Gordon Ramsay, Bob Diamond and Prisons


Having recently completed the Three Peaks Challenge I consider myself an expert on punishment.  Aside from the physical exertion, the challenge forced me to spend around 48 hours in close contact with two friends.  It would not be unfair to say that some of the conditions Gordon Ramsay saw when he visited HMP Brixton were luxurious in comparison.  For starters, they are at least dry.

Titled ‘Gordon Behind Bars’ and available on 4OD, the series follows TV Chef Gordon Ramsay on his mission to set up a food business within Brixton prison and get prisoners to pay something back into the system.  For some viewers, the conditions found within HMP Brixton will no doubt have raised a few eyebrows.  Complete with televisions, PlayStations and personal items some cells are comparable to the average teenager’s bedroom.

Indeed, one prisoner arrogantly told Gordon that “it’s an easier life in jail than it is outside.  In here you’ve got everything done for you.”  Given five meal choices each day, access to taxpayer funded degree courses and a plethora of other rehabilitation options the contrast with the thousands of students taking out massive loans for higher education study and living in relative poverty is an obvious one.

It is clear that I am not an expert with regards to the issue of whether prisoners should be shown the cooler or the path to rehabilitation.  Whilst my gut tells me that prisoners should learn to deal with the consequences of their actions and be fed no more than stale bread and water, the reality of the situation is that some people do genuinely need help.  Often victims of their surroundings, it is a well-known fact that more than 50% of all crime is committed by reoffenders.  Aside from the emotional impact upon the victims of crime it must be noted that this constant reoffending is costing the taxpayer a fortune.  When it is considered that this fortune is actually £2 billion a year (or £38 000 per prisoner per year) any new attempts to reduce the reoffending rate should not be scoffed at as the system is clearly currently failing.

Of course, most victims of crime are not interested in the offender’s emotional stability.  For many, even the most extreme implementation of Sharia law would be too soft, this especially true for the majority of the British population when the offender is identified to be a City of London investment banker or hedge fund manager.  Whilst ‘banker-bashing’ is a recent, popular and potentially destructive national pastime, there is a growing fear that a ‘two-tier’ justice system is developing; one in which the poor are doomed to a life of prison, crime and reoffending whereas the wealthy are able to dodge severe punishment through political connections and the hiring of ludicrously expensive lawyers.

This was a point stressed by John Lydon on BBC Question Time only a few weeks ago.  Arguing that wealthy bankers, corrupt politicians and caviar guzzling chief executives were above the reach of the law, Lydon clumsily concluded the mood of much of the nation.  And despite his desperate attempt to incite a revolution and appeal to the masses, Lydon does have a valid argument which can now be investigated whilst public attention is temporarily refocused upon the London Olympics.

Take for instance the recent LIBOR banking scandal.  Having taken the Western financial world by storm, estimated to have caused $1.5 trillion damage and increased misery to millions of ordinary mortgage payers the total theft is likely to be the largest fraud operation ever seen within the market to date.  And as of the 30th July 2012, not one person has been arrested.  Aside from the Chief Executive of Barclays, Bob Diamond, resigning and being asked to appear before the Treasury Select Committee on July 4th, the only other punishment has been a record breaking fine imposed by regulators in both the United Kingdom and United States.  Whilst severe, the £290 million fine is only a fraction of the £4.2 billion profits that Barclays has made so far this year.

Conversely, the action taken against those at the other end of the spectrum is far more severe in comparison.  After stealing £3.50 worth of bottled water during the London riots in the summer of 2011 electrical engineering student Nicolas Robinson was jailed for six months.  Whilst his actions are impossible to defend, the ‘two-tier’ system Lydon refers to could not be more obvious.  Should the law be applied equally Bob Diamond, half the Barclays board and several key bankers involved in the scandal would be serving lifetime sentences within a maximum security prison.

