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Below are opening comments I made at a Roundtable on Gaza on 25 September 2014, sponsored by the Glasgow Human Rights Network.

25 September 2014

Tonight, we have with us four experts from Glasgow on the Middle East and/or of international law and international relations to help us understand the recent developments and eruptions in Gaza and Palestine more generally. First, we have Robin Geiss who is Professor of International Law and Security. Second, is Christian Tams, Professor of International Law. Third, is Naomi Head who is a Lecturer in Politics. Finally, we have Keith Hammond who is a Lecturer in the Centre for Open Studies.

Before we turn to our panelists, I want to make a couple of opening remarks to set the scene for our discussion this evening. First, this topic is very emotionally laden, and people on all sides of the issue hold very strong views. Everybody is entitled to hold their views, but I ask that the discussion be held in a civil manner befitting Glasgow University, and that everybody is given the chance to speak uninterrupted and that everybody’s views are accorded equal respect – even if you fundamentally disagree.

Second, I think it is worth noting that this is the fourth autumn in a row that we have held an even focused on human rights in the Middle East. In 2011, we discussed the astounding events of the Arab Spring. In 2012, we came together with a perhaps somewhat more sober assessment of those events and their aftermath. Last year, we discussed Syria (and recent events have demonstrated we could easily have organised another event with that focus tonight). And tonight we turn our gaze to the most intractable of the many ongoing and interconnected conflicts in the Middle East – the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and its most recent eruption in Gaza. On the one hand, it is gratifying that so many of you have come out this evening – and to the other events. This indicates a significant level of interest and engagement. On the other hand, the fact that we have to keep returning to this region and these issues indicates that the Arab Spring has a long way to go to live up to it original expectations, and that political leaders and international institutions have not done a very good job of dealing with these conflicts.

Third, the title of this roundtable focuses on Gaza, and certainly when this roundtable was first conceived, all the world’s eyes were on Gaza. And the recent events have frequently been portrayed as just the most recent war in Gaza. Yet, this ignores a very fundamental fact – that this particular eruption in violence is tied into a decades-long conflict in Palestine, stretching back to 1948, when the state of Israel was first created, and then to 1967 when the occupation was more formalised as a result of the 1967 war. In the decades since then, there have been periodic attempts at resolving the broader conflict. The dynamics of conflict and occupation have not changed for the better. The occupation remains, and is a daily fact for the people in both Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, the two areas experience the occupation differently. In the West Bank, movement by Palestinians is severely constricted, and there are constant incursions on Palestinian territory, in particular as the Israeli settlements expand. In Gaza, the Israeli military has formally withdrawn, but as we have seen, reserves the right to intervene militarily whenever it chooses. It maintains that Gaza is not occupied, but given that Israel controls most of its land borders, as well as access by sea, and its airport is not functional, it is difficult to describe it as anything else. And since Israel does not recognise a Palestinian state, it is unclear what Gaza would be if it is not occupied territory. Perhaps our international lawyers can shed some light on this. But it uses this portrayal of Gazan self-governance to bolster its claims to self-defense against missiles and mortars emanating from Gaza, while questions of Gazan self-defense against an occupying force are ignored, as are the bigger questions of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Finally, a few statistics about the most recent military engagement in Gaza are in order. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2131 civilians have been killed in Operation Protective Edge. This included at least 1,473 civilians, 279 members of armed groups, and another 379 unknown. So at least 69% of those killed were civilians, and that percentage is probably higher, given that earlier in the fighting it appeared that around 80% of those killed were civilians. On the Israeli side, 71 people were killed. 66 of these were soldiers, 4 were civilians, and 1 was unknown. So around 6% of Israelis killed were civilian. Most Israelis killed were soldiers engaged in operations in Gaza. [As an addendum, I would also note that OCHA observes that: ‘The scale of damage resulting from the 50-day escalation in hostilities is unprecedented since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967.’]

I think one more statistic is relevant here. Between 2001 and August 29th of this year, 44 people in Israel have died from rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza. That is 2% of the people killed during Operation Protective Edge. And if you take into account two other Israeli operations in 2009 and 2012, it is around 1% of the Palestinians killed, again, the majority of whom were civilian. Further, of these 44, 30 were civilians, including 2 killed at a military post. During the most recent violence, 17 have been killed in Israel, with 12 of those killed at military targets. So, more than 125 Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli killed. Or at least 295 Palestinian civilians killed for every Israeli civilian killed. These figures are in no way meant to justify Hamas sending rockets into civilian areas in Israel. However, they do raise very significant issues of proportionality, which I am sure we will talk about more.

With that, I will turn it over to our speakers.

See a slightly different version here.

I moved to Scotland from the US 10 years ago. Little did I know that I would be helping to decide whether Scotland would secede from the rest of the United Kingdom and become an independent country.

