Is bombing ISIS atrocity prevention or a token gesture ?

Last week, the UK government voted, by a huge majority of 481 MPs, to engage in military action in Iraq. Now, once again, we are effectively at war in the Middle East.

For anyone committed to humanitarian inclinations, military force – so easily legitimated through hyperbolic statements of threat, and dramatic images of missiles precisely destroying targets through an aircraft’s gun-sights – should be treated with deep scepticism. Yet the tendency to reflexively reject and virulently condemn military action out of hand is no less lacking in critical reflection than the mindless swallowing of hawkish hyperbole.

The international community has rightly been condemned for standing by and allowing genocide to occur in Rwanda in 1994, and in Darfur in 2003. Is this a similar case? The unfolding and deepening disaster in Iraq seems very much of our own making; so will inaction make us again culpable in unspeakable human suffering? Or is the impulse to fight mere atavistic “war fever”?[1] To answer these questions we need to interrogate two more: first, is the threat of ISIS as great as is claimed? And second, will military action do any good?

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And so it continues…: Rwandan refugees and the latest bilateral politicking in the Great Lakes

The year 2002 marked the initiation of discussions concerning the suitability of invoking Article 1C(5) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to deal with the protracted Rwandan refugee caseload. This Article permits a declaration by countries and UNHCR that ‘the circumstances in connexion with which he [the refugee] has been recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist’, and therefore ‘he can no longer…continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of the country of his nationality.’ In short, the ‘ceased circumstances’ Cessation Clause constitutes an international validation of positive change in post-conflict governance and the meaningful re-establishment of the citizen-state bond, as well as providing a legal normative framework for the repatriation of former refugees.

It is easy to see why the GoR so earnestly pushed for the invocation of the Cessation Clause throughout the Noughties. Internal and external legitimacy was waning under the weight of mounting evidence that domestic politics was partisan and exclusionary at best, authoritarian and murderous at worst. The regime wanted to repatriate potential opponents back to within the state’s jurisdiction. Achieving international consensus over the suitability of refugees returning to Rwanda was thus a potential way to refute accusations concerning human rights abuses within the country, and to exercise more control over possible critics. Controversially, the High Commissioner for Refugees announced support for the cancellation of status for all Rwandan refugees by the end of 2011. After seven years of lobbying and contestation, this therefore constituted a major victory for the RPF.

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Is the Islamic State committing genocide?

Recently I had a chance to visit the Christian community of Tur Abdin in Eastern Turkey, a long standing community. The monasteries where I stayed dated to the 5th century AD. The people are generous and welcoming, but there is certainly a feeling of isolation and anger in the community as well. You can see Syria stretching out in the distance from the Mor Hananyo Monastery. The people have family and friends in Syria and Iraq. These are the Christians who have been subjected to the brutality of the Islamic State (IS) along with the Yazidi, Shabak and Shia people of the region. Yet, this is nothing new to the people of Tur Abdin.

The monasteries, with their austere beauty and clockwork way of life, give the impression of tranquility. The reality is that this region of the world has been subjected to repeated instances of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict. All but one of the people I spoke about the region and its history had lost family in the pogroms of the late 19th century, the terrible bloodletting that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, down to the recent conflict between Ankara and the Kurds. Violence is woven into the historical fabric of life in Tur Abdin.

The people are horrified and scared of what is happened a few kilometers from their homes, but they do not expect anyone to help. They’ve seen this before. The international community condemns, prevaricates and retreats. Admittedly, things are starting to happen. Airstrikes against IS have escalated and now include strikes in Syrian territory. Greater assistance is being given to the Kurdish Peshmerga, moderate Syrian forces and the Iraqis. However, this is insufficient. The world needs to decisively intervene in this conflict because the Islamic State is attempting to commit genocide against the minorities in their territory and we all have an obligation to stop them.

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The Social Contract 2.0: Big data and the need to guarantee privacy and civil liberties

Much has been written regarding the rate of technological innovation and how these advancements might provide solutions to the emerging challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and beyond.A number of new technologies raise questions of our relationships to these technologies, and will be crucial to consider in terms of their sociological and cultural impact. Ultimately we must consider how specific technologies might either preserve or threaten human dignity, and thus what sorts of empowerment or regulation will be most appropriate. The integrity ofthe social fabric at various strata relies upon—often unspoken—understandings held in common by individual members of those social strata.

