about campus religious conflict. I basically said the following kind of thing. Institutions should reflect the wider context back to the groups at the centre of any contentious episode. If the institution is providing premises for an event, then the institution has ultimate responsibility for the rhetoric and values pushed at that event. If an institution insists on free expression even for ideologues who would kill gay people, then it must also insist on debate. It would run contra to academic values for ideologues, if they are to be hosted, to go unopposed and undebated in a university setting. Ideologues are essentially unacademic: they are neither disinterested nor attempting balance. As such they should not have a platform to themselves. And when students host political meetings they should be responded to as adult political agents. Institutions should restate their values, in opposition to preachers of hate. They often don’t.

I didn’t go to the One Law For All rally, because I was supposed to be doing some work, as I am now. But they are probably our best hope against these bloody clerics, the totalitarian values of the people who invite them, and our capitulating leadership. Without solid, human rights-based groups like those below we will certainly polarise between the fundamentalist or hateful Islamism of Al Qaradawi and Abu Usama, and the similarly intolerant Islamophobia of Geert Wilders and Stop the Islamisation of Europe.

First and foremost, hold the centre against the fundamentalists. Don’t let it happen that we only recognise what we have once we’ve lost it. And once we have marginalised the fundamentalists, we can go back to fighting among ourselves again, just like old times.

Bonus link: Gwen Griffith-Dickson speaking at Gresham (transcript available) on countering extremism and the politics of ‘engagement’.