Birkbeck’s School of Law contributes to consultation on policing and HIV

MatthewWeait_400x400This article was contributed by Matthew Weait, Professor of Law and Policy at Birkbeck’s School of Law.

There is robust empirical evidence indicating that traditional approaches to policing can result in adverse health outcomes for those who are at particular risk of harm.  In particular, a focus on their law and order function, a narrow view of what constitutes public safety, and a conservative occupational culture has meant that in many parts of the world the police have contributed to an enhanced risk of HIV infection among so called “key populations”, including sex workers and injecting drug users.  There is, for example, evidence that police may use the possession of condoms – an effective barrier against infection – as evidence to support an allegation of prostitution, and the possession of syringes as evidence to justify the arrest of drug users.  The consequence of this is that sex workers wishing to avoid harassment and arrest may not carry condoms with them, thereby reducing the opportunity to practise safer sex, and drug users avoid carrying their own “works”, thereby increasing the possibility that they will share those of others and so increase their risk of infection with HIV and other blood-borne diseases.

These negative effects of traditional policing are increasingly recognised, and efforts are being made to address them.  An important milestone was reached this month at a Consultation on Policing and HIV in Amsterdam, convened by the Centre for Law Enforcement and Public Health (CLEPH) and supported by the Law Enforcement and HIV Network (LEAHN), the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO) and the School of Law at Birkbeck.

I attended the international consultation along with more than 100  senior police officers, representatives of key populations, policy makers and academics.  After a day of discussion and deliberation, the attendees agreed the Amsterdam Declaration on Police Partnerships for Harm Reduction, an important document that commits its supporters to an approach to policing key populations that is informed by the principles of harm reduction and which will promote rather than hinder health through active collaboration and partnership.

I am delighted that the School of Law has been involved in this significant international development. I had the privilege of working with some extraordinarily enlightened police officers from all across the world, each of whom realises the importance of working with those at heightened risk of acquiring HIV in reducing that risk.  There was an incredible energy in the room, and a real willingness to make progress. The School of Law at Birkbeck has an internationally recognised reputation for research and scholarship that can contribute to progressive legal change, and it was a privilege to showcase this and to put the School’s principles into practice.

Professor Weait, of Birkbeck's School of Law, chaired a panel at the Consultation on HIV and Policing in Amsterdam, with (left to right) Annette Verster, World Health Organization; Pye Jakobsson, Global Network of Sex Worker Projects; Marja Lust, Amsterdam Police; Julian Hows, Global Network of People Living with HIV; Dr Zhannat Kosmukhamedova, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; Dr Sanjay Patil, Open Society Foundations

Professor Weait, of Birkbeck’s School of Law, chaired a panel at the Consultation on HIV and Policing in Amsterdam, with (left to right) Annette Verster, World Health Organization; Pye Jakobsson, Global Network of Sex Worker Projects; Marja Lust, Amsterdam Police; Julian Hows, Global Network of People Living with HIV; Dr Zhannat Kosmukhamedova, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; Dr Sanjay Patil, Open Society Foundations

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Human rights plan will please eurosceptics but what’s in it for the rest of us?

This article was contribute by Frederick Cowell from Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on The Conversation.

David Cameron has nailed his colours to the mast by promising to create a British bill of rights. His intention is clear – the Human Rights Act will be abolished and the UK will abandon the European Convention on Human Rights.

Cameron seems to be using populist anger over the European Court of Human Right’s decision on prisoner voting to justify a power-grab in the form of a pro-state human rights instrument. Since UKIP has a clear line on withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights and the abolition of the Human Rights Act, this has the potential to be very popular among some voters.

But in its analysis of Cameron’s latest proposals, legal charity Justice notes that many issues, such as provisions to ensure only the “most serious cases” are heard, already exist.

Even more worrying is the promise that a British bill of rights will stop “terrorists” and “criminals” exploiting the system. This is an unambiguous statement that certain categories of people will be stripped of their rights under the Tory proposals.

This might be a popular move, particularly in the context of British citizens who join extremist groups, but it is important to remember that the home secretary has the power to designate people as terrorists without them even being convicted of a criminal offence.

In defence of the ECHR

The European Court of Human Rights is often criticised for being slow to tackle its backlog of cases. But the backlog has been steadily shrinking. The tabloid press has also labelled the court as anti-UK because it rules so often against it. In reality though, the UK only loses around 2% of all cases brought against it. The Court often allows states some considerable leeway in interpreting the convention through the margin of appreciation doctrine and only rules that a state should change its laws in the most serious cases.

