Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

 

 

The past week has been an unedifying one in the world of international diplomacy.

World leaders have been at the United Nations in New York for their annual gathering at the General Assembly where they immediately disappointed with a watered down agreement to consider reforming how they deal with the growing numbers of refugees.

If that were not enough, the proceedings were then overshadowed by an outbreak of finger pointing between the Americans and Russians over the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire.

Washington accused Russia of bombing the humanitarian convoy in Syria that killed at least 20 and undermining the ceasefire.

Russia denied it was involved. But that hasn’t stopped the Americans continuing to stoke outrage against Moscow in same week the US itself had helped undermine the ceasefire by killing 63 Syrian troops in an air strike – an attack the US insists was unintentional.

Whether or not Russia did carry out the convoy strike, and past experience of the veracity of American allegations in conflicts where it has taken clear sides gives pause for thought (remember Defense Secretary Cohen’s claim ahead of NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 that 100,000 Albanians had been killed in Kosovo), Washington’s attempt to take the moral high ground over Syria is undermined by its actions in Yemen.

The Americans are supplying weapons and intelligence in support of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni civil war that’s involved similar attacks on humanitarian workers, particularly hospitals and clinics.

Moscow is unlikely to feel under much pressure to change its approach in Syria as long as Washington doesn’t change its approach to Yemen

And it’s not just the Americans backing the Saudis.

As my former colleague, Robin Lustig, has pointed out in a powerful piece, the UK’s new Prime Minister, Teresa May, has brushed off criticism of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia emphasising Riyadh’s cooperation against Islamist terrorism.

The hypocrisy and double standards of the major powers and their allies – be they the Syrian or Saudi governments – are more than just words though.

They also directly undermine attempts to bring an end to the fighting and suffering of civilians that all parties claim to want – as I’ve argued before in the context of Ukraine.

With both sides effectively saying “do as I say, not as I do” and, in the eyes of their opponents, being rank dishonest, it makes it extremely difficult to build even the minimum of trust that’s needed for a durable peace effort.

As the siege of Syria’s second city Aleppo intensifies again and the Saudi campaign in Yemen grinds on, there is an urgent need for the main powers to get back round the table and at least agree to stop fuelling the conflicts.

But this week has shown that prospect seems remote.

So, one could forgive ordinary Syrians and Yemenis – living under siege and bombardment or having fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere – for looking at the images from New York and being reminded of Nero and his proverbial fiddling as Rome burned.

The huge numbers of people on the move around the world – be they seeking refuge from war or oppression, or looking for a better life – will be top of the agenda for world leaders gathering this week at the United Nations in New York for their annual get together at the General Assembly.

Monday sees the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants to assess how to update the way the international community deals with people moving across borders.

On Tuesday, US President Obama is convening a Leaders Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis to directly consider how to deal with the huge increase in the numbers of people seeking refuge in recent years partly – though by no means exclusively – driven by the conflict in Syria and the instability and repression in several parts of the Middle East and North Africa that have followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.

Not to be too cynical about it, it’s noteworthy this high level focus on refugees follows the recent flow of large numbers into the European Union and growing pressure on wealthier countries to do more.

The majority of the world’s 21 million refugees are being hosted – as they have always been – by neighbouring countries, which, in the case of Syria, means Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Beirut, Amman and Ankara had been calling for greater support and solidarity from the rest of the world for several years, but the response so far has been underwhelming.

Few countries have been prepared to take in significant numbers of people and the UN’s humanitarian relief operations for Syria have been chronically underfunded – this year only 74% of the money needed – and, in many cases, promised – has actually being made available.

As the Syrian civil war entered its fifth year in early 2015 and the UN was forced to cut food rations in refugee camps, it’s no wonder many Syrians decided to take a chance on the perilous journey to Europe across the Aegean and through the Balkans or directly across the Mediterranean to Italy.

This week’s high level discussions may be being driven by the arrival of large numbers in Europe and demand for more action by richer countries, but it’s still the less wealthy countries in regions affected by conflict  that are doing the lion’s share of coping with the millions displaced by conflict.

Take the example of South Sudan where, following the breakdown in the fragile ceasefire in the civil war in July, another 100,000 South Sudanese have crossed into Uganda which is already hosting tens of thousands of people fleeing the threat of murder, rape and economic chaos.