I lived in Canada during one of Quebec’s attempts to break away. It failed, as have other attempts, and the independence momentum seems to have slackened, at least for the moment. At the time, I wondered how many attempts a prospective country gets before it is either successful or it throws in the towel.

The answer, of course, is that it depends upon the political circumstances. But from a philosophical perspective, the answer is as many times as is deemed necessary by the people. This is because self-determination as a principle and a right is an ongoing process rather than a definitive end point. Further, the end points may be chimerical.

On the first point, self-determination can mean many things. For a long time in Scotland it meant having its own legal and educational systems. Then it meant having a parliament which could make some decisions on how its people are governed. If the Scottish National Party (SNP) has its way, self-determination will mean an independent state for the people living in Scotland. If the SNP does not get its way, self-determination will likely mean enhanced tax and spend powers, and maybe a few others things devolved from London. There is also talk of more straightforward federalism. There are degrees of self-determination, and most groupings of people who advocate for this experience something dramatically less than independence. Some might say this is exactly why Scotland should go for it now – this is an opportunity that occurs very rarely. Yet, as we have seen in Canada, this is not necessarily the case. Indeed, while the Yes campaign says this is the only chance Scotland will get, it is quite possible that there would be one or more possibilities in the future if this referendum fails.

In 1998 I wrote in a book: ‘For those who aspire to statehood, they may be seeking a prize with decreasing salience as the twin forces of devolution and integration proceed apace.’ I was referring to the new Scottish Parliament and the expanding European Union which provides another layer of identity and sovereignty, and complicates any attempt to situate absolute political authority. Further, given current flows of resources into Scotland from the rest of the UK, as well as the EU, and given constantly evolving immigration and other political regimes, it is difficult to identify sometimes exactly what being an independent country in Europe means.

But most fundamentally, as someone who was born in a country which broke away from the UK more than 200 years ago, there are two positions of the SNP which I cannot understand. First, it wants to keep the Queen. The Queen is the representation of sovereignty in the UK and head of state of a number of other countries, such as Australia and Canada, and more generally a representation of political and cultural power. Why would the SNP want this? If I were to advocate for independence, I would want full political independence, without any political figureheads from the former regime.

In addition, beyond the question of whether or not it would be good for an independent Scotland to use the Pound, why, as an entity which feels it so important to make such a momentous break from the UK, would it not want to make a clean break? This is the same question with regard to the monarchy. It seems, paradoxically, that Scotland wants to become independent but keep some of the best things about being part of the UK.

I also find it a little strange that I, a US citizen and now dual national of the UK, gets to decide on the fate of more than 5 million people (and indeed the fate of more than 60 million given the potential repercussions on the rest of the UK). I understand why this is the case – and why my Scottish in-laws who live in England are not able to vote.

But it also highlights how this referendum is different from many other attempts at secession. Most have been based on ethnicity and/or some sense of oppression. This referendum is different. It is based on perceived political differences rather than perceived oppression (although this does seep out every once in a while, and the tone of the Yes campaign has changed significantly in the past couple of weeks).

I find this both curious and positive. It is curious because there are equally serious politically cleavages in my country of birth. Indeed, the red state/blue state divide seems to be increasingly apparent. I come from a blue state – Massachusetts – and given what I consider to be the extremely destructive politics which have come out of Texas, I sometimes wish Texas would secede. Yet, I also realize that we are part of something bigger and that I will not always get my own way politically. In the same way, while I am in complete opposition to the policies of the Tories (and was not a particularly big fan of New Labour), I realize that Scotland is part of a bigger political system, and that governments come and go.

It is positive in that the divisions are not as fundamental – even if portrayed otherwise – as one frequently finds in these situations. It is also positive because the more social democratic vision provided by the SNP is one that I find appealing – as does the idea of getting rid of Trident from Scottish soil. So, if Scotland does become independent, I would robustly support this vision and would work to keep the SNP true to its word.

However, I am also aware that even with a perceived balance of political opinion leaning in one direction, the political decisions do not necessarily end up in that direction. In Massachusetts – which was sometimes derisively referred to as the People’s Republic of Massachusetts (and which was the only state not to vote for Nixon in 1972) – people have voted for series of Republican governors and even a Republican Senator, not always to the best effect. In the same way, even though the SNP argues that Scotland has a different political perspective from the rest of the UK, the reality is probably a bit more complicated, and long-term there will be many political divisions which are papered over by the Yes side.

And after the first SNP government, what would we get, given that the SNP’s raison d’etre would have disappeared? What happens when the politics can no longer rely on anti-Thatcherism and anti-Toryism as a touch point? Politics would likely be significantly reconfigured, and the unanswered question is whether, in the end, the politics would be fundamentally different than what we have now. I would hope so, but given so many unanswered questions over key issues of policy, it is hard to know.