Despite the above, this article should in no way be seen as promoting proletarian uprising.   Infact I suspect that both wealthy and poor criminals have more things in common than a desire to act dishonestly.  Whilst interviewing one of the prisoners in HMP Brixton, inmate Lawrence Gibbons claimed that he didn’t care ‘about any of the victims’ in any of the cases he had been involved in throughout his 45 year existence.

What are the odds that Bob Diamond feels the same?


Achtung! Time to rearm Germany?

Speaking recently, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond explicitly called upon Germany to help ‘deliver more useable firepower to the NATO alliance’ and Europe, adding that the Second World War had happened a long time ago.  Stan Boardman would no doubt be incredulous at such a statement, probably screaming ‘The Germans?  They bombed our chippy!’  It is also safe to say that anyone else who was affected by Hitler’s destructive war machine and racial policies would be distinctly unimpressed too.  However, with the imminent collapse of the Euro and a US military pivot to Asia only months away is it time for Germany to substantially increase their military capabilities in a bid to offset a rapidly weakening European NATO?

On the face of it there doesn’t seem to be much need.  As the world’s foremost military power the United States has taken an active interest in the military protection of Europe since the Second World War through the operation of a large network of bases and training facilities.  Additionally, both Britain and France feature fourth and fifth respectively on lists accounting for global arms spending.  As usual though, statistics and broad foreign policy statements do not tell the whole story.

Whilst big spenders, the literal ‘bang’ that Britain and France gets for their ‘buck’ has diminished distinctly since 2010.  Grappling with huge structural deficits, the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review announced eye-watering cuts which resulted in the early retirement of a British aircraft carrier capability, serious reductions in mechanised infantry and compulsory redundancies for thousands of highly trained soldiers, airmen and sailors.  Furthermore, further announcements by the Ministry of Defence have highlighted the need to shed another 4000 posts by 2017; such cuts no doubt shattering the illusion that Britain can unilaterally project anything more than a few missiles around the globe.

Likewise, whilst grappling with their own financial difficulties the United States has also been forced to make some tough choices.  Recognising the dramatic rise of a resurgent, territorial and potentially economically unstable China, President Obama recently announced a new American foreign policy doctrine – one in which American military power is directed away from Europe and towards Asia.  Indeed, the Americans are canny enough to realise that the 21st Century will belong to Asia, not Europe.  Ultimately this means that Europe is no longer completely protected by the United States.

Whilst politically damaging for European outsiders such as Britain, the shedding of NATO military resources and an American pivot to Asia is more worrying for Europe and the future of a young, incoherent and militarily weak European Union.  It is an unmistakable historical fact that Europe has only known continued peace and prosperity for as long as the NATO alliance has enabled stability within Western Europe; as a former Cold War battleground and largely responsible for two World Wars the European borders are among the most politically unpredictable and volatile regions on the planet.

To find evidence of this you do not have to look far.  For instance, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia created a multitude of problems for the European Union which were made more so complex by limited European firepower and an almost complete lack of support from Washington for a prolonged military operation.

Likewise, continued Russian support for the morally bankrupt, repressive and repulsive Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad despite massive international pressure highlights the issues that the European Union is likely to face in the future.  Bordered in the East by Russia and former Soviet Bloc states, the European Union will no doubt be expected to respond to further Russian provocations now Moscow is awash with cash due to a current commodity boom.  Additionally, with further ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions predicted in the Middle East it is almost a certainty that European military forces will be required to undertake combat roles with increasing frequency.  A NATO strengthened by Germany would undoubtedly help to ease pressures on both American and European allies.

After reading the above you would be forgiven for thinking that I am an arms dealer in favour of creating a ‘fortress Europe.’  However, whilst amusing, such assumptions would be incorrect.  As the most populous country with the largest economy in Europe, Germany increasingly finds herself as the leading European power to which all others seek guidance and support.  Indeed, all recent European economic solutions have focused upon using the strong German economy as a base for either bailouts or recovery options.  Ensuring that Germany has the military firepower to match economic and political capabilities is only fair.