Support in countries neighbouring conflicts is provided by host governments, UN agencies like the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR and its food agency, WFP, along with non-governmental organisations, like Sightsavers, the one I work for, which has helped organise medical treatment for eye diseases as well as neglected tropical diseases in refugee camps in Kenya, for instance.

But this week will hear calls for deeper reform of the global system and for developed countries to take on a fairer share of providing refuge for people seeking asylum.

The UN’s refugee agency has already hailed Monday’s summit as a “game changer…that will enhance protection for those forcibly displaced and otherwise on the move”.

Humanitarian and development organisations and activists though are markedly less effusive.

They point to the watering down of the draft declaration for the summit, where governments, particularly the Europeans and Americans, have sought to limit their commitments to concrete action – suggesting political leaders in wealthier nations are still unwilling to fully cooperate and share responsibility for taking in people forced to flee their homelands  by war, oppression or poverty.

The growing electoral appeal of nativism and right-wing populism in the EU and US is inhibiting many governments from doing more. And that is not going to change any time soon.

The example of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose political fortunes have taken a decided turn for the worse since she took a brave decision to take in the bulk of Syrian refugees who made it to the EU, is deterring even those who feel a moral duty from following her lead.

So UN agencies as well as humanitarian and development organisations will be forced to continue depending on uncertain finances and ad hoc solutions to look after those seeking asylum to continue their work.

It needn’t be this way.

The next few days provide an opportunity to make the step change the UNHCR has prematurely hailed in the way governments, working together, could make life easier for refugees and reduce the strain on the countries currently bearing the brunt.

This requires collective political will and individual leadership from the government heads gathered in New York, but, as things stand, the odds are this chance is going to be missed.

The United Nations has issued a stark warning that South Sudan is facing a growing humanitarian crisis even in areas that had previously been stable.

With much of the world’s media focusing on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, this latest UN alert has got a little lost in all the noise, even though the UN’s top humanitarian official, Stephen O’Brien isn’t mincing his words.

“Let me be clear”, he told journalists in New York last week, “people in South Sudan are not just fleeing their homes because they need food, shelter or medical care and school for their children. They are fleeing [because they] fear for their lives”.

This sudden worsening is the result of the collapse a month ago of the truce between forces supporting the President, Salva Kir, and his deputy, Vice President Riek Machar, which also saw the killing and rape of civilians – including those seeking protection from UN peacekeepers.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It’s only existed for five years since breaking away from Sudan after a long, bloody conflict in July 2011.

But instead of celebrating their independence, many people have been packing up what belongings they can and trying to escape the violence.

Since the civil war between followers of Kir and Machar broke out at the end of 2013, 900,000 people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, with 100,000 more fleeing in the past month alone, mainly to Uganda.

Inside the country, another 1.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes and are internally displaced.

All this out of a population of just over 12 million.

It is easy to blame South Sudanese politicians for what’s happening – and the government’s refusal so far to agree to the UN Security Council despatching reinforcements to the UNMISS peacekeeping mission with a tougher mandate to protect civilians, only underlines that.

But responsibility for the unfolding disaster in South Sudan can also be laid at the door of the international community.

The United States, for instance, was instrumental in pushing for its independence, but was not prepared for the long term commitment required to build a functioning state.

As so often, the UN was handed the task of helping build the new nation, but without really being given the necessary financial and political backing needed to make a success of it.

No doubt UNMISS has made mistakes, chief among them, many observers believe, has been its lack of neutrality in its dealings with a factionalised government.

However, the task it faces in South Sudan is daunting.

This is a country that lacks the basic infrastructure to function. There are few decent roads, hospitals and schools, and it has few qualified civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, police or judges.

A veteran of both the US State Department and UN peacekeeping told me when the civil war first started in 2013; either you do the job properly – by which he meant putting in the resources and time required – or it’s better not to do it at all.

And it’s not as if there haven’t been enough examples of the consequences of such half-hearted nation building to learn from.

When the UN went into to Timor Leste in 1999 as it voted for independence after 25 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, privately both UN officials and Timorese leaders said it would need to run the country for at least 10 years to train the people and build the infrastructure it required to ensure a stable future.