Reform is perfectly possible too, as was shown by the 2012 Brighton Declaration which was actively supported by the current government. The current reforms don’t expressly remove the UK from the European Convention but they seem designed to engineer a series of confrontations between the Court and the UK. In the long term the direction of travel is clear; the withdrawal of the UK from the Convention. This would make Britain the first country to leave the Convention. Currently, Russia is the only other country entertaining such a move.

Suspect rhetoric

Cameron has been talking about producing a British bill of rights for nearly eight years. In 2007 he framed the proposal as the antithesis of the Human Rights Act when he blamed the latter for creating “an excessive sensitivity to the demands of criminals”.

But while he has long been crystal clear about what a Bill of Rights wouldn’t be, he remains vague about what it would contain that wasn’t already in the European Convention. When asked, Cameron has cited the right to trial by jury as example of a change. But this is already protected by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the margin of appreciation doctrine.

Before the 2010 election, Cameron framed the issue as a matter of democratic trust but again failed to specify what would actually go in a British bill of rights. The political pressures of coalition led to the creation of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, which published a report in 2012 broadly in support of maintaining the status quo. The issue was effectively shelved and has only since been raised in the context of abolishing the Human Rights Act.

This fits into a broader reactionary trend in the Tory Party. In the late 1950s there was a large internal row about corporal punishment for offenders and until the 1980s backbenchers were openly calling for capital punishment to be reinstated. Abolishing the Human Rights Act is the latest manifestation of this trend. Some thinkers have criticised the plan as being illiberal and anti-conservative but senior politicians, such as Ken Clarke, who have often defended the Human Rights Act, were dismissed in the last cabinet reshuffle.

The plan is a perfect fusion of tough-on-crime rhetoric and Euroscepticism. It looks very much like an appeasement to the latest manifestation of reactionary Toryism. The justice secretary showed that perfectly when he described the proposals as an attack on foreign judges “deciding our laws”, while ignoring the details about rights restrictions. This appears to be law reform being done for short-term electoral gains against UKIP rather than enhancing the protection of rights.The Conversation

Frederick Cowell is also a Labour Councillor for the London Borough of Lambeth. This is written in his capacity as an academic at Birkbeck, University of London.

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What the **** is linguistics?

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

Excuse the *rude* title of this blog – I shall have more to say about why it is rude – even though it actually only contains a few stars – in subsequent blogs.

To begin, though:

If, like me, you are a teacher of linguistics, there are two questions which people will invariably ask you:

1. What IS linguistics?
and
2. What languages do you speak?

Those are the questions I want to write about today.

In answer to the first, linguistics is the study of language, no more, no less. Since language is (almost) as fundamental to the human race as breathing, it is probably quite important to know something about it. Linguistics is actually a whole collection of subjects, from the highly scientific – like whereabouts in the brain is the language faculty located? – to the philosophical – like why does a sentence mean what it means? – to the strictly structural – like what is the difference between a noun and a verb, and does the difference exist in all languages? – to the sociological and politically relevant – e.g., in what way are women linguistically at a disadvantage in our society, and in others, compared with men?

The answer to the second question is, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Even if I only speak one language, my ‘mother tongue’, I am perfectly able to study the various issues mentioned above. Chomsky, considered the originator of modern linguistics, thought that the ideal way to study language was by analysing the productions of ‘ the ideal speaker in a homogeneous community’. Studying such an ideal speaker would allow us to uncover principles of language which underlie all languages, the basic principles of the human language faculty.

However, more recently, more and more linguists have started to realize that what is most ‘universal’ about language is actually its diversity. The fact that people speak different languages, and within languages different dialects, and speak in different ways depending on their circumstances, their topic, their interlocutor, etc. is by far the most striking fact about human language, more so than the fact that all languages have something like a verb/noun distinction.

In coming blogs I will discuss the relevance of diversity and variation in language through examples mainly taken from the news and current affairs. I will try to show that linguistic questions concern us all, and hopefully convince you that there are rational and irrational ways of finding the answers to linguistic questions. Just as the fact that we all breathe does not make us experts in respiratory medicine, so the fact that we all communicate through language does not qualify us to pronounce on linguistics – though if you read the letter pages of any major newspaper it is stunning how many self-appointed experts on language/ grammar/spelling/usage there seem to be!

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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European poll shows democracy still needs a bit of work

Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck's Department of ManagementThis article was contributed by Professor Daniele Archibugi, of Birkbeck’s Department of Management. It was originally published on The Conversation

Every year, the UN celebrates its International Day of Democracy, even if it often feels like there is little to smile about on this front. Research to be presented at the Italian parliament to mark the occasion shows that while Europeans across the continent share a powerful faith in democracy, they think their countries are lacking some of its most fundamental components.

