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.

An alternate version of this piece can be found here.


Last month I attended the celebration of Nelson Mandela International Day at Kelvingrove Museum. This was a celebration of his legacy, the dramatic changes which have occurred in South Africa over the last 20 years with the end of apartheid, and the small but important role Glasgow played in the downfall of apartheid. Mr. Mandela visited Glasgow in 1993 to receive the Freedom of the City, which he was awarded in 1981. Glasgow was the first city in the world to bestow this honour on the anti-apartheid leader. It took this action when Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress were considered terrorists by many people, including the Thatcher government, as well as the US President, Ronald Reagan. These two leaders, along with many others, provided support to the criminal regime in South Africa as a bulwark against a perceived Soviet threat. Yet, many others saw the South African regime for what it was, and campaigned tirelessly for its removal. Glasgow’s support of this campaign is now seen as prescient.

I was reminded of this when I heard that Glasgow City Council intended to fly the Palestinian flag over the City Chambers on Friday 8 August in support of ‘the innocent people who are being hurt in Gaza.’ Given the extremely fraught and sensitive nature of the situation, this obviously set off a firestorm of controversy and accusations of bias. The Glasgow Jewish Representative Council said it was ‘angered and hurt’ by this decision. Given the sensitivity and inevitable offense caused, was this the right decision?

Let us look at a few facts. Palestine has been occupied by Israel for decades. There is little controversy over this. Even though Israel tries to claim that it no longer has control over Gaza, this flies in the face of the fact that it controls most of Gaza’s borders – including access by sea – decides who goes in and out, decides what goods go in and out, and reserves the right to invade militarily or assassinate people it deems terrorists. This is the functional equivalent of occupation, even if it does not maintain a permanent on the ground presence. Israel periodically invades Gaza. It claims this is to protect itself from terrorists, but in fact it is intended to maintain the occupation. Should Hamas be firing rockets willy nilly into Israel where they might kill innocent civilians? Of course not, but the damage these rockets have done is minimal compared to the damaged inflicted by Israel over and over again on Gaza. Does Gaza (and the rest of Palestine) have a right to resist occupation? Undoubtedly. Unfortunately it has few ways to actively resist. And this is one of the things missing from most of the coverage – and indeed from groups who take offense at any criticism of the actions taken by the State of Israel. If the UK had been occupied by the Nazi regime during World War II would the people of Britain have had a right to resist? Of course. I am not making a comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany, but the broader point is certainly apt. Certainly the French had a right to resist the Nazi occupation.

Further, how many people have been killed by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza? According to the website Mondoweiss, the answer is 40. This is not 40 in the most recent round of attacks. This is 40 from 2001 until the present. 27 of these were civilians and 13 were military. In the most recent ‘war’ – I use this term advisedly since there has been an ongoing war against the Palestinians for decades, sometimes it just does not seem like it – the figure is 13. All but two (or three) of these were military targets, which would be legitimate targets in a war – including a war of resistance against an occupation.

How many people have been killed in Gaza during the most recent phase of the ongoing conflict? Close to 1900, most of whom have been civilians. Israel claims that it scrupulously avoids targeting civilians, but the numbers demonstrate otherwise. So 1900 vs. 13 – a 146 to 1 ratio. 146 Gazans have been killed for every Israeli killed. And the proportion of civilian deaths is vastly higher in Gaza, even though Israel claims to target only Hamas while asserting that Hamas targets civilians. It is clear that civilians are bearing the brunt of the ongoing conflict which aims to reinforce the occupation.

Who is in need of solidarity? I think the answer is clear, and this only barely touches on the criminal occupation of broader Palestine for many decades. Should Glasgow City Council be flying the Palestinian flag? I say yes – and proudly. The Gazans – and Palestinians more generally – are in desperate need of support and solidarity. Large numbers of people are being slaughtered in a grossly disproportionate war which is not going to solve anything. Even if the tunnels are destroyed, they will be rebuilt, and more generally the underlying situation – illegal occupation – will still be there. There is no military solution to this situation.

What about the criticism from the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council? Is the Council taking sides? Yes, it is siding with the people of Gaza who are under illegal occupation and disproportionate collective punishment. I would think that anyone of conscience – whether Jew or not – would want to condemn the slaughter of innocent civilians. Further, being Jewish does not necessarily mean that one supports everything that the State of Israel does. There are many Jews who do not support the actions in Gaza or the wider occupation, and believe that the occupation is bad for Israel. And this should be a clear point – criticism of the State of Israel does not equate to anti-semitism, as so many of Israel’s extreme supporters assert, in the same way that when I criticise the US – the country of my birth – for its excesses in the so-called ‘war on terror’ I am not anti-American.