And as the strongest and richest Eurozone nation, the colossal might of the German economic machine could be used to ensure that even when other NATO allies are sacrificing military units the security of Europe is not affected.  Undoubtedly, a strong European economic recovery would no doubt greatly benefit from a continued secure, stable and confident Europe, supported by a strong and confident Germany.

Everyone deserves a second chance, right?

When I grow up I want to be a…


Well, that’s what the five year old me used to say.  And after that obsession fizzled out I triumphantly declared that I wanted be a pilot.  Unfortunately the closest I ever got to that dream was tying the dog to the back of an aeroplane shaped climbing frame in the park and pretending to fly to some exotic and far flung destination.  The realities of life soon set in.

At secondary school you could ask me the above question and I would not be able to give a meaningful answer.  Infact, if you’d have asked me the same question at my university graduation I would have again have struggled to give a meaningful answer.  It was only after a disastrous foray into a company which promised better things that my mind was sharpened enough to actually sit down and think about my future.  And even now, I only have an aim.  The effects of a bitter financial crisis, double-dip recession, austerity and the Leveson Inquiry could quite easily conspire to derail my future plans at any given time.  After all, print journalism is a dying trade and thanks to News International journalists are only a couple of notches above bankers and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the global hate index.

Anyway, that is all beside the point.  For many people their ambitions and dreams have been placed on ice since the 2008 financial crisis.  A deep recession, low growth and biting austerity measures across the Western hemisphere have created a sickening cocktail which has plunged an entire generation into despair.  Currently, over 1 million people in the United Kingdom under the age of 25 are unemployed.  Countless more are still living at home and working dead-end jobs, biding their time and praying for that elusive opportunity to appear.  However, does the shock election of Francois Hollande offer a glimmer of hope to the millions negatively affected by a crisis which was created in a distant land and paid for by their taxes?

At first glance, it does.  Francois Hollande has explicitly stated that he is “the President of the youth of France.”  Standing against European and Western austerity, Hollande has spoken passionately throughout his election campaign and promised to refocus EU financial efforts from austerity to growth.  Although vague, current ‘radical’ policies of Hollande include the creation of 60 000 new education posts, a ‘squeeze on the rich’ and the implementation of a 75% tax rate for the super rich.  When combined with the complete Greek rejection of austerity are the troika demands for deficit reduction, austerity and tax rises dead in the water?  After all, it does pay for the currency sharing European nations to row in the same direction and strive to avoid the potential implosion of the Eurozone.

Unfortunately even with the election of Francois Hollande the policy of European wide austerity is far from dead.  Constrained by the very same financial markets that created the economic crisis and with French public sector spending currently accounting for around 57% of GDP, Hollande will undoubtedly be forced to continue with many of the policies laid out by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.  Quite simply, the unvarnished truth is that France must find 18 billion Euros of cuts by next year to maintain favourable to the markets and keep bond yields below the psychological danger zone of 7%.  And, as a reminder for those who think the impact of the markets is overhyped it is worth remembering that they have already helped to claim the scalp of several European governments; including that of the infamous Italian Lazarus, Silvio Berlusconi.

It is therefore highly likely that once the hype around Hollande and his ‘rejection of austerity’ has died down the new French President will be limited to making a few token populist gestures; paid for by the increased taxation of the rich.  As if to reiterate this point, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already fired a shot across the bow of the new socialist President, warning that any previously agreed fiscal compacts were ‘not up for grabs.’

So, how does the recent European ‘rejection of austerity’ affect the millions of families across Britain who are struggling to make ends meet and the hundreds of thousands of well-educated young people unable to find a job with a promising career?  The simple answer is that it doesn’t.  Well, not really anyway.