The research, carried out by the European Social Survey is an attempt to quantify the difference between Democratic ideals and reality.

The results confirm that the overwhelming majority of Europeans share the democratic faith. In most countries, citizens strongly believe that they should be governed by elected representatives. In countries like Cyprus, Sweden, Germany and Israel, respondents rated the importance of living in a democratic country as a nine or above on a scale of zero to ten. And in almost every other country in a survey of 29 – including 21 EU member states – it was rated at least seven or above.

But Europe is vast and brings together a huge array of nations and cultures. It seems we can’t be sure that the word democracy means the same thing to them all.

Digging inside the ballot box, the survey reveals that in northern Europe, there is a greater focus on the rule of law, while in southern countries there is a stronger desire to obtain social justice. Scandinavians fall somewhere in the middle.

Eastern Europeans appear to be something of a special case. Citizens in many former soviet states only got the right to vote in proper elections around a quarter of a century ago and continue to expect the social protection that was once guaranteed by the old communist regimes while also demanding that the rule of law is enforced. Russian respondents attached the least importance to being run by a democratic government.

The basic definition of democracy is what is known as liberal democracy. This is a government chosen in free and competitive elections, with checks and balances in place and a free media and opposition in operation. Liberal democracy was considered to be operating in only around half of the 29 countries surveyed.

People in eastern European nations do not believe their countries hold free and fair elections and they do not consider their media free. And in southern Europe, citizens feel they lack equality before the law.

Asked about the social components of democracy – such as income equality and protection from poverty – citizens gave a harsh assessment. In 26 of the 29 countries, this side of democracy was considered insufficient.

In Scandinavia the gap between what people expect from democracy and what they think is actually delivered is smaller than in any other country. But even in these countries, there is the clear perception that the social dimension of democracy lags behind the liberal.

The political class should take this survey very seriously. It shows that the public has an increasingly broad idea of what it is to be a democracy but also that they are well informed. When expectations are not met, substantial resentment can build and that is reflected at the ballot box. Voters either back new entrants to the political sphere – like UKIP – or they stay at home on polling day.

An increasingly qualified and demanding public can’t simply be administered from above. New forms of participation need to be invented. If people are asked to participate in the delivery of public goods – through direct democracy and social involvement – they will have the opportunity to improve what is provided by elected representatives only. Or, at least, they will realise that everyone should implement their own dreams, democratic dreams included.

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Paisley’s life testament to a deeply painful social history in Northern Ireland

Dr Sean BradyThis article was contributed by Dr Sean Brady, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The death of the Reverend Ian Paisley is occasion for reflection upon the United Kingdom’s most famous religious firebrand, and certainly one of the most memorable and divisive political figures of modern times.

He will rightly be remembered for his hardline and extreme unionist stance throughout his political and religious career, for his extreme brand of Loyalism and premillenial Protestantism, which informed all of his political career – and also for the mystery of why, in 2006, he agreed to power sharing in Northern Ireland, given his rejection of the Belfast Peace Agreement in 1998.

But Paisley’s life was testament to a deeply painful social history. Northern Ireland’s society and politics have been synonymous with deep and bitter religiously orientated sectarianism, violence, conflict, militarism, and seemingly intractable community schisms since the late 1960s. And for much of that time, Paisley was one of the most vocal and most recognisable forces behind its continued division.

And yet the seemly intractable oppositions within Northern Ireland appeared to come together in remarkable unanimity on one particular issue, which Paisley almost made his own: the question of male homosexuality, and of sexual minorities in general.

No, no, no!

The Northern Irish parliament stoutly resisted any attempt to impose the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which had partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. Even after the imposition of direct rule and the ending of devolved government in 1972, opposition to any attempt by the Northern Ireland Office to introduce this legislation was voluble and intense.

A high-profile case brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Dudgeon v United Kingdom, eventually forced the United Kingdom government to impose the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982. Indeed, it was a landmark case at the ECHR itself. It was the court’s first case to be decided in favour of LGBT rights, and it now forms the basis in European law for all member states, in particular new states joining the EU.

Opposition to decriminalising male homosexuality appealed to many across the sectarian divide, but the real impetus to keep gay sex criminal came from the evangelically inspired and highly popular “Save Ulster from Sodomy!” campaign, headed by Paisley, Peter Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party in the 1970s and the 1980s and targeted at lesbians and gay men.

