Shamik Das looks back at the week’s politics, including our progressive, regressive and evidence of the week.
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• The brutality of the Assad regime has plumbed new depths.
Here’s the IOS’s Patrick Cockburn with the details of the horrific, unimaginable slaughter of the innocents:
In a massacre of unprecedented savagery that brings Syria close to civil war, some 32 children and 60 adults have been slaughtered in villages in the Houla area of central Syria. Anti-government militants blame pro-regime gunmen for carrying out the butchery in which children and their parents were hacked and shot to death.
The figure for the number of children and adults killed was confirmed in an interview with The Independent on Sunday by General Robert Mood, the head of the team of 300 UN observers which is seeking to reduce the level of violence. “My patrols went into the village,” he said. “I can verify that they counted 32 children under 10 killed. In addition, there were more than 60 adults dead.”
General Mood would not explain how the villagers died, but horrific pictures posted on YouTube appear to show that they were shot or knifed to death, some having their throats cut. The small bodies of the children were covered in sheets as they were taken by survivors screaming in grief and disbelief from the houses where they had been murdered.
The massacre is the worst single incident in Syria’s 14-month crisis because it involved the deliberate murder of children as well as adults.
These heinous acts, though shocking, will come as little surprise given the record of the Assad regime in recent years.
Consider this eyewitness account from pro-democracy activist Hamza Fakher at the start of 2012:
“The repression is so severe that detainees are stacked alive and kicking in shipping containers and disposed off in the middle of the sea.
“It is so bad that they’ve invented a new way of torture in Aleppo where they heat a metal plate and force a detainee to stand on it until he confesses; imagine all the melting flesh reaching the bone before the detainee falls on the plate.
“It is so bad that all demonstrators have opted for armed resistance. They know it is about survival now, not about freedom any more. This needs to be highlighted: Syrians are fighting for their lives now, not for freedom.”
Or that of surgeon Omar al-Hakim, who said doctors were having to set up secret hospitals to avoid the regime’s brutal crackdowns:
“Many people went into those [regular] hospitals with minor injuries, and came out dead… The most important thing is that the place [the secret hospitals] should have two exits, so that we can escape easily if the security forces find us.”
Opposition activists have long pleaded they need help, and “need a no-fly zone… ASAP”, crying out, “we are getting slaughtered, save us”… Once more the eyes of the world turn towards NATO and the UN; the Syrians are powerless, helpless, increasingly lifeless: only intervention can save them now.
3. Adonis: There’s a “state of warfare” between Number 10 and Whitehall Heather Spurr
4. New poll reveals the consensus behind austerity is shattering Steve Hart, Centre for Labour and Social Studies
• The Eurovision song contest was held in Azerbaijan last night. The winners were Sweden. And the Azeri regime of course, for whom yesterday’s extravaganza was a massive pr coup.
• Last May, Azerbaijan secured the right to host this year’s Eurovision song contest thanks to its winning entry “Running Scared”. Only a few months earlier, this is, quite literally, what hundreds of peaceful protesters were doing in downtown Baku, as police violently sought to silence them.
• In Azerbaijan, Eynulla Fətullayev, a 34-year-old editor of two newspapers critical of the Azerbaijani government, has been jail in since 2007 on a series of trumped-up charges designed to silence him.
• Last year, a young activist, Jabbar Savalan, was arrested for posting an article critical of the government on Facebook. Savalan was beaten by police in custody, forced into signing a confession of drug possession and sentenced to two years in jail. In December 2011 he was released by a Presidential pardon.
• In March, at Index on Censorship’s Freedom Of Expression Awards, Azeri journalist Idrak Abbasov won the Guardian Journalism Award. Upon his return to Baku, a group of employees from the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) attacked him viciously while he filmed the forced demolitions of homes on the outskirts of the capital. The police stood by as he screamed for help.
From his hospital bed, he said: “They weren’t just beating me, they were trying to kill me.” Idrak is still unable to walk, his sight and internal organs have been damaged, and his ribs are fractured – this is what happens to journalists in Azerbaijan who speak out against the government.
• Baku, once the world’s leading manufacturer of oil drilling equipment, is now one of the world’s leading centers of oil-toxin cancers. Walking along the main street of Sangachal, the aptly nicknamed, “Terminal Town”, was like doing the rounds in a cancer ward.
The local shoemaker, Elmar Mamonov – who hasn’t sold a shoe in two years – said: “This one’s daughter has breast cancer; there, Rasul had a brain tumor. Cancers we had never seen. His funeral was last week.”
Azlan, afraid to give his last name, paid to have a cancerous lung cut out, because employer BP wouldn’t pay. He says the oil company fired him after he could not keep up with his work.
And there was Shala Tageva, a schoolteacher, who has ovarian cancer. She needs treatment soon, but how to pay for it, Mamonov can’t imagine. Shala is Mamonov’s wife.