Infact, to many of the public the only signs of any European spending will come from seeing a more confident Ed Miliband and subsequently resurgent New Labour exploiting the small benefits that any increased spending by a socialist President will no doubt bring.  And also obviously Francois Hollande is the President of the Republic of France and not the United Kingdom.  Aside from a few minor concessions on controversial tax issues such as the ‘granny tax’ and ‘pasty tax,’ it is highly unlikely that Osborne and Cameron will make a U-turn to dramatically increase spending.  Such an approach was confirmed only earlier today in the annual Queen’s speech and an Andrew Marr interview in which Osborne laughably declared that “the national mood is now very much behind the deficit plan.”

Evidently people aren’t.  Especially if you’re a pasty-eating pensioner with large savings and an unemployed grandchild.

Held over a barrel

‘Without fuel, they were nothing. They built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear.’

No, I have not gone mad.  The above is actually the opening narrative to Mad Max 2, although with the long lines of vehicles forming queues across the United Kingdom and panic stricken motorists greedily filling any available container with fuel last week a historian working centuries in the future would be forgiven for thinking that these events actually did happen in March and April, 2012.   I am of course referring to the self-made fuel shortages that have dominated the national new spectrum for the past two weeks.  With so much press attention currently fixed only upon the scenes seen at petrol station forecourts and government incompetence, what is all the fuss about?

Well, in the first instance the fuel shortage crisis began when the fuel tanker drivers became disillusioned with their employers.  Citing concerns over pay, health and safety laws, pensions and an increasingly harsh working environment, the drivers turned to their representative Union, Unite.  Although talks were held over the last year these were unproductive and tanker drivers were instead balloted over strike action.  Signalling ‘overwhelming’ support in favour of strike action, the drivers refrained from announcing when a potential strike would take place, instead using the threat of strike action as a far more effective tool for gaining media attention.  Whilst most members of the public were oblivious to the developing crisis others began to panic buy, filling their tanks and stockpiling fuel having remembered the catastrophic consequences of the year 2000 fuel strikes within the United Kingdom.

It was at this stage that Whitehall chose to offer advice to motorists – even though a strike had yet to be confirmed and the panic buying elements of the public were currently in the minority.  On the 28th March, 2012, Cabinet Minister Frances Maude publicly stated on Sky News that people should take ‘sensible precautions’ and maintain a jerry can full of fuel at home.  Instantly criticised by the Fire Brigades Union this advice was later withdrawn for being incorrect and potentially unsafe.  However, with social media as the catalyst the damage had already been done; forecourts were swamped with motorists looking to fill their tanks and shops such as the motoring giant Halfords were reporting that jerry can sales had increased by 600%.

So, having created mass panic with the mere threat of striking do Unite and the tanker drivers have a legitimate reason to strike?  At a first glance it would appear that they do not.  Whilst fuel tanker driving is unquestionably an extremely dangerous job and Unite has insisted that the strike is not about pay, it should be noted that the drivers are paid an average of £45 000 per year and that all have been offered an extra £250 bonus for two hours extra work per day to resolve any shortages at petrol stations.  For many families who are struggling to contend with rising fuel, food and living prices, reports of such wages have only served to alienate large chunks of public support.

However, this does not mean that we should adopt a Thatcher-esque mentality and prepare for a protracted and bitter dispute simply because these people are well paid.  Neither should we follow the example of American ex-President Ronald Reagan and sack all strikers, replacing them with military staff as a temporary measure.  Instead, we should accept that the tanker drivers and Unite do have a valid and legitimate argument.

Although vague in their Health and Safety demands, it is unquestionable that Health and Safety should be paramount in any job, within reason.  Aside from the armed forces and other well-known dangerous jobs, employees should not have to fear that their lives and the lives of others are in danger because of cost cutting.  Clearly, if the drivers of vehicles laden with more than 40 000 litres of highly combustible liquid are concerned that lessons from the 2005 Buncefield Oil Refinery disaster have not been studied and recommendations implemented they undoubtedly have reason to strike provided that they have followed the correct grievances procedure.