The idea of a social contract has a long history, dating back to various ancient cultures, ranging from the ancient Egyptians, Hammurabi, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian and the traditions of the three monolithic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, a more recent exploration started with Grotius, Hobbes, Locke and, of course, Rousseau, who explored the limits of individual freedom, and the power of the sovereign. From Locke`s conception of the state as a “neutral judge”, to Rousseau, Rawls and others, all perspectives of the social contract ultimately seek to explore why rational individuals would consent to give up some of their freedoms as a trade-off for living in a political order.

A common thread in the social contract theory is the assumption that the state and political order exist for the general interest of the people, where life, liberty and property can be protected. What does this mean in an age of rapidly emerging technologies, Big Data, intense mobility and deepening connectivity and interdependence that transcend normal sovereign borders? Now seems to be an appropriate time to reassess some of our long-held credos about our liberties, the functions of the sovereign and the limits of control.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

Iain McLean on Scotland, oil revenues, NATO, and the EU

Professor Iain McLean of Nuffield College, Oxford, co-author of Scotland’s Choices, was interviewed by Bloomberg TV about his research which claims that accounting for changes in oil revenues and transfers from the rest of the UK would leave Scots about £480 per person worse off. He also discusses the implications of independence for currency and banking, and Scottish membership of NATO and the EU.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

Our series on the Scottish referendum: things to keep in mind for tomorrow

In advance of the vote tomorrow, which will decide the fate of the three-centuries-old voluntary union between Scotland and England, the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion. The Politics in Spires blog series ‘A Separate or United Kingdom’ has attempted to contribute to an expanded discussion of the independence debate with voices from across the social sciences, including law, economics, sociology, psychology, human geography, political philosophy, and more.

Much of the popular discussion has centred on the fiscal and economic consequences of separation. Prof Simon Wren-Lewis agrees with the UK Treasury that in the next decade, at least, Scottish people ‘will be significantly better off by staying in the Union’.Wren-Lewis warns that independence would involve high set-up costs which would need to be funded in large part by an extremely volatile and diminishing source of revenue (oil). I would add that further complicating matters is the likelihood that Scotland’s credit rating would be lower than that of the United Kingdom, which would make it more expensive for the new government to borrow in order to provide an equivalent level of public services, a point made by Prof Iain McLean.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

Scotland: whoever wins, the public loses

The result of the referendum on 18 September is very uncertain, but its effects have already been felt. Whichever side wins, and whichever path the Scottish people chooses, the real loser of the long referendum campaign has been the quality of public debate, both in Scotland and south of the border. This is not meant as a trivial slight at any irrationality on the part of Scottish voters, or excessive rambunctiousness in the public demeanour of partisans of ‘Yes Scotland’ or ‘Better Together’. If anything, it is to be applauded that the debate has galvanised such high levels of engagement among the Scottish public, culminating in an expected turnout for the referendum of as much as 80%. Instead, it is more a comment that in the supposed contest between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ reasons for which way to vote, it has generally been the very worst aspects of both that have prevailed over their better, and more useful, fellow-arguments. The debate over Scotland’s future has, especially recently, served up the incongruous (and unromantic) image of a nation of ‘bean-counters’ basing its decision about independence on the expected profitability of either outcome, yet calculating this expectation (on either side) off the back of political and economic assumptions that resemble nothing so much as declarations of blind fear or faith.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

City-regional small nations beyond nation-states

With separate histories and political-cultural traditions, the UK and Spain do not have the same nation-state DNA. Yet both face issues over regional independence. While the UK Government has legitimised the Scottish Government and supported the Scottish Independence referendum as a highly democratic exercise, Spain stands out as remaining normatively inflexible without, so far, even contemplating any dialogue with the presidents of the Catalan and Basque Autonomies.

Other EU nation-states accept the UK’s approach to sort out regional and nationalistic claims democratically. But Spain has been avoiding the demands of the Catalan and Basque institutions and citizens on the basis of both historic and more recent episodes of political unrest. As a result, it seems impossible to open any discussion about the devolution claims of city-regional small nations, particularly in terms of devising an internal, alternative and re-scaled configuration of Spain as a nation-state, which would involve modifying the 1978 Constitution. In the case of the Basque Country, this is presented as the least likely outcome as political violence in the region has been both a major obstacle and also a source of inertia. Nevertheless, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna)[1], announced a ‘definitive cessation’ of its campaign in 2011 and, therefore, should welcome any kind of democratic implementation that involves devolving powers to the Basque Country.

But are there any remarkable differences between EU nation-states such as the UK and Spain?

Indeed, I think there are plenty of them.

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