13th Century – Magna Carta; 21st – a new “Great Charter”?

‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

Magna carta

On 15th June, 2015, Magna Carta will be commemorated. It will be 800 years since King John of England affixed his royal seal to the document at Runnymede – alongside the Thames in southern England. Magna Carta was an agreement between King John and English nobles that sought to overturn the singular rule by a despotic monarch and set the scene for the gradualist changes that resulted in democracy.

Magna Carta emphasized the rights of the individual over the state (even if those individuals in 1215 were just a few nobles).

That fight between the state (and those who want to capture the state for themselves) and the individual is unresolved 800 years later despite successive waves of change.

While in the West we consider the balance between the State and individuals to be rational and where the rights of individuals are upheld by rules such as The Human Rights Act, there is a perpetual seeking after new balances when threats appear or when certain groups capture more of the State. In the USA, for example, this balancing resulted in the splitting of responsibility between Executive, Legislature (itself into two parts) and Judges – which Fukuyama now calls a “vetocracy” which is more and more in the pay of key sectors that know how to manipulate decisions.

More widely, nations like China and Russia have never allowed significance to a balance between the state and individual rights. China, especially, has for 2000 years emphasized rule by law rather than rule of law – where the State (or those that consider themselves to be the State) is above the law. Xi Jinping’s recent attack on corruption appears to be but the latest attempt by one person and his clique to dominate the state.

More recently, like a laser beam to the head, the murders in France of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, of a Muslim policewoman close by and, later, at a Kosher deli, have highlighted that the individual and the rights of any individual are consistently challenged by states and those purporting to act on behalf of a state (or, in this case, an entity that stood before the state or that, in some cases, acts as a state – here, a religion).

The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reminds us of the total submission of individual rights in that country beneath the rule of one family – under the aegis of the Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Individual Rights

The battle between the State (whether represented by an elite or an ideology headed by a group purportedly representing that ideology) and individuals is a battle that clearly still rages. The rights of the individual against such groups are key to the different mindsets that distinguish real freedom from all other forms of government and governance.

The spectrum is a wide one but State (with a wide definition of that word) “ownership” ranges from political or quasi-political (such as China) to dictatorial (Equitorial Guinea, Angola) to religious (ISIS) to monarchic / theocratic (Saudi Arabia) to such “democracies” where voting is rigged (such as Zimbabwe and Afghanistan) to enable elites to maintain themselves in power.

This is not a battle between different nations but one where the rights of individuals are challenged by state or state-like bodies.

Whereas we may not see the actions taken against journalists in Turkey by the Erdogan regime to be in any way similar to extreme violence as has just happened in France, it is on that spectrum. Between states that defend the rights of individuals and those which violently oppress them (and subsume them to the so-called state or a religion) lies many variations – but, all can slide in the wrong way to extremism.

The extremists who claimed to be Islamists are one extreme; Erdogan’s government is dangerously edging in that direction as freedom of the press is a crucial embodiment of individual freedom.

Corruption at the Heart

Sarah Chayes has just published “Thieves of State”. It is an extraordinary book that, through her own experiences as a journalist and then on the staff of various military commanders from the US and in places like Afghanistan, enables her to show clearly how corruption is at the heart of so many national and international upheavals. From Afghanistan to Egypt, from Tunisia to Nigeria, governance has been geared towards corruption and becomes the mechanism of government.

Sarah’s aim is to show how the corruption flow in those countries is not top-down, but bottom-up, where so-called “facilitation payments” lead up the chain to larger corruption at the top – whereby nations recast themselves as mafias but, now, emasculating nations.

She shows how Karzai was able to do this in Afghanistan; how the military do this in Egypt; why this was the norm in Tunisia.

Individualism and the right of individuals to have justice have no place in such states. The state is simply a mechanism to suck the benefits of society through corruption to a few at the top who become extremely wealthy and some further corrupt benefits to those further down to makes ends meet. The vast majority of society suffers through lack of funds and the thieving of funds meant for development – for policing, for security, for health services, for education and for the rest of what we in the West would call normality.

This is why the Arab Spring promised so much but gave so little. Only in Tunisia has the promise started to be met. The strength of people in such a country is to be applauded and the recent election of Beji Caid Essebsi in a free and open election to be warmly welcomed.

Similarly, the people of Sri Lanka made a momentous decision at the ballot box by throwing out President Rajapaska and electing Maithripala Sirisena – a man dedicated to fighting corruption and nepotism.