In the end, despite warnings from staff on the ground, because its member states wanted to wind down their financial and military commitments, the UN handed over government to Timorese politicians after only three years, and reduced its role to a support mission.

Four years later, the country descended into chaos with police and army fighting each other for control of the capital, Dili, setting back the country’s progress right back.

The fighting in South Sudan came even sooner after independence than in Timor, and has been much worse, with an estimated 300,000 people losing their lives so far.

And when the fighting starts, what work is being done to help build up healthcare systems or open schools is usually halted as it’s just too dangerous for the civilians engaged in this work to remain, and humanitarian relief becomes the priority.

In South Sudan, the UN says it needs another $700 billion for its emergency relief work and in the past few weeks, the non-governmental organisations involved in development work have had to suspend their operations.

Tending to the immediate needs of the 4.8 million people facing severe food shortages and trying to contain a cholera outbreak – as well as restoring the ceasefire between rival factions – are taking precedence.

As things stand, the resumption of the all-important work to build a functioning state and an economy underpinning decent healthcare, schools and universities seems some way off.

Yet with a greater international commitment at the time of independence, the setbacks in South Sudan might have been avoided.

 

George Monbiot – the environment commentator – wrote a recent cri de coeur on the failure of the media – by which I think he meant most mainstream outlets – to give sufficient coverage to climate change, despite the tumbling of global temperature records and accompanying floods and droughts that are hitting people all over the world.

He’s right of course.

It’s striking how little has been published or broadcast since last December’s United Nations Paris Climate summit agreed to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Do editors think the pledges – and that’s all they were – made in Paris are the last word on climate change?

A recent conversation I had with a former colleague, and a respected environment journalist, suggests they may.

He lamented that he just couldn’t get climate stories on – even with the record temperatures and constant flow of natural disaster stories so-beloved of those same editors.

Surely giving climate change prominent coverage is in the public interest, I observed.

Unarguable you might think, whatever your views on the causes of rising global temperatures.

But then, it’s not just climate change where mainstream media journalists are failing the public.

There is also scant coverage of sustainable development.

As I wrote last year, when all UN member states came together in a historic agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals that aim to produce a fairer world which actually has a long-term future, there was barely a peep of interest.

And things haven’t changed since then.

The first high level meeting to review progress towards the SDGs a couple of weeks ago, where 22 countries reported what they have done and plan to do, was largely ignored by the media.

If you do an internet search you’ll find stories on specialist development blogs and a few niche business news sites, but little else.

The only mainstream media outlet I could find that published anything was The Guardian, which actually has a development sub-index on its website. Although, even that merits only a qualified welcome given the Guardian gets the Gates Foundation to subsidise this coverage, suggesting even the editors there still don’t see development as deserving of much coverage purely on its own merits.

So why are journalists largely ignoring sustainable development?

Well, partly it’s because they are subject to the tyranny of the urgent over the important – there always seems to be something more immediate they judge needs reporting.

But they also fail to see development as a story because they’re prone to what I’d call a tramline mentality. There are certain kinds of stories they’re used to covering – be it political rows, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or even changes in interest rates –  and they think they know how to cover them.

It means they stay in their comfort zone, but it’s a failure journalistic imagination.

How to break out of this compartmentalised thinking?

One way may be to create new indices on websites and in papers to encourage journalists to see the importance of sustainable development stories.

Many papers and news sites already have “environment” pages or indices – which is not just a way to help users navigate stories, but also, I’d argue, a reflection of how journalists categorise stories in their own minds.

So one suggestion I’ve heard – and will repeat here – is to rename those indices “people and planet”.This may help editors and reporters to think about environment and development, and their impact on people’s lives – the all-important human interest angle – as deeply entwined and interrelated.

Then there is the public interest argument.

What could be more important than the future of the planet we all depend on for our very existence?

Yet, many of the editors who respond to criticism of their coverage of the foibles – and worse – of politicians by citing the public interest (even when the scale of that coverage risks turning the public off) are the same ones who routinely ignore or underplay sustainable development.

If editors don’t see coverage of such existential matters as in the public interest, there is a more mundane, but perhaps more familiar, reason for covering the issue.

That old hoary chestnut “the way taxpayers’ money is spent”.

There has been a lot of media scrutiny over the past year in the UK of the foreign aid budget, including from outlets which, shall we say, are not well-known for their international coverage.