Out of Ireland

In Paisley’s worldview, Ulster, the hallowed province, had to be made fit for the second coming of Christ, and therefore needed “saving” from sodomy. In a society riven by male-dominated violence and religious conflict, LGBT people would at the very least be wary about exploring their sexuality, and certainly emotions of guilt shaped and directed their lives. And for most Irish LGBT people, the only way to lead normal lives has long been to leave Northern Ireland.

It’s remarkable to recall the extent to which the Roman Catholic hierarchy gave its tacit support to this campaign, and the ways in which paramilitary organisations on both sides of the conflict came to view LGBT people as “natural betrayers” in their midst. More than anything else, religion and sectarianism shaped the lives of LGBT people in Northern Ireland until the peace process of the late 1990s.

And yet still, Paisley’s legacy of continuing homophobia in Northern Ireland is palpable to this day. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the DUP-dominated Stormont parliament has vetoed the gay marriage bill multiple times; evangelically motivated politicians of all stripes feel free to make outright homophobic comments on a regular basis.

Northern Ireland’s society is also unique in Western Europe in the intensity and the extent of its homophobic attitudes. In a huge research project into bigotry in Western countries conducted in 2007, Northern Ireland was the most homophobic of 23 territories surveyed, topping the list along with Greece.

Paisley’s legacy for the Northern Irish sectarian conflict is hugely complicated in itself – but his broader impact on Northern Ireland’s society also endures.

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Used or abused? 10 serious issues raised by FoI requests

Dr Ben WorthyThis article was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy. It was originally published on The Conversation.

A Freedom of Information request lodged on a quiet news day by a journalist has revealed that more than 800 police officers in England and Wales have been investigated for breaching social media guidelines over the past five years.

Quite apart from showing us that the police, like many other public bodies, find it difficult to control what its members do on Twitter, the story raises the importance of the Freedom of Information Act, which comes under regular fire for, according to the prime minister, David Cameron: “furring up the arteries” of government.

The Local Government Association recently published a list of ten “silly” FoI requests. While not arguing that all such requests are like this, the implied point is that FoI is being “abused”.

This complaint mirrors the comments of Tony Blair in his memoirs:

The truth is that the FoI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick: ‘Hey, try this instead’ and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.

It also fits with concerns from a stream of other ministers and officials that FoI stops records being created and hampers decision-making. It is likely to feed into the recent government announcement of a consultation on whether the act is, indeed, being abused.

Little is known about FoI requesters. The pattern appears to be broadly that a variety of people and groups use it for a whole variety of reasons. Most FoI requests go to local government, the largest user group (contrary to Blair’s claim) are the public and, high-profile cases aside, many use FoI for “micro-political” issues, such as dealing with a pothole or planning application.

As a response to the list, I’d like to offer my own list of ten serious issues revealed by FOI requests.

  1. Extraordinary rendition – the UK’s involvement was revealed by FoI requests from the All-Party Group.
  2. Details of the Universal Credit welfare reforms.
  3. The Libor banking scandal and knowledge of it.
  4. Lists of visitors to the prime ministerial residence at Chequers (and ministerial meetings and diaries now proactively released).
  5. The use (and, it turned out, abuse) of passes to parliament.
  6. Creation of the famous “Weapons of Mass Destruction” dossier.
  7. The monarch’s involvement in vetoing legislation.
  8. The results of local restaurant hygiene inspections that helped create http://www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk/.
  9. The salaries of senior academics and NHS officials.
  10. The planned closure of local libraries up and down the country.

Keeping them honest

Underneath these high-profile cases, our research found a steady stream of accountability stories over planning, car parking and many other issues – just see David Higgerson’s FOI Friday.

The act also helped create IPSA, which regulate MPs’ expenses, led to a change in the law so all members of the House of Lords pay tax in the UK and drove the regular publishing of local government salaries.

This not to say there aren’t “silly” requests, from dragons to zombie attacks (though “silly” is subjective as Jonathan Baines explains, many corruption scandals have been triggered by apparently pointless questions or the piecing together of small bits of information).

Nor is it to claim the act is not taken advantage of – in the UK, and even more in the US, FoI has led to heavy use by business – see this particularly controversial case in Scotland with Phillip Morris seeking access to details of a study of underage smoking.

Yet such requests represent only a minority of the estimated 253,000 requests per year (my own estimates based on the most recent figures for numbers of local government requests in 2010 (192,000) plus the number of requests to central government in 2013 (53,000). On the whole, research indicates that FoI is composed of all sorts of questions, on all sorts of topics, sent in by all sorts of people and groups.