• Today, only one in seven dollars of GDP is paid in salaries (versus four of five dollars in the US and UK). Where have the billions gone? No one dare look for it, nor the source of the First Lady’s wealth. The last journalist who asked about the funds, Elmar Huseynov, was gunned down in his home. A journalist who questioned what happened to Huseynov was jailed.
No third journalist is investigating what happened to the first two.
Killings, cancer and corruption: Welcome to Azerbaijan.
• Domestically, the main story remains the economy – with it emerging this week the double-dip recession is worse than previously thought.
The ONS this week said the UK economy shrank 0.3% in the first quarter of 2012, a deeper contraction than the initial 0.2%, down a total of 0.6% over the past two quarters. In the 18 months since George Osborne’s spending review in the autumn of 2010, the economy has shrunk by 0.4 per cent.
On the eve of the revised growth stats, the IMF warned Osborne that, if the economy failed to recover, it was time for Plan B, while a group of leading economists and social scientists, writing in a pamphlet published by Oxfam, went further in demanding a complete change of direction, describing those pushing for ever more austerity as being guilty of “bad economics, bad arithmetic and ignoring the lessons of history”.
All this as a new poll showed the consensus behind austerity is shattering. The YouGov poll, commissioned by the new trade union-backed think tank the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, revealed that, on a range of progressive policy proposals to kick start growth, support ranged from 56%-74%, with 70% of all voters (and 50% of Tories) agreeing “redistributing wealth from the richest in society” is an important aim in settling economic policy.
The right-wing think tanks were also out and about, the Centre for Policy Studies claiming lower taxes lead to higher economic growth – read our rebuttal here – and the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Institute of Directors proposing a further £120,000,000,000 (yes, that’s right, an extra one hundred and twenty billion pounds) of cuts in public spending – see our reports here and here.
Tomorrow on Left Foot Forward, we’ll have the story of the new pan-European campaign against prospect of ever more austerity, “Austerity isn’t working”.
Progressives of the week:
Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), the company behind Holiday Inn and Intercontinental Hotels. This week, it announced it will pay the London living wage in eight managed hotels across the capital. The result is that 850 low-paid IHG staff will now be paid at least £8.30 an hour, far above the minimum wage of £6.08 and at a level that should sustain a minimum standard of living. In the world of low-paid work, this is a big deal.
See here for more.
Regressives of the week:
The 266 MPs who voted against Amendment 40 [Clause 22] of the Financial Services Bill (pdf). The amendment, proposed by Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy, would have effectively made it illegal for pay day loan lenders, aka legal loan sharks, to lend money at exorbitant rates of interest and set maximum amounts lenders, like the infamous Wonga, can charge.
The vast majority of Tory MPs backed the loan sharks and voted down the amendment, though the government did, later in the week, announce support for a self regulation code by legal loan sharks – or, as Creasy put it, “wolf assures red riding hood he’ll look after grandma”.
See here for more.
Evidence of the week:
A report from IPPR’s Jonathan Clifton, on Left Foot Forward, revealing that, based on similar GCSE grades, students from state schools are more likely to achieve a first-class degree at Oxford University than students from independent schools – yet top universities are still favouring the students from privileged background.
See here for more.
The Week Outside Westminster by Ed Jacobs:
“Contrary to the UK government, we will not deride and demonise our public service workforce. In Wales we recognise that the public service workforce is our greatest public service asset.”
Meanwhile, the Western Mail ruffled feathers by calling for plans to publish a full bilingual record of all Assembly proceedings – including committee hearings – to be scrapped altogether:
“An extraordinary recommendation has been made by eight AMs that would see up to £400,000-a-year spent on translating the written record of every meeting held at the National Assembly into Welsh. We say that at a time when budgets are squeezed and public services are being cut, this is a luxury we cannot afford.”
Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson was left red faced as it was confirmed he had managed to inflate the number of new people in work in Northern Ireland by 30,000 as a result of a “typing error” in his briefing material.
Calling on the minister to “do his homework in future”, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker, said:
“This is another example of an out of touch government and Secretary of State. They haven’t got the right policies, and now they can’t even find the right figures…
“These 30,000 made-up jobs don’t make up for the 91,000 pensioners and the 22,500 families in Northern Ireland who are losing out because of the Tory-led government’s Granny Tax and cuts to tax credits… The people of Northern Ireland don’t expect him to get his sums wrong on something as important as this.”
Elsewhere, there were concerns the Treasury was going cool on the idea of devolving powers to set corporation tax to Stormont as political and business leaders united in calling for UK ministers to make the change, finance minister Sammy Wilson telling the Belfast Telegraph:
“It’s like a plumber coming to your house. You tell him what you want done, and then he whistles through his teeth and gives you all the reasons why it will be difficult.”
As the Head of the IMF used a visited to London this week to call on the UK government to do more to get the economy growing, Scottish finance secretary John Swinney called on Westminster to act on the warning:
“There is a growing consensus across Europe, the G8 and now the IMF that we need to invest in growth. The UK government must now act on these warnings and recognise that additional capital spending is the route to support economic recovery.