So there is already an appetite for covering development aid.

It’s also becoming clear that from now on much of that aid is going to be prioritised according to the commitments made in Sustainable Development Goals.

So, with a bit of joining up of the dots, there may be hope that editors, who up to now have had little interest in covering the SDGs and international development, could be persuaded that there are good reasons for changing their approach.

On his last day in Downing Street, David Cameron said one of his proudest achievements was to honour the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international aid.

It was partly an attempt to stake out his legacy and partly a pitch to his successor, Theresa May, to stick to, what remains, a Conservative manifesto pledge.

Unfortunately for Cameron, even though he has an honourable record on aid, his legacy will be dominated by Brexit.

The former Prime Minister is destined to be remembered as the man who called the referendum on the UK remaining a member of the European Union and lost it, causing a political and economic shock that continues to reverberate well beyond the Britain.

As Mr Cameron was leaving his job, I was starting a new one as Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

The sense of shock the vote to leave the EU, and the uncertain mood that has surrounded it among people working in international development in the UK, was one of the first things that struck me.

Despite David Cameron’s emphasis on international aid in his parting words, the leave vote has generated a lot of pessimism among development NGOs about the post-Brexit future.

Michael O’Donnell of the sector’s umbrella organisation, Bond, argued in a recent blog, that future aid funding was threatened by the end of EU development money and the fall in the value of the pound, as well as the slow squeeze on unrestricted funding – the money NGOs receive that they can spend on such things as research and policy-making, rather than specific projects approved by their donors.

While it’s certainly true that many of the same political and media voices that backed leaving the EU are also ones that have been vocal in their criticism of protecting the aid budget at a time of austerity, the initial signs are the new Prime Minister was listening to her predecessor and not these siren voices.

In May’s reshaping of the government machine, several ministries have disappeared, but the Department for International Development has survived – a positive sign.

And although the new Secretary of State, Priti Patel, has expressed scepticism about the value of DfID in the past, when her predecessor, Justine Greening, was first appointed, there were reports she was less than keen on the idea of aid, yet she proved an effective minister.

The public mood that led to a majority voting to turn their backs on the EU doesn’t necessarily mean the majority of people in the UK want to turn their backs on the world.

After all, aid is not just the right thing to do for straightforward moral reasons.

When all is said and done, there is a hard-headed case for continuing David Cameron’s approach to aid and international development – and, irrespective of whether Britain is a member of the EU or not, this has not changed.

As Cameron argued when unveiling last year’s National Security and Defence Review, supporting development and good governance in the world’s poorest and most fragile countries also helps to ensure their stability and make it less likely they become havens and breeding grounds for terrorism or other threats to international peace.

In the long run moreover, well-managed international aid underpins efforts to lift people around the world out of poverty which means more potential customers for British exports.

It may sound paradoxical, but this hard-headed case for aid also encompasses the boost it gives to the UK’s soft power.

There is a growing consensus among British politicians that the country’s global influence derives from more than having the world’s fifth largest economy and one of its more capable militaries – it also derives from the admiration many people around the world have for the UK, its culture and the values it espouses .

Brits are generally seen as good global citizens.

The UK has been in the top two over recent years when global soft power is assessed – and Britain’s generosity as an international aid donor is widely seen as one of the keystones of that power.

2014’s House of Lords’ Soft Power Committee report recognised this and urged the government to build on DfID’s role in boosting the UK’s influence around the world.

Many prominent Brexiteers, including Ms Patel and the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, argued ahead of the EU referendum that leaving the EU would allow the UK to become more outward looking and to forge a new global role for itself.

Humility is required, but Britain’s generous approach to international aid can be a pillar underpinning whatever new course the UK ends up taking in the world.

It wasn’t pressure from the EU that led the UK to achieve the 0.7% target – that was home-grown.

So, leaving the EU doesn’t have to mean a bleak future for Britain’s international aid.

Brazil doesn’t do things by halves.

Three years ago, visiting the country you could still sense the optimism about the future, but now the country is in the grip of a downward spiral driven by pessimism fuelled by relentlessly negative media coverage.

In 2013, the economy, which weathered the global economic crisis of 2008 pretty well, was still growing at just under 3% a year and the government of President Dilma Rousseff was still regarded positively by a majority.