It is this unpredictability that helps make it effective. One local politician told me: “you never know what you will get asked”. The presence of FoI, the possibility of a question, can make someone think twice and even deter them from corrupt or inappropriate behaviour.

There is also an issue of democratic principle. The right to information, championed by radicals such as the Levellers and Diggers centuries ago, means the right to ask questions (to misquote Orwell on liberty) that the powerful may not want you to ask.

It is a democratic right to ask and this may mean some silliness – just as voting may mean non-voting or “silly” voting. Like all parts of a democracy, it is messy and unpredictable and can occasionally go wrong. But in its messiness and unpredictability lies its power.

The Conversation

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Why Rupert Murdoch’s plan to rule the media world still needs newspapers more than TV

Justin SchlosbergThis post was written by Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies. It was originally published on The Conversation.

Rupert Murdoch’s latest bid for empire expansion has fallen on deaf ears. His offer to buy Time Warner for US$80 billion was resoundingly rejected by the owners of CNN, HBO and Warner Brothers. But despite the setback, Murdoch’s apparent willingness to sell off CNN to satisfy regulators (should a bid be accepted by Time Warner) reveals something significant about how he values news assets. It is reminiscent of a similar undertaking he made in respect of Sky News, before the phone hacking scandal got in the way of his plans to gobble up BSkyB.

The curious question is this: why is Murdoch seemingly so willing to do away with broadcast news channels that are both profitable and growing, yet so insistent on holding on to his newspaper assets dogged by scandals such as phone hacking or the collapse of the Tulisa Contostavlos drug trial and showing no signs of turning the tide of structural decline? Clearly, this is not a commercially-motivated decision. It’s more likely something to do with the perceived political leverage that newspapers continue to wield, in spite of dwindling advertising revenues.

This much became abundantly clear at the Leveson hearings when even the former UK prime minister, Tony Blair – who, like his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, managed to avoid ever falling out with Murdoch – acknowledged that “certain of the newspapers are used by their owners/editors as instruments of political power, in which the boundary between news and comment is deliberately blurred”.

But it’s not just about Murdoch, and it’s not just about the tabloids. The Russian billionaire owner of the Independent and Evening Standard wrote the following tweet after giving testimony to Leveson:

Unlike his British peers, Evgeny Lebedev is evidently less coy about the nexus of corruption that exists between the press and politicians.

Yet in their submission to the Lords inquiry into media plurality earlier this year, News Corp noted that “the significant proliferation of direct channels of communication for information, consumers are exposed to an increasing variety of [news] sources”. Indeed, newspaper owners have long argued that they neither seek nor possess political influence through their titles. They regularly commission research by marketing consultants to “demonstrate” that media plurality is vibrant and ever more so, and the days of press baronism are a thing of the distant analogue past. Both the Murdochs and Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere were at pains to stress to Leveson that they considered editorial independence to be “good for business”.

Amid this rhetorical trickery, digital disruption is hailed as at once the biggest threat to the commercial news industry and the greatest saviour of media plurality. It is a kind of double speak that political spin doctors would admire and is being used to argue against tighter regulatory scrutiny of media ownership.

But in reality of course, newspapers do still wield immense power. Most national titles are reaching greater audiences than ever before courtesy of their online editions. Digital intermediaries like Google may have attracted advertisers away from newspapers, but they are not competitors when it comes to the news agenda. Rather, newspapers have become dependent on search and social media as drivers of traffic to their websites.

Measuring actual influence – rather than traffic numbers – is a very difficult thing to do in practice. Decades of audience research has consistently found media influence to be uncertain and variable. But we do know enough to know that the extent of media power cannot be ascertained from the rather shallow survey data cited by commercial media lobbyists. They tend to infer, for instance, declining influence from the proliferation of news sources. But survey respondents might cite Google as a news source even though they are actually consuming content provided by established media brands that appear as snippets on Google’s listings. Nor can such data account for subtle distinctions in the ways in which people consume news which can have far reaching consequences for the extent of influence. I might get my news first from social media but only form my views once I read about it in the Daily Mail or on the BBC. Does that mean that my diversified consumption reflects a waning of traditional media influence?

Ofcom’s own data shows that news consumption online is heavily concentrated around dominant media groups. Moreover, we know from Leveson that there is a strong perception among political actors that newspapers do still matter and continue to have, in the words of Tony Blair, “a very deep penetration” among the British public. It is simply not sufficient for newspaper groups to argue against fixed ownership limits on the basis that politicians’ estimation of media influence may not tally with their own. The damage to plurality and democracy is caused by the perception itself which is directly related to size and clearly exploited by media proprietors.

