Recent Articles

Venezuela: Stop Attacks on Judicial Independence

by Conor Foley     January 14, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Just before Christmas I met a Venezuelan lawyer who was in Brazil lobbying for an imprisoned colleague. The story has been written up in the Guardian and it makes extremely disturbing reading.

Since many British leftists still retain some affection for Hugo Chavez I think its point needs to be re-stressed amongst the liberal left.

Judge María Lourdes Afiuni has spent the last year in prison without trial because she granted bail to a prisoner who had himself spent three years in pre-trial detention.
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‘End anti-torture imperialism now’

by Conor Foley     January 3, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I am only an occasional reader of Norman Geras’s blog these days, but happy to grant him this late seasonal gift.

I look forward to the upcoming CiF post, ‘End anti-torture imperialism now’ – in which some progressive-minded person lets us know why the prohibition of torture is a culturally relative norm that must occasionally be sacrificed to other pragmatic considerations.

Here is the link Norm, although I am surprised you missed at the time.
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War and emotion

by Conor Foley     September 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm

The publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs last week prompted a flurry of debate on face-book (is it just me or has face-book become the new blogging?) and even the creation of a special page in his honour.

I got drawn into a couple of comments threads of a couple of people’s pages, one of which was eventually deleted by its owner after Nick Cohen and I started abusing one another (to be fair to him, I started it).

Before we went down into the gutter, though, I had an exchange with another blogger, who posts at one of the Liberal Conspiracy’s sister sites, and who quite pointedly asked me why I drew so heavily on my personal experiences when writing. At one level this is quite an odd question.
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Afghan realities

by Conor Foley     June 22, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I was not planning to write an opinion piece on Afghanistan for a few days, because I think that the more detailed arguments about where we go from here are actually more interesting than the usual general banalities.

But I would like to respond to a few of the points that David Osler makes in his cross-posted piece. Apologies that this will take the form of some para by para responses, which I realise can make articles seem a bit more aggressive than the author intends.
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New report: Afghanistan needs two-tier justice

by Conor Foley     June 22, 2010 at 3:19 pm

This is from a recent report produced by the US Institute for Peace on Afghanistan’s formal and customary justice systems.

It argues – controversially – for an explicit recognition of the need to accomodate the two systems in a state-building project.

In post-Taliban Afghanistan, the formal justice system has limited reach and legitimacy, and struggles to function in an environment with depleted human resources and infrastructure, a legal system in tatters, and where local power largely continues to supercede central authority.

The justice system is relatively weak in the urban centers where the central government is strongest, and in the rural areas that house approximately 75% of the population, functioning courts, police, and prisons are an exception. For the majority of Afghans, disputes are settled, if at all, at the local level by village elders, district governors, clerics, and police chiefs. These settlements – involving both criminal and civil matters – may follow tribal tradition, religious interpretation, or prerogatives of power. As efforts to establish the rule of law expand and the power of the central government grows, the relationship between the formal and informal justice systems will be a critical element of efforts to maintain community harmony, protect rights, provide access to justice, and serve the interests of justice.

Afghanistan has had a rich and layered legal history. Over centuries, closely-knit, autonomous social cultures produced a variegated system of customary law administered by village elders and tribal councils. In the late 19th century a formal legal system emerged to expand state authority, delivering justice in the name of the Amir, and to resolve disputes concerning commerce and government in urban areas. Both of these systems were heavily influenced by Islam, and were to some extent dependent upon religious clerics. . . . . .

In the aggregate, however, the official reform process has yielded little. In the countryside most Afghans do not have easy access to state justice institutions. Those who can use the courts rarely choose to do so. The courts are widely seen as corrupt and lacking in authority. Executive officials in the provinces, provincial, district governors, police, and prosecutors tend to bypass the courts to settle difficult or important disputes, and many local court judges also refer disputes to community-based mechanisms for settlement. Research suggests that 80-90% of disputes – criminal and civil – are resolved
outside of the formal system.

In many areas, however, the infirmity of the formal system is matched by the vagary of the informal system. Some traditional practices violate Afghan and international law, including honor-killings, forced and underage marriage, and payment of blood money in lieu of punishment. Women rarely, if ever, participate directly in informal mechanisms, and their basic rights under Afghan law are often ignored. With international support for Afghanistan heavily influenced by international human rights and women’s rights standards, these traditional practices have made the human rights community very wary
of informal justice systems. There is considerable internal frustration as well, as imbalanced power relations between landowners, landless farmers, and gun-holders tend to subvert the principles of equity upon which the system relies for its popular legitimacy.