Fast-forward to today, the economy is in a deep recession that’s yet to bottom out.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, President Rousseff’s popularity is in the doldrums and there have been renewed protests this weekend calling for her to resign or be impeached.

The international media has focussed on these headlines and of course the huge corruption scandal known as “Lava Jato”, which began as an investigation into money laundering, but has exposed the misappropriation of huge sums from the national oil company, Petrobras, to use for funding campaign finance and pay bribes to facilitate the scheme.

The scandal has seen journalists reach for comparisons with Brazil’s famous telenovelas produced by media giant Globo.

It’s almost irresistible for them given the intricacy of the scandal’s plot, its constant revelations and the names of those implicated or investigated, which now include former President Lula himself.

But this is not a telenovela, it is really happening.

The losses Petrobras has incurred from the scandal have badly damaged the company, which has also been hit by the collapse in global oil prices.

Other large Brazilian companies, like the construction firm Odebrecht, which a few years ago were expanding successfully abroad, have been implicated in the scandal and their operations undermined too – CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, was recently given 19 years for paying bribes to Petrobras executives.

But the scandal is not just damaging the economy; it’s also threatening to reverse the social gains Brazil has made under the leadership of Lula and his successor President Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, PT.

Less than twenty years ago, Brazil was one of the most unequal countries in the world. But under the PT presidencies, 30 million Brazilians (out of population of 200 million) have been lifted out of poverty by federal government action.

The Bolsa Familia scheme, where the poor get cash supplements if they vaccinate their children and send them to school, along with extending employment rights to workers who’d previously worked on a casual basis have been very effective. There have also been attempts at affirmative action to give poorer Brazilians more opportunities in education.

But not everyone in the country has welcomed this. Many of the wealthy and the middle classes, who have been prominent in the anti-Rousseff protests organised by right-wing activists, resent these changes passionately.

They don’t like that their maids now have better employment protection. They complain their children can’t get into their first choice university because the government is reserving places for poorer people. I have even heard well educated, seemingly sensible people say the PT is trying to turn Brazil into Cuba.

Such an idea would be risible if the stakes weren’t so serious.

There is no doubt Rousseff has made mistakes on the economy and has failed to tackle much needed reform of the federal and state government finances.

But ironically, she has done more to try to fight corruption than any of her predecessors. During her first term, ministers accused of corruption had to resign – something pretty much unheard of before – and she has not tried to interfere in the “Lava Jato” investigations, despite the growing evidence they are being used to undermine her and her party.

But then Brazil’s main media outlets’ coverage of the corruption scandal is a bit like a magicians trick.

With one hand they reveal the spectacle of the latest developments in the scandal and the economic crisis, while the other hand obscures some inconvenient truths.

That the media-fuelled hysteria around “Lava Jato” is actually deepening the economic crisis.

That Brazil has always had political corruption and – while that doesn’t justify what members of PT may have done – all parties, significantly the main opposition PSDB included, are implicated.

That the Congress, which is the most right-wing in recent Brazilian history, is quietly trying to reverse progressive legislation, such as moving to water down the country’s internationally-praised anti-slave labour code and reducing the age of criminal responsibility.

Media giants, like Globo and Abril, publishers of the news magazine Veja – dominated by wealthy families – are underplaying these developments, while trying to delegitimise PT by focussing almost exclusively on allegations against its members with little presumption of innocence.

The objective seems to be to get PT out of power, perhaps permanently, so the social programmes the party has championed can be reversed.

One of the positives that some drew from the “Lava Jato” investigation was that it seemed to show democratic institutions and the separation of executive and judicial powers are well entrenched in Brazil, despite it being only 30 years since the end of military rule.

But that may have been over optimistic.

The prosecutors may not be as independent and high-minded as it first appeared, given it now appears from the way Lula was detained earlier this month that they are helping the media campaign against PT.

When the former President was detained for questioning, it was clear Globo had been tipped off so their cameras could be there when the unnecessarily large police contingent turned up to take the former President away.

The timing was also suspicious coming as it did only hours after the Supreme Court ruled the Speaker of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, who, despite being a member of the PMDB party which is officially in coalition with PT, has been leading the charge in Congress to impeach Rousseff (yes, the politics is complicated as well as corrupt), could stand trial.