The aftermath of the 2005 Buncefield Oil Depot explosion

Additionally, the tanker drivers are concerned over pensions.  Due to the way that contacts are managed, some drivers have had three changes of employer in a year; this often affecting pension schemes as different contracts allow for different entitlements.  For companies reporting profits that are measured in tens of billions, not millions, this is unfair.  Surely such vast and profitable companies should be able to offer employees a certain amount of stability so that they can effectively plan for the future?

Ultimately talks are being held this week by the conciliation service ACAS to try and resolve the crisis before a flashpoint is reached.  Provided that the issues raised are not merely a smokescreen for bartering and increased pay the tanker drivers and Unite obviously have my support, for now.  However, I would like to stress that my support is not unwavering.  Evidently, our battered and fragile economy cannot currently afford to take risks and when holding important jobs which both metaphorically and literally ‘fuel’ Western civilisation, the drivers and unions should learn to be far more responsible.  Striking must remain a last resort and treated with the same level of caution with which the President of the United States treats the American nuclear arsenal.  They would be wise remembering that politics and public sympathy can soon change.

After all, it is an unearned privilege that 2062 people are able to hold the entire country to ransom.

Penguins, Princes and Crude Oil

Home to an estimated 500 000 penguins and until recently Prince William the Falkland Islands have an undeniably rich military history and even rich biodiversity.  Uninhabited by humans until the 16th Century, the ownership of the islands has been bitterly contested for generations between European powers in their quest for Empire and riches.

Situated only 300 miles from the Falkland capital Stanley, Argentina has regularly peddled the claim that the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas in Argentina) and their inhabitants belong to Argentina.  Although vociferously refuted by the British government Argentina has refused to modify its stance throughout the years on such grandiose claims; this infamously culminating in the unsuccessful 1982 invasion in which 649 Argentinian and 255 British military personnel lost their lives.

Whilst still reeling from the events of 1982 Argentina is far from silenced.  Indeed, Buenos Aires is currently engaged in a severe diplomatic (and increasingly confrontational) spat with the United Kingdom.  Why?

At face value the answer is surprisingly simple.  Rocked by domestic problems, Argentina under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has suffered from an agonising inflation rate that is among the highest in the world.  Estimated at around 25% per year, only the modern day dictatorships of Venezuela and Belarus can compete in worldwide rankings.  Furthermore President Kirchner has authorised a clamp down on Argentinian media by limiting the importation of newsprint to ‘authorised’ publishers and expanding controls over the content journalists can cover.  And in a final draconian sweep Kirchner has recently introduced a new ‘Terror Law;’ this allowing the state to imprison people for up to 15 years when convicted for a variety of trivial ‘offences’ that range from marching in protests to pulling money from banks in a highly probable economic crisis.

Faced with such unpopularity and domestic criticism, the Argentine government has developed a novel solution which centres almost solely on the Falklands.  Knowing that any rhetoric contesting the sovereignty of the Falklands maintains support, President Kirchner has chosen to whip up a frenzy of anti-British sentiment within Argentina.

Citing the recent stationing of Prince William in the Falklands as a Search and Rescue pilot, President Kirchner has lambasted the British government by declaring that such a stationing is a policy of militarisation by ‘a crude colonial power in decline.’  In retaliation UK Prime Minister David Cameron has blasted Argentina for pursuing a ‘policy of confrontation,’ simultaneously causing outcry in Buenos Aires by suggesting that Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands is a form of colonialism.

It should be noted that this diplomatic bickering is nothing new.  Since the formation of the United Nations in 1945 Argentina has attacked Britain both diplomatically, economically and militarily.  Likewise, the United Kingdom has largely done the same.  However, what is concerning Whitehall this time is the ferocity and extent of Argentine action.  For the first time since 1982, there is a fear that Argentina has lit the fuse of a political powder keg which has the potential to alter the balance of the entire region.