I am not suggesting that ownership limits should be imposed simply because politicians “think” that media owners have too much power. The problem is concentration itself which gives rise to the kind of endemic institutional corruption between media and political elites disclosed at the Leveson hearings. My point about perception is simply that concentrated media power can be a problem for democracy in facilitating influence over politicians, somewhat independently of influence over audiences.

The bottom line is this: there is a reason why owners of smaller media groups do not – like Murdoch – get regular invites for tea at number 10 (and leave by the back door), or – like Rothermere – get to spend “private” weekends with the prime minister at Chequers as he did last year.

The reality is that whether or not consumption or exposure diversity is improving or getting worse (and we can cherry pick data to argue the case either way), size matters in respect of media power. If we are to place any value on democratic health as opposed to just competitive health of media markets, then we need real plurality reform to address the real and existing accumulations of that power.

The Conversation

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World Bank watch out, the BRICS Bank is a game-changer

Ali Burak GuvenThis post was written by Dr Ali Burak Güven, Lecturer in International Relations & International Political Economy in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The top news from this year’s BRICS summit was the announcement of a New Development Bank. Headquartered in Shanghai, the bank will become operational in 2016 with an initial capital of US$50 billion. Its core mandate is to finance infrastructure projects in the developing world.

The bank, announced at the summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, will also have a monetary twin to provide short-term emergency loans, the Contingency Reserve Arrangement. While the bank will be open to all UN members, the reserve will lend only to the contributing BRICS countries in times of crisis.

This combination of timing, actors, and institutions is noteworthy. It was in July 1944 that the Allied nations gathered at Bretton Woods to form two of the most vital institutions of the post-war era: the International Monetary Fund and what would become the World Bank. Now, 70 years later and only a few years on from the global financial crisis, the leading developing nations of our time have joined forces to forge new institutions of international economic cooperation with mandates identical to the World Bank and the IMF.

This move is born out of a belief that the Bretton Woods twins, despite numerous governance reform initiatives over the past decade, remain set to reflect the policy preferences of their original creators. In creating complementary institutions, the BRICS will be hoping to use these alternative platforms of international economic governance and as leverage to accelerate the reform of existing arrangements.

Game-changing potential

The New Development Bank is currently the more interesting of the “Fortaleza twins”, for it is designed as a freestanding organisation that’s open to all. Yet it has not received a warm welcome in business columns. While the political symbolism of the new institution is widely acknowledged, its immediate economic utility has been challenged – why do the BRICS need a development bank of their own when infrastructure projects are already easily financed through private as well as official channels, especially through the World Bank?

This is a narrow criticism. In the long run, the New Development Bank has the potential to become a game-changer in development financing. In fact, if its evolution even remotely parallels that of the World Bank, it might end up having a formative impact on economic policy-making and overall development strategy in the Global South.

To begin, while there is no shortage of national and regional development banks as well as private financiers of infrastructure projects, there is still a massive gap in development finance, estimated to be as high as US$1 trillion per year. Many developing countries encountered significant financing problems during the global crisis of the late 2000s. This shortfall necessitated a surge in World Bank commitments, from an annual US$25 billion in 2007 to about US$60 billion in 2010.

But commitments declined just as swiftly over the past few years, and as of 2013 stood at about $30 billion. Given these figures, the New Development Bank’s readily available $10 billion in paid-up capital and the extra $40 billion available upon request are not exactly pocket money for development financing.

Yet just as the World Bank was never simply a money lender, so too will the new bank represent far more than a mere pool of funds. The existing geostrategic and policy inclinations of its founding stakeholders imply a bigger role to play for the institution. In the process, it is bound to offer a formidable challenge to the World Bank’s financial prominence and so influence policy in the developing world.

Client-side

The new bank has been long in the making. It is the culmination of nearly two decades of intense South-South cooperation and engagement. In recent years especially, the BRICS and other emerging nations have become donors and investors in both their immediate regions and in less developed areas of the world – with Chinese and Brazilian involvement in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America representing the prime examples.

They have made an effort to establish more equal relationships with their lower-income developing peers and emphasised an attractive narrative of partnership, non-intervention and knowledge transfer, instead of smug, superior Western notions of top-down aid and restrictive conditionality. To the extent that it could keep its rates competitive, the New Development Bank is unlikely to suffer from a dearth of clients from among its fellow developing nations.