So, on Globo’s nightly news most Brazilians watch there was little mention of Cunha, instead there was extended coverage of Lula’s detention with constant references to him as “O Petista” (the PT member) to hammer home the message that the whole party is corrupt and uniquely to blame for “Lava Jato”.

The international media, concentrated as it is in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, has also largely failed to dig deeper and challenge this narrative.

So maybe the pessimists are right.

Not just because the economy is in a deepening hole – though that will rebound eventually.

But because the progress that has seen the federal government make a difference – often for the first time – to the lives of millions of poorer Brazilians all over the country is at grave risk of being reversed by the reactionary movement hiding behind the anti-corruption drive.

Climate Change: Merci

French may no longer be the language of international diplomacy, but French diplomats have not lost their touch.

The Paris climate deal reached at the weekend is a testament to their skill and endurance.

Many environmental activists and experts, among them the British climate economist Lord Stern, have been effusive in their praise for the French delegation led by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

According to Lord Stern “they have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”

What Fabius, his colleague, Environment Minister Ségolène Royale, and their team have pulled off is the first ever agreement that all countries – rich or poor, developed or developing – will take action to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions and reversing the deforestation and environmental degradation that is depriving the planet of its ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere naturally.

Of course, France did not do it alone.

At a time when the international system – and the United Nations in particular – has been written off by many as incapable of achieving the consensus needed for decisive action over conflicts like Syria and Ukraine, the success in Paris is a welcome reminder that the international community is capable of coming together for the common good.

The deal has allowed a rare moment of optimism over the climate change, which has been reinforced by research just published suggesting carbon emissions could have stalled this year despite the global economy growing.

The climate accord also builds on the momentum of September’s agreement by all UN members to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.

It’s a far cry from six years ago in Copenhagen when the last attempt to get all countries on board in the fight against climate change fell apart amongst rancour and recrimination between the world’s major powers – particularly China and the United States.

So it’s no coincidence that another of the contributors to success in Paris was the growing climate cooperation between Washington and Beijing which became public last year during President Obama’s visit to China and was reaffirmed a few weeks ago during President Xi’s visit to the US where the two leaders announced a shared vision for the Paris talks as well as how their countries would cut carbon emissions.

In the US, President Obama has broken with his predecessor’s skepticism – some might say cynicism – over climate change action and made it a signature issue of his second term. But given the Republican Party’s control of Congress, Obama has had to use executive powers, not legislation, to take action.

One of the key features of the Paris deal is how the French and UN negotiators were willing to work around the American President’s political obstacles and produce an agreement that would not have to be ratified by the US Senate.

That’s why the Paris accord avoids a legal commitment by countries to actually cut emissions. Instead countries have submitted voluntary plans of how they will reduce emissions and fight climate change called – in UN-speak – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

The voluntary nature of these central commitments has been criticized as a major weakness of the deal, so in order to try to ensure countries keep their promises, the agreement legally requires all states to monitor their emissions performance and to come together every five years to review their progress.

The idea being that global peer pressure will encourage countries to do their bit.

Another obvious weakness of the deal is that, as things stand, when you total up all the INDCs it does not add up to preventing a temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius, which most climate scientists agree is the tipping point where global warming will produce catastrophic climate change.

There is an aspiration in the preamble to the agreement to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and the hope is the five-year review process and peer pressure will lead to countries committing to ever-deeper emissions cuts as they go along.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon – another leader who has made climate change a signature issue – described Paris as “a truly historic moment”.

It could be – if countries follow through.

What we can say for sure is that Paris has given humanity a fighting chance in the battle against climate change and for that a lot of the credit should go to France.

 

Climate change is “the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.

So said the then UK Chief Scientific Adviser, David King back in 2004.

It’s a view that’s been echoed by, among others, President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address.

Eleven years on, King’s comment came to mind as the UK parliament debated and approved air strikes on Islamic State in Syria at the same time as delegates from more than 190 countries were meeting at the UN climate summit in Paris to try to agree a deal to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The Syria vote took up many more column inches than the goings on in Paris despite the presence of world leaders, including Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the opening of the summit.

Polls in Britain about the most important issues facing the World, indicate terrorism is seen as a much greater threat than global warming. It also seems public concern about climate change has declined since the last disappointing key UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

Why should this be when the scientific consensus is that unless the world takes measures now global temperatures will rise by more than 2 degrees and cause catastrophic changes in the climate that will pose a grave threat to all of humanity?