In addition to economic embargoes, diplomatic spats and legal intimidation, President Kirchner has succeeded in cajoling several high profile South American nations such as Peru, Chile and Brazil into an anti-British pact.  For example, only last month it was confirmed that several South American nations had been persuaded to turn away Falklands-flagged vessels from their ports.  Furthermore, in a recent high profile move Peru cancelled a scheduled visit by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Montrose as an act of solidarity with Argentina in its dispute with the UK over the Falkland Islands.

Although the Falkland Islands are believed to be virtually impenetrable in Western military circles, the recent British Strategic Defence and Security Review undertaken by the ruling coalition government has no doubt emboldened President Kirchner’s resolve.  Likewise, comments from high-profile Major Generals regarding current British Royal Naval capabilities have almost certainly not helped deter any Argentinian threat.  For many though, the increased Argentine threats and blustering regarding the Falklands have little to do with past grievances or a lack of British military clout.  Instead, the highly charged dispute has emerged due to the recent discovery of vast amounts of commercially viable oil – in 2010 Rockhopper Exploration announced that their preliminary Sea Lion well was commercially viable and that the oil was of a good enough quality to extract.

Showcasing the British ‘fair play’ mentality, the government had offered to share some oil revenue with the Argentinian government – even after the most recent threats.  Of course, to a faltering Argentine economy playing hardball to get the best deal possible is a valid strategy.  Flush with ‘free’ money, President Kirchner would be in a position to offer industry and individuals financial incentives as a means of ensuring political dominance.  In a country with severe economic and political problems such an outcome would no doubt be extremely well received.

Oil: the real reason Argentina is interested in the Falkland Islands

So, despite all the doom and gloom how is the situation likely to play out regarding the Falklands?

Well, it is blindingly obvious that the UK Government will not surrender the islands to Argentina without a fight.  This is not only because the islanders have insisted on numerous occasions that they wish to remain British and under the protection of the United Kingdom, but also because no British government could survive losing the Falklands as they have become a totem of British foreign policy.  David Cameron has more or less explicitly stated this policy by clearly maintaining that there will be no negotiation on the status of the Falklands.  In the meantime Argentina is likely to continue their policy of confrontation for the foreseeable future, or at least until meaningful negotiations are entered into regarding oil extraction and the 30th anniversary milestone of the invasion has passed.

Although grim, this does not mean that we should expect a military confrontation.  The dispatching of HMS Dauntless and unconfirmed reports that British submarines patrol the area are designed to deter aggression – not provoke it – whilst the stationing of Prince William on the islands for 6 weeks has given the conflict an international audience with a British bias.   It is also worth noting that Britain and the EU are quietly making it known to Argentina’s South American allies that trade sanctions work two ways.

This is not exactly gunboat diplomacy.  But it is effective.

Rebels without a clue

As my work colleagues will no doubt happily confirm a number of issues this last week have managed to elicit responses from me that would be unprintable in any mainstream media.  Aside the usual frustrations of monotonous office life, I have found myself aggravated by the seemingly endless number of overnight activists who have suddenly popped up out of nowhere and found a cause célèbre hours after watching one piece of emotive propaganda.  Despite the majority having done no further research, millions of people have still felt the need to share their newly acquired moral compass and cause with the rest of the connected, mainly Western world – in the process clogging up my newsfeed with their tiresome and often fake words of support for a popular cause.  Or as American President Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘jumping on the band wagon.’

I am of course referring to the viral video and subsequent internet phenomenon that is ‘Kony 2012.’  Produced by Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, the Kony 2012 video and campaign has the explicit aim of stopping Joseph Kony – the real life villain of the film and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  Desperate for Uganda to adopt the biblical Ten Commandments as the constitution, the LRA under Joseph Kony are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for various crimes against humanity; including being responsible for the kidnapping of an estimated 60’000 Ugandan children since 1985.  Used as child soldiers and sexual slaves, these children have been deprived of a childhood and forced to commit acts of murder, brutality and facial disfigurement against millions of ordinary Ugandans in pursuit of LRA objectives.