As to the criticism that this is just ‘gesture politics’ and will not lead to peace, Glasgow’s actions in 1981 could be described as just ‘gesture politics’, athough they were part of an expanding wave of ‘gestures’ which eventually forced the collapse of the apartheid regime. Will this one act lead directly to peace in the Middle East? Of course not. But this one act of conscience will hopefully combine with an ever increasing number of acts of conscience, including the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, to put pressure on Israel to bring its slaughter of innocents to a conclusion and end the occupation.



See an updated version of this post here.


Today, the UN Security Council made a little bit of history when it passed Resolution 2165 which allowed the delivery of humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas of Syria without government approval. This is a long time in coming. Many parts of Syria have been no go areas for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, either because the government would not allow access to areas it controlled, or it would not allow access to areas under rebel control. There are 10.8 million people in need in Syria, including 6.5 million internally displaced persons (on top of the 2.9 million refugees in neighboring countries and more than 170,000 dead), two-thirds of which are in hard to reach areas. The UN, ever mindful of questions of sovereignty, was reluctant to deliver aid in rebel-controlled areas without government consent. According to UN Humanitarian chief Valeria Amos, this resolution will make it possible to reach 2.9 million people who were previously out of reach because of concerns over Syrian sovereignty.

The food will be delivered via four border crossings, and the UN will be responsible for checking the aid shipments to ensure that they do not include weapons. This has been a concern (not particularly well-founded) of western governments – including the UK who have tried to prevent individuals and aid convoys from traveling to Syria because of fears that they will, instead, join or support radical movements in Syria. But the bigger concern will be the fact that some of the areas are held by organizations such as ISIS – which even Al Qaeda at times has considered too extremist, and which is currently waging war against the Iraqi government (and people). How does one weigh the need to get food to people with the virtual certainty that some of will be siphoned off by such groups. This is not a new concern, but will require careful consideration as the UN engages with new types of actors in its attempts to deliver humanitarian assistance.

This is hardly the first time that a government has attempted to use denial of humanitarian assistance against its enemies. What is different here is that the UN – a state-based organization committed to upholding state sovereignty – will be going against the direct wishes of the Syria government (even as the resolution reaffirms Syrian sovereignty). While there are expectations that states will allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to all on its territory – even to rebel-held areas – it has not been at all clear that under international law the UN had the right to go against state wishes – and it certainly has been reluctant to do so.

In April, 35 legal experts issued a letter asserting such a right. They pointed out that: 1) the UN would clearly meet criteria for legitimate humanitarian action; 2) that what is required is the consent of the parties who control territory; and 3) that it is illegal to withhold consent for the delivery of assistance except for valid legal reasons – which are not present in Syria. This was a somewhat unorthodox – but not completely novel – interpretation of international law. But it does indicate a fairly radical shift at the UN and elsewhere – which has been developing over the last 20 years – in understandings about the relationship between governments and their people. This Security Council action is a continuation of this, and as such could be interpreted as an implementation of the responsibility to protect which the World Summit recognized in 2005. This asserts that states have the primary responsibility to protect their people, but when they violate this responsibility the international community – through the UN Security Council – can step in to protect people. Ignoring Syria’s wishes is a recognition of Syria’s failure to protect its people and respect international law, as well as the international community’s responsibility to protect people in the absence of adequate state action.

On the other hand, this resolution can also be considered a failure of the responsibility to protect, given that 170,000 people have been killed and more than 9 million have been displaced – all without the UN lifting a finger to stop the atrocities committed by the government, as well as anti-government groups. It has stood by, blocked not only by Russian and Chinese vetoes, but also lack of interest by Western governments in taking the action necessary to protect civilians. It is good that more people may now be able to receive humanitarian assistance. What is not good is that fact that they need it in the first place. Food and medical care will not solve the situation and will not, in the end, protect people from government or rebel atrocities. The Security Council should not be allowed to rest on its laurels, but rather should be held to account for its failure over the last three years to adequately address the continuing conflict.

Today the government said that it would take in up to 500 refugees from Syria. This has been portrayed as a major humanitarian gesture. While I applaud the government for finally agreeing to help a small portion of the most vulnerable fleeing from an escalating conflict, this decision must be put in its proper perspective. Doing so reveals the problematic nature of the debate over Syrian refugees – and Syria more generally – and the government’s commitments or lack thereof to true humanitarian protection.

First, let us look at the scale of the crisis. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, 9.3 million Syrians are in need of assistance. This is 43% of the population of Syria. 6.5 million people are displaced within Syria. Another 2.3 million have fled to neighbouring countries. Lebanon has 868,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan hosts 566,000 Syrians, and Turkey 566,000. Others are bottled up in cities like Homs where the government has prevented aid from being provided. This makes Syria one of the largest humanitarian crises the world has seen.