Yet, as Sarah Chayes has shown, outside of these countries, either corrupt states remain ruled by corrupt kleptocrats or the fight back is via religion. Boko Haram and ISIS claim to be against the ways of the West as they see it – the corruption that is embedded in Nigeria or Iraq. At this extreme, even education is seen as the mechanism by which individuals grab the capability to enter into the corrupt system. Chayes views the connivance of the USA in that corruption (she mentions the suitcases of cash that the CIA provided to Karzai as but one example) as leading to the success of terrorist organisations in gaining credibility amongst many people in countries like Iraq because they see this as the only way out of the corruption that wrecks their lives.

Working on the disease

Yet, it is 800 years since Magna Carta – an agreement between a king that believed in his own divinely-given rights as usurping all others and a group of wealthy noblemen that wished to garner some rights to themselves. From that time, many of us have progressed to where individual rights are now enshrined in law and also in practice.

Yet, as recently as the 17th Century, England was riven with corruption – it was endemic. Samuel Pepys, the renowned diarist of that time, spent six years to work corruption out of the Royal Navy – which was crumbling under the weight of bribery and nepotism – notably, the sale of position and procurement. Although Pepys was not innocent of corruption himself, as his biographer, Claire Tomalin has written, his own honesty went some way to right some wrongs. England gradually, through the 18th and 19th Centuries, eroded corruption from its core but it was not an overnight demolition. Chayes’ example of Singapore and its ability to eradicate corruption almost overnight is a good case of a small nation challenging itself and succeeding. Elsewhere, it takes longer

Chayes focuses sensibly on the role of not just organizations like the military within corrupt nations but organisations outside like the CIA in understanding the drivers against the halting the disease of corruption and the complete erosion of justice. However, as the West (via organisations like the OECD and the US FCPA) progressed after World War II to a consensus on governance and how governance would become part of the stated requirement for development assistance, this has, more recently, been unsettled by the rise of China – which has appeared to care little for such governance considerations – notably in its dealings with African states.

This unsettling of the post-WWII consensus (despite Xi Jingping’s drive to eradicate the disease in China – which many suggest is more politically motivated than anything else) is a major challenge that can be added to Sarah Chaye’s list of issues to be assessed when developing an anti-corruption programme.

A “Great Charter” for the 21st Century

Sarah Chaye’s book puts corruption at the heart of the problem that besets the world.

  • While climate change (with its own problems of solution and understanding) has been seen as a world-wide challenge that has to be resolved;
  • while health concerns are the subject of huge technological research and financial resolve;
  • while economic prosperity is the subject for everyone at all times;
  • while nature conservation and the future of human life on this planet is a central consideration of all;
  • while terrorism is dislocating masses, murdering thousands, displacing millions – often through the guise of extreme forms of religion – and requires regular government action;
  • corruption plays a role in all the world’s key areas of collapse but has far less formal acknoweldgment.

From small-scale facilitation payments to large scale national strangulation, corruption inhibits and destroys.

The world now needs a charter for the 21st Century that marries the rights of individuals and justice (started with the Magna Carta in 1215) to the rights of individuals and communities to be unhindered by corruption. We now need a formal acknowledgement of its central corrosive ability that destroys nations, destroys security and completely disallows individual and community justice to take place.

“To no one will we sell what is not ours to sell”

“From no one will we take what is not ours to take”

 

‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

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Middle East – repression and rigor mortis

Four Franciscan monks shouted in al-Aqsa that “Mohammad was a libertine, murderer, glutton,” who believed in “whoring”! The qadi offered them the chance to recant. When they refused, they were tortured and beaten almost to death. A bonfire was built in the courtyard of the Church where “almost drunk with rage” the mob hacked them into pieces “so that not even a human shape remained”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Jerusalem”

The assault on the American consulate in Libya consisted of two separate attacks that forced the Americans from the consulate and then besieged them in a second building in a gun battle that lasted four and half hours, according to a detailed timeline from a senior administration official.

The bloody offensive by extremists killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In addition, three more U.S. personnel were wounded.

ABC NEWS

We know that the second quote above happened just days ago. The first was in 1391 – 621 years ago.

The first was direct – but, even then, the four monks were given a chance to repent and were the instigators of the attacks themselves.

The second was the result of a second-rate short film that was made by people totally unconnected to those that died in the US Embassy in Libya.

621 years separates the two examples – 621 years of great technological and wealth advancements across the world. But, 621 years where, in some places, there has been regression, not progress, and where repression (of freedom, freedom of thought, of economic progress and education) has left in its wake a mind-system that is mired in the 14th Century or before.

Lessons unlearned

The break-up of Yugoslavia (a state held together under the iron-grip of Tito) provided lessons that we ignore to today.  Thousand-year-old conflicts and hatreds which had been suppressed since communism’s rule came to the surface and yielded to bloodshed and ethnic cleansing.