The Yes side has a compelling vision, but, given the current state of self-determination in Scotland, with more powers promised, and given the fact that there are still too many unanswered questions – Alex Salmond’s assertions on the currency notwithstanding – it is difficult to see exactly what will be gained by breaking up one of the most successful and powerful countries in the world. If the referendum fails this time, I have no doubt there will be another one if people in Scotland really want this.

And if some of the scare stories the Yes campaign has put forth actually come to pass – such as privatization of the NHS in Scotland – and if the Tories and UK Independence Party get their way and withdraw from, or very significantly undermine, the European Union and other European institutions, like the European Court of Human Rights, my perspective might well be different and I might be a campaigner for Yes. At the moment, though, the ephemeral nature of national politics makes me question whether secession and independence is really all it is cracked up to be.

The most recent polls indicate that the outcome is likely to be extremely close. If the vote is Yes, it will be with a very slim majority – one or two percent. Although the Yes side will see this a mandate, this is likely the worst possible outcome. A minority of perhaps 49% will have a dramatic change in their constitiutional arrangements – and many other things – forced upon them via a process which has not tried to foster a broader consensus.

The highly negative campaigning on both sides – but especially on the part of the Yes campaign, where dissenters are classed as ‘bullies’ and all sorts of dubious assertions are made – does not bode well for an open and inclusive process of reinventing Scotland as an independent country. The No side, in a panic over recent polls, has started to promise more powers to Scotland in the event of a No victory. It is unfortunate that this did not happen in a much more systematic and principled way earlier on. If it had, people might have had a more realistic idea of the future possibilities.

And if there had not been such an immediate rush to independence, there might have been more time to create a broader consensus on the need to break away and create a new country which would make creating that country an easier and more positive experience. Strict majoritarian democracy has its positives, but it also has its negatives, including leaving behind very large and unhappy minorities – which, in the end, could undermine the nation- and state-building project.

Either outcome is going to result in a very large unhappy minority. Scotland will not be the same after 18 September. Let’s hope that both sides can move forward positively, whatever the outcome, and contribute to a renewed and reinvented Scotland.

Watching the Salmond-Darling debates, I was struck by one astonishing thing. This was not the continuing sad state of the rather thin debate over the referendum, which makes one despair for the future. That was distressing rather than astonishing.

No, what struck me was Alex Salmond’s assertion that the Pound belongs to Scotland as much as it does to the rest of the UK, and that if the UK did not agree to a currency union, an independent Scotland would not accept its fair share of the debt.

This position ignores a very fundamental fact. If Scotland became independent, it would be a different country from the UK. The UK would be a foreign country. I am not sure the Yes side actually realises this, since it seems to want to keep many of the things that come with not being a foreign country – like the Pound or the Queen.

If Scotland became independent, the Pound would no longer be Scotland’s. It would belong solely as a matter of law and policy to the remaining UK. Yes, Scotland could pull a Panama and use the Pound even if the UK did not agree to a formal union. I am not sure that this would be the best option for a newly independent Scotland, which would lose control over some elements of its economy. And it would be a curious choice for a country which felt so negatively about its association with the rest of the UK that it felt it needed to formally and legally sever that association. Why continue parts of the association if the relationship is so bad?

Further, Scotland would be both morally and legally obligated to take its fair share of the debt. Morally, I would not want to be part of a new country which, after a long and overall productive association, left the UK holding debt which Scotland played a role in incurring. Remember Royal Bank of Scotland? I would feel rather ashamed at this. In addition, the Scottish Government’s vision for an independent Scotland states that it ‘will be entitled to a fair share of the UK’s extensive overseas properties (or a share of their value)…’ Essentially, the SNP is laying claim to assets but denying responsibliity for debt. I have yet to hear an explanation for what appears to be a highly hypocritical position.

Legally, one could imagine the possibility of a rather nasty fight in the International Court of Justice over dividing the debt (and assets) – in much the same way there are frequently nasty fights in the courts over money when two people get divorced. In state divorce – just like in a divorce between two people – one side does not get to make all the decisions. There are legal proceedings and negotiations.

The British government has agreed to participate in negotiations if the vote is for independence. This does not mean, however, that it will agree to everything the SNP demands and give away the store. And nor should it. It has a responsibility to look out for the interests of the rest of the people staying in the UK. If I lived in England or Wales or Northern Ireland, I would expect the government to bargain hard and make sure Scotland took on its fair share of the debt, without any further strings attached – like a currency union.

Alex Salmond’s position is like that of a truculent child who, when he does not get his way, decides to stop playing and go home. Unfortunately, in the case of such a serious situation as breaking up a country, this is not an option. A negotiated settlement, where Scotland takes on its full share of responsibilities in the divorce – including a fair share of the debt – would lead to it being accepted as a respected and responsible member of the international community. A unilateral declaration on certain matters, such as debt, would leave the rest of the world wondering how responsible Scotland would act in the future.