Large-scale problems often defy resolution by the existing means, as community-based justice mechanisms are often unable to deal with inter-community problems – especially between communities from different ethnic or sectarian groups.

In order to move forward, there is a need for evolution of both systems, and formalization of the relationship between them. At present, the formal and informal systems co-exist, but without official sanction or mutual recognition. The government wishes to establish a competent, coherent, and effective legal and justice system as a central component of a legitimate Afghan state. But it need not do so at the expense of all traditional or informal dispute resolution mechanisms. The capacity of the formal justice system will remain limited for years to come, and informal mechanisms will continue to have an important role to play in resolving disputes, particularly in civil (non-criminal) matters.

Recognizing the positive role that the informal system can and does play will enable the government to harness the good of that system, while also working to curtail its most problematic aspects.

Afghanistan voices

by Conor Foley     June 21, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I have just started work on a short desk-study on Afghanistan, after a break from the country of almost two years.

Yesterday brought the British death toll there to 300, prompting a series of, not particularly insightful soul-searching articles in the media. The problem with most mainstream media reporting is that the news is entirely driven by western perceptions of the ‘problem’, which is at best simplistic and often quite crudely propagandist.

I thought that I would instead just post a few links over the next few days to recent reports produced by organisations that I have found credible and reliable in the past.
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Debating humanitarian interventions

by Conor Foley     April 25, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I am debating Linda Polman, author of War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times at the Frontline club in London on Tuesday 11 May if anyone has energy left-over for political discussion after the election.

I have not read Linda’s book yet, but there is an interview with her here in the Observer conducted by Andrew Anthony.

I am no great fan of Anthony’s work and the political points come over as rather stale and outdated – as if someone has not really thought about the issue much since his days spent picking coffee in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas – but Polman’s prievious work is provocative and interesting.

She famously reported on how eighty Zambian UN Blue Helmets were forced to watch helplessly as thousands of Hutu refugess were murdered by government troops in Rwanda – a report which did much to shake the guilt-ridden complacent indulgency that much of the international community had previously displayed towards its President Paul Kagame.

Lest we forget, one of Tony Blair’s current consultancy positions is working to improve Kagame’s public image.

Amnesty and defensive jihad

by Conor Foley     April 6, 2010 at 5:53 pm

I have been away in Angola for the last couple of months and out of email contact, but there has been a recent exchange of letters between Claudio Cordone of Amnesty and Amrita Chhachhi, Sara Hossain and Sunila Abeysekera which is worth reading.
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Amnesty and its impartiality

by Conor Foley     February 12, 2010 at 9:10 am

The suspension of Gita Sahgal for allegedly briefing the Sunday Times against her employer, Amnesty International, follows the suspension a few months ago by a Human Rights Watch employee, Marc Garlasco, who was revealed to be a collector of Second World War memorabilia.

Perhaps predictably, some of the people who were most vociferous in calling for Garlasco’s suspension have been equally forthright in calling Sahgal’s reinstatement.

I do not know either Sahgal or Garlasco and I do not know all the circumstances surrounding their suspensions, but I do have some experience of operating disciplinary procedures in a human rights organisation.

I worked as a middle level manager in Amnesty International UK Section’s Campaign Department 10 years ago and a large part of my job involved personnel issues. I have absolutely no doubt that if a member of my staff had behaved as Sahgal is alleged to have done I would have had to take disciplinary action against her and this applies not just to Amnesty International, but to every management job in every organisation I have done before or since.

As even her friend and supporter, Rahila Gupta, admits here Sahgal was not a whistle-blower because she was not revealing activities that anyone was trying to conceal. She went to the media because she disagreed with a decision that Amnesty had taken to give a platform Moazzam Begg and to work with his organization Cageprisoners on behalf of people detained in Guantánamo Bay.

She must have done it knowing this would be used by journalists like Nick Cohen who is on record as supporting the torture of detainees in certain circumstances, as part of his ongoing campaign to denigrate the organization.

At a professional level I have more sympathy with Garlasco whose hobby, while slightly weird, had no bearing on his professional activities. However, I think that, on balance, Human Rights Watch were right to suspend him and both cases should provide a wake-up call to human rights organizations.

As Frances Crook notes, Amnesty used to operate a very strict ‘joint-platform’ policy in which it was reluctant ever to mount joint campaigns with other organizations. I remember that part of my recruitment process was an in-tray exercise that included telling Campaign Against the Arms Trade why we would not be signing a hypothetical letter to the Guardian with them condemning the sale of arms to Turkey.