So, the Arab Spring has erupted in tensions coming to the surface in the one location that has, for many years, been seen as the powder keg of the world. No surprise, surely?

Repression in the Middle East has been there for thousands of years. We don’t expect democracy and freedom of thought to suddenly erupt in China (or most don’t) but a few despots are overthrown in Tunisia and Libya and rejoicing takes place. We ignore the simmering tensions that such societies have endured for centuries as we assume that democracy will fix everything.  The West kept many regimes in place, drew many of the borders ourselves (often, borders which made no sense and instilled more tensions – such as in Sudan), sought oil supplies and the propping up of regimes to see to it that our energy supplies continued, tolerated the bribery and corruption and power that elites gave to themselves and enabled companies to make those bribes for the last 100 years.

Tony Blair was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier today. He said that he had travelled 87 times in the last few years to the Middle East and that it would “take a generation” for countries to settle into new institutions and systems that would prevent such tensions. While he has enormous knowledge of this area, a “generation” is no time at all – but, while a lot can be done in that time, the tensions are not just on the surface but deep.

Education and opportunity

The Middle East and North Africa have not just opened up to our version of the 21st Century. In our new global economy, we have focused our attention on to the newly developing nations of China, India, Brazil and others and have tended to ignore these deeply repressed regions. War and repression have characterized them for two thousand years. Elites have conquered their way to glory and wealth where religion has been used as an excuse. Religious extremism has been embedded for so long that we see it as the core issue. But, extremism in Christianity was common in the thirteenth Century and before – the Crusades were rooted in violence and death.

The changes that took place in Christianity (which was, in its earlier days, not wedded to the “turn the other cheek” dictum) have been profound but took centuries as first rulers broke away from theocracies, began to rule on behalf of their subjects (rather than being above the law) and allowed the dissemination of justice and then economic progress to be shared amongst the population. As this happened, the repression of one’s own subjects ceased to be the norm (although fascism, Nazi-ism and Stalinist and Maoist Communism attempted to break the deal).

Elsewhere, theocracies or dictatorships continue. Overthrowing despotism does not overthrow the belief systems underneath.

This is the core of the issue – the longer that institutions are allowed to fester, the worse the situation erupts when change takes place. Ossified institutions repress change and thought. The Middle East is worse – the institutions are in a state of rigor mortis. Beneath, the potential for unrest is striking – even with the numbers of liberal-minded, the mass of the populations are poor – in terms of education and wealth.

Chances

In the West, we talk about wanting to give our kids the best chance in life through education. In the Middle East, where we tolerate and even support regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain because of their oil, we are relatively powerless to the onslaughts of hatred.

But, in a global society, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Can we help the Middle East and Africa, so long under the repression of dictators and theocracies, to not just overthrow those elites that bind them but to also embrace a culture that we believe works? Can Western ideals of freedom of thought, religious tolerance (or tolerance of no religion), economic freedom and wealth creation shared amongst the population be brought into the thinking of these countries? Can institutions and sclerotic minds be changed?

As we battle economically with the Chinese (and hope that the repressed emotions between the Chinese and Japanese does not get out of control over Diaoyu / Senkaku), we have to battle with the repressed institutions of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as much as Syria, Libya and Somalia or DRC. This is a never-ending battle of ideas and betterment – the belief that whatever one’s views on the afterlife, ensuring that this life should be a good one is as important and that no individual (or elite) deserves to capture all the chances. Chances have to be spread to as wide a sector of the population as possible.

This is not the culture of 1000 AD – it is the culture of the 21st Century – and a battle that is worth waging. We live in a global economy but also a close-knit world beyond economics – fuelled by communication systems that work to inform and dis-inform – fast and furious.

Opportunities

Old and outdated institutions will, eventually, explode under the weight of their inadequacy. But, explosions can hurt. Just as our own institutions need to be overhauled when they don’t work (and there are many instances of this in the West – where we continuously run the risk of institutional failure) so we should help where it is clear that repression exists through institutional rigor mortis.

Recent moves to support the new opportunities being created in countries like Tunisia and Libya should not be stopped because some of the repressed have not been given chances to improve their understanding of reality and have over-reacted to a film made to incite.  We should now support those like Mohamed Morsi in Egypt who has said: “We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet, but it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad.”

This is an act of bridging – between the repressed and the future – which we should now be supporting. Opportunities have to be developed and out of the super-charged environment, so reminiscent of that which operated over 600 years ago, the West should react positively. Changes may take a long time and we may find that other disasters (such as to our environment) may well get in the way. But, Blair is right on this one. We have to keep engaging.