Paradoxically, BRICS and other large middle-income countries still remain the most valuable clients of the World Bank. Since the financial crisis, India has been the largest borrower of the World Bank, and has been closely followed by Brazil, China and a few other near-BRICS such as Indonesia, Turkey and Mexico. But, once the new bank fully kicks off, it is possible the World Bank will lose a lot more business from this traditionally lucrative market of large middle-income borrowers who now have a serious alternative.

Political implications

A reduced loan portfolio will ultimately translate into declining policy influence for the World Bank, which has held near-monopoly of development wisdom over the past 70 years. Perhaps in recognition of their waning power, there has already been a slight but steady decline in World Bank loans that emphasise policy and institutional reforms.

Also, a larger portion of the Bank’s resources have been allocated to conventional development projects, such as environment and natural resource management, private sector development, human development, and social protection. These are precisely the types of projects the Bank will encounter fierce competition from the new BRICS-led bank.

Knowledge and power

Consider also that the World Bank has labelled itself as a “knowledge bank” in recent years. Employing thousands of policy specialists, it doubles as one of the biggest think tanks in the world. Yet if it loses considerable financial ground to initiatives such as the New Development Bank, this threatens a decline in the power it has through knowledge.

Crucially, none of the BRICS adhere to the Bank’s standard policy prescriptions, nor do they advocate a different common strategy either. Brazil’s social democratic neo-developmentalism is quite different from China’s state neoliberalism, which in turn differs from established policy paths in others in the group. The only common denominator is a substantially broader role given to the state. But beyond this there is much flexibility and experimentation and little in the way of templates and blueprints like there is with the Western institutions. This policy diversity itself dismisses any idea of superiority of knowledge and expertise.

None of this suggests that the World Bank, as the dominant, Northern-led development agency, is now on an ineluctable path of decline. Cumbersome as they may appear, large organisations often accumulate considerable resilience and adaptive capacity over generations. Yet the World Bank does have a serious contender in the New Development Bank.

While it may not overtake the World Bank in financial prowess and policy influence any time soon, at a minimum it should be able to exert significant pressure over the World Bank to respond more sincerely and effectively to the new balance of power in the global economy.

The Conversation

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French burqa ban upheld: a victory for democracy and a setback for human rights

This post was written by Frederick Cowell, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld a French ban on the wearing of face veils in public. The French Senate voted on the ban in 2010 and people who wear the burqa or niqab in public risk being fined. The anonymous woman who appealed the ban argued she was making a free choice to wear the burqa, and that the law banning it infringed her right to privacy and her right to freedom of religion, under Articles 8 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Court’s judgement held that whilst there had been an interference with her rights under Articles 8 and 9, this limitation of rights was necessary to protect the “rights and freedoms of others”.

Ultimately, the court sympathised with the French government’s position that seeing a person’s face whilst walking along the street was an essential part of “living together” in society.

A step too far

The court had previously ruled that the Turkish ban on the hijab in universities was not a violation of Article 9, reasoning that it was necessary to protect against extremist movements and promote secular education. The UK House of Lords followed this decision when a pupil at Denbeigh High School was expelled from school after she broke school uniform policy by wearing a jilbab, rather than the uniform-mandated hijab.

In 2009 the European Court held that the display of the cross in Italian classrooms violated a child’s right to a secular education. This decision caused a political uproar in Italy, where all school classrooms had been displaying the cross for decades, and the decision was later overturned in the Grand Chamber (the European Court’s appeals body).

There, it was held that the display of the cross was allowed in classrooms as it was an essentially passive symbol. This has led some commentators to surmise that the Court has a mildly secular leaning.

But the French ban goes much further than any of the above cases. It applies to any public space, not just an institution such as a school or university where there may be good educational reasons to limit religious freedom.

The European Court of Human Rights knows best?

Where the judgement is particularly problematic is in its treatment of the margin of appreciation doctrine, which holds that the court will not interfere where the state party is “best placed” to determine the appropriate limits of a particular right.

For example, if one country that is signed up to the court has lax laws on pornography and another country imposes tighter censorship, both laws can still be compatible with the protection of free speech provisions in the ECHR. However this is not a blank cheque; states have to show that any restrictions on rights are necessary for their society, and the court has frequently held that restrictions of rights in some countries go well beyond the margin of appreciation.

In the burqa ban judgement, the court held that the ban was within France’s margin of appreciation as it “constituted a choice of society”. It further stated that the democratic nature of the decision meant that different social interests had been correctly balanced. This in essence condoned the idea that a majority can legitimately remove minority rights under the aegis of democratic decision making.