I also remember the first report I wrote (with Keir Starmer) coming back full of paragraphs with red lines scored through them because, in by boss’s opinion, they had broken the ‘work on own country’ rule.

These procedures were awful for those of us who had to operate them. Getting out public statements was slow and cumbersome and we often appeared stand-offish and aloof to other organizations. Staff were also expected to observe considerable discretion in their personal lives; a friend of mine who worked as an Indonesia Researcher resigned her job because she fell in love with a resistance leader in East Timor.

It is on that basis that I think Human Rights Watch was right to suspend Garlasco but why I also think that Sahgal’s – on the face of it appalling – behaviour should not detract from her political argument. Her basic criticism of Amnesty is that it has allowed itself to be seen as too close to someone who has strong views on the position of women in society, which many people (myself included) find repugnant.

Begg has every right to hold whatever political views he wants and – as he points out – nearly everyone familiar with the situation in Afghanistan has concluded that ‘engagement and dialogue’ with the Taliban may be the only route to peace in the country.

But, as Southall Black Sisters have noted, ‘We know from experience around the world, including post war Iraq that women’s rights are the first to be traded in such political settlements’. Indeed Amnesty itself has warned of the danger of such a development in Afghanistan.

Some argue that Begg’s actions, for example, in developing dialogue with his former prison guards, could be used as a model for peace-building and that Amnesty should encourage this process. However, I think that misunderstands the basis of how human rights organisations should work in conflict and post-conflict situations.

Despite its name, Amnesty has played a leading role in opposing those who argue that human rights violators should be forgiven in the name of ‘peace and reconciliation’.

I think that the position that it has taken on the ‘justice and peace’ trade-off has sometimes been too dogmatic in places such as Northern Uganda. However, part of the reason why Amnesty International is so important is that it has been so uncompromising in defence of human rights above all other political considerations.

In its statement justifying the suspension of Sahgal, Amnesty made clear that it welcomed a ‘vigorous internal debate’ and my memories of the organisation are that those debates were very vigorous indeed. But one thing that has always held Amnesty together is a realisation that the organisation’s core purpose is bigger and more important than any of our factional considerations or ideological disagreements.

Amnesty is listened to and taken seriously at the highest and lowest levels because of its reputation as a neutral, impartial and independent organisation. It is capable of generating a deluge of letters, faxes, phone calls and emails that may save a life or stop someone from being tortured.

Those who seek to undermine that reputation – for whatever reason – had better be clear that their own ‘higher purpose’ justifies the suffering that will go unchallenged as a result.


by Conor Foley     January 18, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Nick Cohen has not written anything on international issues for a while, but he was back on form in the Observer this week. “Opponents of the Iraq war are deluded if they think Chiclott will find the allied intervention was illegal” he thundered, The “central allegation that the second Iraq war was ‘illegal’ is unsustainable,” he concludes.

Uh huh.

An inquiry into the Netherlands’ support for the invasion of Iraq says it was not justified by UN resolutions. The Dutch Committee of Inquiry on Iraq said UN Security Council resolutions did not “constitute a mandate for… intervention in 2003”.

The inquiry was launched after foreign ministry memos were leaked that cast doubt on the legal basis for the war.

But what would they know, eh Nick.

Meanwhile the Economist has some reasonable questions for the inquiry to put to Tony Blair:

When they question Mr Blair about WMD, Sir John and his colleagues should concentrate on nuclear weapons—and in particular on the government’s assertion that Saddam might develop one “in between one and two years”. These nuclear allegations, which helped Mr Blair call the threat from Iraq “serious and current”, need further probing.

A second focus should be on how raw intelligence was changed. Mr Blair described as “extensive, detailed and authoritative” intelligence that was, in fact, patchy and old; he described conclusions that were speculative as “beyond doubt”. At the inquiry, Mr Campbell drew a distinction between shifting lines and paragraphs in dossiers and actually fabricating intelligence. . . . .

There is also a string of outstanding questions about the conduct and aftermath of the war. For instance, why did some British troops seem not to have been fully equipped for the task? . . . . Another concern is the increasingly vexed issue of when, precisely, Mr Blair committed British forces to the invasion—and whether he simultaneously said different things to George Bush and the British public. And why did he enter the war without much assurance that the Americans had a plan for post-war reconstruction?

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