“With growth flat in the economy, it is now a matter of real and pressing urgency that the UK government increases capital investment levels in a way that the Scottish government has long been calling for. This is the moment to act decisively to stimulate the economy and the UK government must not be an obstacle to recovery in Scotland.”
Meanwhile, the death of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi promoted many commentators across Scotland to warn his passing away should not mark the end, but act as a spur to find out who else was involved. For more read our report here.
Finally, Alex Salmond quit stalling and officially launched the ‘Yes’ campaign for Scottish independence, more than two years ahead of the referendum – but fully five years after the SNP leader became first minister. For more read our report here.
The World Outside Westminster by Ben Phillips:
In the United States, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made an audacious bid for 50 million Hispanic votes with the launch of his first Spanish-language advertising campaign, “Día Uno” (Day One). The ad, the first Romney’s campaign has aired since Ron Paul dropped out of the race on May 14th, reflects shifting demographic and political realities.
A few days ago, the US Census showed there are now more Hispanic, African-American and other ethnic minority babies being born in America than white ones. Today, one in six Americans are Hispanic, constituting a huge, and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, electoral base.
The Republicans’ challenge is how to effectively convey a socially conservative message to these voters, winning them over at the same time as retaining the sympathies of white grassroots Republicans. Given the primary candidates’ previous efforts to arrive at the most extreme anti-immigration positions possible, in a bid for Tea Party sympathies, this may well prove impossible.
The results in 2008 do not bode well for the Republicans’ chances of successfully reaching out to Hispanic voters; in that election, 67% of voted Obama, 31% McCain.
Elsewhere in the campaign, another aspect of racial politics looks set to do the Republicans further damage, with details of a “racially charged election advertising blitz” having been leaked to the New York Times.
The proposed ads would have portrayed Barack Obama as under the influence of Jeremiah Wright, a radical liberation theologian and preacher known for “incendiary sermons that often deal with race”. The McCain campaign in 2008 briefly considered attacking Obama over his alleged connections to Wright – now the idea has resurfaced.
The ads were suggested by a Republican Super PAC in a document that, referring to Obama as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln”, complains Americans “still aren’t ready to hate this president”.
Following an outraged public reaction, the Republican donor who had ordered the plans be drawn up said he had no intention of actually funding the adverts’ production, with Romney distancing himself from the plans – yet his refusal to actually point out there is no real suggestion of a substantial connection between Obama and Wright saw him attacked by the Dems, who accused him of “reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his party”.
In Brussels, the eurozone member states found themselves split on how best to resolve the Greek crisis, specifically over the issue of eurobonds – debt jointly held by eurozone members.
The bonds would be issued by a central European institution such as the European Commission or the European Central Bank on behalf of all 17 eurozone countries, placing Europe’s largest economies (France and Germany) behind the debt and thus driving down borrowing costs for troubled nations such as Greece, Italy and Spain.
Although they provide the most obvious way to save Greece while keeping her in the eurozone, they are controversial. Germany appears to have rejected the idea altogether; collectivised debt, they argue, removes any incentive for fiscal responsibility amongst Europe’s smaller economies while driving up Germany’s own interest rates and setting an unhealthy precedent of Franco-German bailouts.
François Hollande, meanwhile, is very much in favour; as Der Speigel observes:
The new French president, with his demand for euro bonds, set the main topic of discussion at the dinner. Hollande has deliberately put the controversial proposal for jointly issued bonds at the centre of his growth agenda. His aim is to challenge the German chancellor.
His unspoken message at the summit was that Merkozy, and the symbiotic relationship between Merkel and Sarkozy, was history.
There is, of course, a political imperative for that: with French parliamentary elections in the offing, Hollande cannot be seen to be a prisoner of Merkel’s drive for austerity.
The standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme continues. Whitehall insiders have told the Guardian there remains a “25-50% chance” of a unilateral, pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities which would proceed to involve both Britain and the United States as well. One source is quoted admitting that, if America wants British help, “it is difficult to imagine David Cameron saying no”.
The already-apprehensive mood across the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and MI6 is worsened by the realisation that, should they wish to strike, Israel’s window of opportunity extends as far as November.
Another source confided:
“The Americans might hang out the Israelis to dry after the election, but not before… Obama would have to support Israel if there was an attack before November.”
In Egypt, the nation’s first presidential election since the deposition of Hosni Mubarak took place this week.
With the vast majority of votes counted, it’s almost certain the two most divisive candidates, former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, will face each other in a run-off next month. Turnout is reported at just under 42% – lower than in the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections.
Finally this week, in South Africa, the governing ANC party is taking legal action against a Johannesburg art gallery that exhibited a painting of Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed. It is also trying to force a local newspaper to remove a photograph of the painting from its website.
ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu called on all South Africans to “unite against those seeking to undermine our hard-won democracy and democratic institutions”, although the South African constitution explicitly safeguards the right to artistic expression.
The artist, Brett Murray, protested:
“For many years I have used, and continue to use, symbols with sexual connotations representative of political power and patriarchy.”