This raises further questions about the relationship between democratic decisions and the protection of rights. In 2005, the court ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting was a violation of the right to participate in elections. But in 2011, the British Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to reject this ruling. In principle, if democratic decision-making is allowed to restrict one minority’s rights, there’s no reason it can’t restrict another’s.

“Living together”

In the burqua ban case, the court argued that the objective behind the ban – the promotion of “living together” – was a legitimate social aim. This is weak reasoning. The court has rejected many other cases involving seemingly nebulous social aims. For example it has consistently ignored claims from states that laws limiting the rights of the LGBT community are representative of the morals of society.

This case is symptomatic of a deeper problem with the court. When it was set up in 1950, it was designed to safeguard democracy against the external threats of totalitarian fascism and communism; the political consensus behind the court’s continued operation is based on the narrative of protecting democracy. This makes it politically difficult for the court to rule against states when they make democratic decisions restricting rights.

To make matters worse, along with other European institutions, the court is now the target of popular political rage and many Eurosceptics deride it as anti-democratic.

Upholding the burqa ban was a weak legal decision, but it will prevent a row between the court and the French government. After it’s row with the UK government over prisoner voting this may be a blessing in disguise.

The Conversation

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Is there any value in talking about British values?

This post was contributed by Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies

The controversy over the allegations of ‘extremism’ in a number of Birmingham schools has led to a wider discussion on what constitutes ‘British values’. Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education and David Cameron the Prime Minister have both responded to the situation in Birmingham by announcing that schools should teach ‘British values’. At a press conference in Sweden on 10 June, Cameron stated that these values should include “freedom, tolerance, respect for the law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions.” One of the questions I would like to explore here is whether an understanding of these ideas of Britishness would really resolve issues of social inclusion and equality in deprived communities or whether the appeal to ‘British values’ is a smokescreen that hides a multitude of equality and diversity issues not dealt with by British public institutions?

There is value in having a public debate about ‘British values’. Political theorists and others have long debated what values and mechanisms are required for arriving at the common good when you have a diversity of competing interests operating in society. Theologians speak of the ‘beloved community’ and explore what are the values, principles and ways of belonging that are required to create and sustain an ideal community. So it is legitimate to ask what type of communities we want to live in. What kinds of schools do we want our children to be educated in? The problem with the current debate is the context in which these questions are being framed.

The current debate is being framed by powerful white male politicians who in talking about ‘British values’ in relation to British Muslim minority communities, turn ‘British values’ into a racial marker or label of racial differentiation. The unspoken assumption being that certain behaviours are labelled as Muslim and that these are not compatible with being British. Hence it is not your passport or the taxes that you pay, but your ‘values’ and specifically ‘Muslim values’ that determine how British you are and the degree to which can legitimately participate in British public life.

It is striking that when other public and private institutions experience a crisis of governance they are not dealt with in this way. Recent crises have beset the newspaper industry, the Metropolitan Police, the National Health Service, the British Broadcasting Corporation, banks and last, but by no means least, MPs and Parliament. Weak governance, lack of due diligence, poor ethical standards, cultures of fear and intimidation can all have been said to have played some role in accounting for their institutional failings. These failings – not exclusively, but in the overwhelming majority of cases – have been perpetrated by members of white, mono-cultural, middle-class communities. They are failings that, in substantive terms, are similar to those attributed to the schools in Birmingham. Are these institutions deemed to be suffering from a lack of ‘British values’? No they are not, hence my contention that the current debate on ‘British values’ is not a genuine attempt to construct a political ethical framework for thinking about the common good, but rather it is a misguided attempt to re-racialise what it means to be British.

There is a need for a genuine discussion and debate to be had on values but the context needs to be reframed. Britain needs a discussion on whether its public institutions are genuine purveyors and defenders of equality and justice for all. Britain needs an honest and genuine reflection on whether its institutional and policy mechanisms are capable of delivering genuine justice and equality in a 21st-century, multicultural, multi-layered and multi-faceted society that incorporates Muslims rather than racialises them as an ‘other’ to be dealt with differently. The discussion needs to be reframed to talk about British institutions and the degree to which these institutions, to which we all contribute, genuinely reflect and represent the diversity of the country. Too many British institutions are woefully unrepresentative of the communities that they serve and too many members of minority communities bear the scars of discrimination, poor service delivery and injustice that they have received from these institutions. Where is the outcry over the lack of British values being put into practice on behalf of these citizens?  It is a long-standing scandal, where no one seems to be being held accountable for the startling lack of progress.  So yes, let us talk about ‘British values’, but more importantly let us see them concretised and realised for everyone and not used as a metaphorical stick with which to beat marginalized minority communities.

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