Before I start venting my frustrations and to avoid being lynched by an internet savvy and idealistic mob, I should probably make it clear that I am not against the very worthwhile aim of naming and shaming Joseph Kony.  By raising his profile and making him recognisable to millions Jason Russell has shone light on the dark and underreported world of Ugandan affairs.  This blog here briefly explains why ‘#stopKony’ is so powerful and potentially worthwhile.  However, this is where my support for the campaign ends.

Whilst the events in recent years in Uganda are impossible to defend and the LRA’s actions inexcusable, it is clear that the majority of people sharing ‘Kony 2012’ have done little or no further research since watching the very well written, directed and intentionally emotive 30 minute YouTube video.  Within hours, the world now suddenly has millions of armchair generals and Ugandan domestic and foreign policy ‘experts’ despite the video containing little factual information.  By simply sharing and watching one part of a link, many feel that they have done their bit towards making the world a better place.  Worryingly, many believe they are fully informed.

Blissfully unaware of other repressed people in the world and indeed Africa, many of these social media activists naively think that a successful social media campaign fought through a shady organisation and conflicting facts will enable Kony to be found and brought before the ICC.  Even more naively, some believe that the capture of Joseph Kony is the single key to unlocking the successful future of Uganda as an independent and stable country.  Sadly however, this is not the case.

Joseph Kony: Leader of the LRA, wanted by the ICC and responsible for countless atrocities committed in Eastern Africa

Formerly a British Protectorate, Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa.  Bordered by Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda is a melting pot of different ethnic groups; none of which are sizeable enough to form a majority of the population.  Suffering from continued armed internal resistance, Uganda has been ruled by no fewer than 11 presidents since independence in 1962; the most recent being Yoweri Museveni who has held power uninterrupted since 1986.  Famed for bringing stability and economic growth to the dusty nation, Museveni has recently been criticised for harassing democratic opponents and lifting the Presidential term limit to enable him to remain in office indefinitely.  Add to this the fact that Joseph Kony and the LRA are rumoured to have fewer than 1000 members (not even in Uganda anymore), and it soon becomes clear that Uganda’s problems will not stop with the arrest, extradition and imprisonment of one man and his child army.

Simply sharing a video and a desire to remove Kony from the equation will not change any of these things.  Infact, all the attention that is currently being showered on Joseph Kony has enabled the problems with Museveni and the current Ugandan administration to be overlooked.  There is even evidence to suggest that it may even make the situation worse.  Whilst I have briefly mentioned Museveni ushering himself into a fourth Presidential term, it should also be noted that under Museveni Uganda has developed into one of the most corrupt countries on earth where social services are minimal and human rights abuses well documented.  Indeed, recently proposed legislation by Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati has called for homosexuality (already illegal and punishable by a prison sentence) to be met with either the death penalty or life imprisonment.

A recent groundswell of support for the Ugandan government may provide Museveni with additional funds, support and military hardware that is likely to only exacerbate civil rights abuses within the country.  Endorsed by major celebrities, the #stopKony campaign looks set to grow stronger despite concerns over the transparency and integrity of Invisible Children.  And already viral, the video is likely to top 100 million views within the next week.

Let’s hope that people start to see the bigger picture.

Red Alert 2

It is 20 years since the Cold War ended in Europe with the total collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since then, high-level relations between the United States of America and Russia have eased considerably.  In a situation that was unthinkable only 30 years ago, the United States is currently completely reliant upon the Russian Space Program to resupply the International Space Station with American personnel and equipment.  However, with the imminent re-election of the political dinosaur Vladimir Putin and deep divisions within the United Nations Security Council over Syria and Iran, is the world sleepwalking into a Middle East centred superpower showdown?

British Foreign Secretary William Hague certainly thinks so.  In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Hague spoke of his fears that Iranian nuclear proliferation will lead to ‘the threat of a new Cold War in the Middle East.’  Political scaremongering aside, it is highly unlikely that long-standing enemies of Iran such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel would allow Iran to be the sole confirmed nuclear power in the region.  Indeed, there has been frenzied speculation within the Western press that Israel is set to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities this summer.  Worryingly, American intelligence chiefs have only been able to announce that ‘to the best of their knowledge’ Israel is not poised to launch an attack.  For a country that values Israel as a close ally in the Middle East and has such an extensive intelligence network the world over, such statements are hardly reassuring.