Second, the UN has requested that Western countries take in as many as 30,000 refugees in total. The UK has refused to formally sign up to this initiative. Rather, it has said that it will pursue a parallel initiative. This 30,000 is 1.3% of Syrian refugees, and .03% of all displaced Syrians. The 500 potential refugees the government has said it will accept is equivalent to .02% of Syrian refugees or .006% of Syrian displaced. It also pales in comparison to the commitment made by Germany to take in 10,000. The UK’s commitment is equivalent to .0008% of the UK population, while for Germany it is .01% of its population. Let me repeat that number: .0008%! And it is .06% of the number of Syrian refugees Lebanon is hosting. Why did it take so long for the government to accept such a miniscule number of people?

Third, even the commitment to accept these 500 has been made under duress. The government points to the £600 million it has provided in humanitarian assistance. This is a lot of money. However, one might note that this is .02% of UK GDP. Put in this perspective, it is a rather small amount of amount relative to the wealth of the UK. The UN needs much more from the UK and other countries to feed and clothe and just keep alive millions of people.

However, this is about a lot more than money. The government notes that it is providing a lot of money relative to other countries. This is true. It also argues that because it is providing all this money it is exempt from other measures, including taking in refugees. It is paying money to keep refugees bottled up in the region. This is a cynical ploy to keep the effects of a conflict which it and other Western governments have ineptly handled from reaching our shores. Instead, other countries, and especially those in the region, are expected to deal with the crushing mass of humanity fleeing mass atrocities. This is not a new phenomenon. For years Western governments have preferred to throw money at humanitarian crises and allow others to deal with the actual physical aftermath of these crises – i.e. people.

The current debate over a few refugees is tied into much broader debates about immigration. Immigrants are made scapegoats for our economic woes. So we keep out Bulgarians and Romanians and, indeed, those fleeing mass atrocities to protect ourselves, while those who destroyed the global economy as a result of their greed (or ‘bad decisions’ according to the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland) give themselves obscene bonuses – instead of being put in jail for crimes against the global economy. Yes, we must be wary of all those hardworking Eastern Europeans who are going to take our jobs and drain our coffers. And since we are scared of them, we will also put all other categories of immigrants (except, of course, those who will bring large amounts of money into the country), including refugees, together under our anti-immigrant banner.

And it has taken Nigel Farage – Nigel Farage!!! – to delink refugees from other immigrants. Although in full UKIP mode he seems to have backtracked and indicated that the UK should just take Christians. This tells us exactly what vision he has for who counts as human and who should be given protection. But are the rest of our politicians much better? All the major parties are guilty of demonising immigrants generally and refugees in particular. But the Conservatives deserve special mention. In 2005 the Tories suggested that they would pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention and impose a cap on refugees (even though the UK takes a miniscule amount to begin with). This helps us understand the reluctance to sign up to the UN’s plan and go it alone. (I would make a parallel here with American exceptionalism, but a least the US takes in proportionally vastly more refugees per capita than the UK, so I might be unfair to the US…). Put this reluctance together along with the anti-EU rhetoric spewing from the Tories and the calls to pull out of the European Court of Human Rights and we see a much different vision than the benign, humanitarian vision put forth by David Cameron. The 500 refugees is not a significant humanitarian gesture. Rather, it is the absolute minimum he could get away with in the face of moral outrage.

Further, the conditions for admitting the refugees do not fill one’s heart with a humanitarian glow. Apparently we will only accept the ‘most vulnerable’ – by which is meant, apparently, women and children. It is easier to sell starving children or women who have been raped to your domestic population. They are not as dangerous as men who, coming from that part of the world, are under obvious suspicion for being terrorists. In addition, the government wants to make it clear that they will not be here for very long. They will be given temporary visas for perhaps three years. And then, once the three years are up, if the government so decides it will ship them off back to Syria. This is not resettlement. This is a minimalist version of the temporary protection of Bosnian refugees in the 1990s, which provided few rights for those in fear for their lives. And given the penchant for engaging in dawn raids and bundling people into planes and sending them back to places where they may be in harm’s way, would the 500 feel particularly safe here? Most refugees don’t want to leave their homes and want to go back home when they can. And the vast majority stay in the immediate region of their home countries and once a conflict is truly over are able to go back. But for those few who have been forced to leave their homes and resettle in another part of the world, it is doubly cruel to say to them – you can come here for a few years, but once you have set down roots, made friends, found a job (hopefully they will be allowed to work, but given UK immigration policy, one can imagine all sorts of restrictions on what the 500 will actually be allowed to do), put your children in school, and generally made a new life, we will force you to be uprooted yet again. This is cruel and inhumane, and is certainly not resettlement in any real sense of the word. Rather, it is a minimalist strategy to claim moral kudos in a situation where the UK – and indeed all Western countries – have failed to adequately address a human rights and humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

No Mr. Clegg, this not evidence that the UK is ‘one of the most open-hearted countries in the world’ and it is not a true reflection of ‘a moral responsibility to help.’ Rather, it is evidence of a hard-heartedness based on the politics of fear and xenophobia. Would adding .0008% to the permanent population of the UK irreparably harm the UK (or even .01%)? I don’t think so.