It is also true that there is no love lost between the East and West.  From the early 20th Century Russia has been a constant threat to Western prosperity and European ambitions, famously signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany during Europe’s darkest hour which among other things divided Poland and much of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.  However, recently it is the assumed international political unification of China and Russia which is giving commentators cause for concern.

Civilians fleeing shelling by government forces in Syria

For the people of Syria Russian and Chinese unity in opposing Western backed international action has had devastating repercussions.  Despite evidence from the United Nations showing that an estimated 7500 civilians have been killed as a result of shelling and violence in key Syrian cities such as Homs, both Russia and China were the only two members of the United Nations Security Council to veto a watered-down resolution condemning President Assad and calling for him stand to stand down.

This lack of action has had dire consequences, and not just for the Syrian people who are now at the mercy of a reinvigorated and fearless President AssadAlready, political commentators are talking of a ‘proxy’ war; one in which Russia and China are supportive of President Assad’s regime on one side and the United States, European Union and Arab Nations (bar Iran) supportive of the breakaway Syrian National Council on the other. 

Indeed, at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunisia, William Hague confirmed that the United Kingdom was to officially recognise the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the country.   Furthermore, he promised that Britain would ‘intensify’ links with the Council – which at the moment is Syria’s largest and most developed opposition group.  For weeks now, there have been rumours that foreign nations are interfering in Syria by supplying the opposition forces with weapons, training and in some cases men.  Finally, Hague also fired a warning shot towards Russia and China by declaring that “”those who back the Syrian regime from now on will find themselves in an even more isolated and indefensible minority.”  As any amateur historian will confirm, such ‘wars by proxy’ are typical of a ‘Cold War’ and indirect superpower showdown.

Additionally, aside from confrontation over Syria it is the recent actions of the Kremlin which has added to the speculation on whether we are sleepwalking into another superpower showdown.  Despite repeated denials by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a meeting with security analysts and Putin near a nuclear weapons research centre was most revealing.  When speaking, Putin stated that he did not see a ‘chill’ in relations with the United States.  Somewhat paradoxically, he then went on to explain how Russia aims to increase defence spending and refrain from further nuclear missile reductions until conventional weapons can do comparable damage in a bid to compete with the United States.

So, is the world sleepwalking into a superpower showdown, centred on the Middle East?  As has been stated before in this blog, the sphere of international politics is almost impossible to predict and to go any further than analysing the current trends and trajectories of possible outcomes would be foolish.  However, what is certain is that the United States and Europe have been battered by an economic debt crisis, two exhausting wars and a ten year obsession with confronting Islamic radicalism.  The political desire for any prolonged confrontation with a potentially formidable enemy is simply not present.

On the other hand, unlike the United States and European Union both Russia and China are awash with money.  Possessing mammoth foreign currency reserves, Chinese investment is increasingly being sought to bail out a cash-strapped European Union.  The political bargaining this brings should not be underestimated.  Within Russia, high oil prices are being used to fund the renewal and expansion of the previously neglected Russian military, designed solely to offer an alternative to American influence around the globe.

The Middle East is simply acting as a proving ground for a rejuvenated East and a tired, moralistic West.  Much like post-war Europe, two opposing ideologies wish to control a region which is currently experiencing a generational upheaval.  With Syria currently in a state of unofficial civil war, political instability in newly formed Arab nations and an increasingly isolationist Iran in continued pursuit of nuclear technology the pickings are potentially very rich for the victor.  A similar situation in postwar Europe created a 40 year conflict, fought through proxy wars and an ever increasing nuclear arsenal.

Maybe the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were right to move the doomsday clock closer to midnight after all.