On 12 October the African Union said that the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has 122 members, including 34 from Africa, should not prosecute a sitting head of state. This comes on the heels, most directly, of attempts by the ICC to prosecute Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto for crimes committed during election violence in 2007. But the tension goes back several years more, with a dispute over the attempt to prosecute Sudanese President Omar Hassan al Bashir over the conflict in Darfur, as well as attempts, mostly by European states, to exercise universal jurisdiction and prosecute Africans, and in particular members of the Rwandan government, over violence after the end of the 2004 Rwandan genocide. The AU has repeatedly requested that the proceedings against Bashir and Kenyatta/Ruto be suspended, which only the UN Security Council can do. The AU has argued that the prosecution of Bashir makes it harder for peace to be negotiated in Darfur, although there is little evidence of this. More broader, there are accusations of bias since all prosecutions up until this point have been against Africans. Those making these accusations neglect to mention that some of these cases have come about as a result of African states themselves referring their countries to the ICC for investigation.

What these countries are looking for is, as Desmond Tutu has said, ‘a license to kill.‘ The Rome Statute of the ICC says clearly that one cannot claim immunity from prosecution based on their status as head of state or other official. The 34 African members of the ICC knew this when they ratified the Rome Statute, but now some are having second thoughts once the reality of such prosecutions has hit home. It must be pointed out that African states are not unanimous on this. And with the election of a new African Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, arguments of bias or anti-African conspiracies are even less warranted. As I argued in an article in May 2012 in Human Rights Quarterly entitled “‘Bashir is Dividing Us’: Africa and the International Criminal Court” Africa is dealing with four paradoxes or conflicts which are inherent in evolving discussions about human rights, sovereignty and the role of Africa in the world:

  1. Human rights vs. sovereignty – The international community as a whole has recognized that governments and leaders cannot claim the right to do whatever they want against their people, and the African Union has made a similar recognition in article 4h of its Constitutive Act, which said that the AU could intervene in African countries where the government was engaging in widespread human violations against its people. However, such fundamental shifts do not happen overnight, particularly in an organisation like the AU which still has many leaders which are less than democratic. And it is understandable that even Kenya, which is more democratic, would resist when its leaders are under threat.
  2. Human rights vs. Pan-Africanism – While there is significant support for human rights within Africa, the question of African identity is still very important, and there are situations where support for one’s fellow African leaders may trump support for human rights, in particular when neo-colonial arguments are used to argue against outside interference. This connects to the ‘African solutions for African problems’ which, while a positive statement of intent to deal with significant issues within African, can also be deployed to undermine potentially positive support from outside.
  3. Global vs. regional geopolitics – Africa is struggling to assert its place in the world, and in particular within the UN at the Security Council. It argues that the current make-up of the Security Council, and the global peace and security architecture more generally, is unfair and excludes African voices to a significant degree. This is undoubtedly true, and the AU has demanded, via the so-called Ezulwini Consensus of 2005, 2 permanent seats for Africa on the Security Council (which would likely be filled by South Africa and either Nigeria or Egypt), and an additional 5 non-permanent seats. The chances of this happening are slim, and in any event discussions over Security Council reform, which have been going on for many years, are agonisingly slow. Thus, Africa feels sidelined – even more so when its requests to defer the Bashir and Kenya prosecutions have been ignored. As a result, as I argued, ‘real concerns about the role and sequencing of human rights mechanisms in conflict management fall prey to ideology and geopolitics.’
  4. Peace vs. justice – While concerns that international prosecutions can undermine peace negotiations – as has been asserted in both Darfur and Uganda, for example – are real, they can also represent a false dichotomy. And it is not clear whether things would have been any different in Darfur if Bashir had had not had an arrest warrant issued against him by the ICC. In the case of Uganda, while the ICC warrants for Joseph Kony and his top lieutenants may have both driven the Lord’s Resistance Army to the bargaining table, and then away again, the dynamics are much more complex.

The vote on Saturday by the AU does not provide encouragement for those who want to end impunity for mass atrocities – in Africa or elsewhere. But it must be seen in a broader context and with a significant amount of nuance. Africa as a continent has not suddenly turned away from the ICC and human rights. But, this is evident a continuing argument over human rights and justice, which is ongoing not only in Africa but also in the broader international sphere where norms against impunity are still being developed, debated and discussed.