Some climate scientists think it’s partly their fault. They believe they gave people the impression climate change would be more dramatic and also that it may be too late to do much about it. But climate change is likely to be gradual and psychology suggests if people think they can’t do much about something, they will most likely carry on as usual.

But political leaders and the media also bear some responsibility.

When there is a terrorist attack, there is frequent talk about terrorism as an existential threat.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, himself has said he believes IS is an “existential threat” to the UK.

According to the dictionary “existential” means “relating to existence”. So an “existential threat” to the UK is something that threatens the very survival of the country.

Does the Prime Minister really believe IS poses a threat to Britain’s national survival in the same way Nazi Germany did in 1940?

Surely not?

But he is not alone in using this language – other politicians and media commentators have also liberally used the cliché – and it is bound to have an impact on public perceptions.

Anecdotally, I know well-informed people who agree with this assessment of the scale of the IS threat and dismiss climate change as exaggerated – when it is precisely the other way round.

The frog in boiling water is the analogy that’s used to explain the lack of urgency about taking action to combat global warming. Then there’s the fact that because climate science is developing all the time, there is always an element of uncertainty about it, even if the broad trends are clear.

However, there’s already evidence that climate change will disrupt our way of life and threaten the existence of states.

The Pentagon and other defence ministries now recognise climate change as a threat to national security and see it as a driver of conflict.

One of the causes of the unrest that led to Syria’s devastating civil war that may well end in the permanent disintegration of the country was prolonged drought and it’s very likely climate change was a cause of that drought. It’s this research Prince Charles was referring to in a recent interview with Sky News when he grabbed headlines by suggesting a link between terrorism and climate change.

The conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, which the UN estimates has killed around 300,000 and displaced almost 3 million, has also been linked to drought caused by long-term changes in climate.

Another problem when it comes to public perceptions of the two is that while terrorist attacks are sudden and shocking – that is the whole point of them in the eyes of the people carrying them out – climate change is incremental.

We humans also seem to find it far easier to empathise with the relatively small numbers of victims of sudden random violence than we do the large numbers whose lives are threatened by an creeping menace like climate change.

I don’t intend to diminish the impact terrorism has on its victims and their loved ones.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of a terrorist attack then it is an existential threat to you.

But, unless you live in a handful of countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia or Afghanistan,terrorism is not a threat to the future of your country. It’s also not a threat to human existence. Climate change, on the other hand, probably is.

 

This week the BBC – used as it is to brickbats from Tory politicians – got a rare bit of good news from the government.

As part of his early turn as Father Christmas, Chancellor George Osborne allocated £289 million to the World Service over the next five years to pay for new services to places like North Korea and Eritrea.

This partially reversed his 2010 decision that the BBC’s international broadcasting would no longer be paid for by a grant from the Foreign Office, but out of the Licence Fee.

BBC Director General, Tony Hall, welcomed the deal as the single biggest increase in funding for the World Service by any government ever.

Despite these warm words from the Corporation, caution would be advised in the corridors – or open plan offices – of Broadcasting House.

Strikingly, the announcement came not in the Chancellor’s Spending Review but in the Strategic Defence and Security Review a couple of days earlier.

What has the World Service got to do with security and defence, you may ask.

The answer lies in politics and international diplomacy.

Many Conservative MPs – even ones who don’t like the BBC on principle because it is publicly funded – like the World Service.

That’s partly because of the feel good factor from when they travel abroad and the people they meet say complimentary things about something British.

But it’s also because politicians have come to appreciate that the World Service is a major soft power asset to the UK.

In a nutshell, soft power is the ability to get people to do what you want by the power of attraction rather than by forcing them.

In many international comparisons of soft power the UK comes near the top of the table – and one of the things that people in other countries like about Britain is the BBC.

By being a high quality, independent source of news that is respected by audiences around the world, the BBC reflects well on the UK and represents the democratic values politicians like to say the country stands for.

The thing about soft power though is that it is hard earned and easily squandered.

It’s a bit like the diplomatic equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics. Because of the scepticism of politicians and governments shared by many people around the world, the more visibly governments try to build up and wield their soft power the less effective it is.

Just ask the Chinese government. It spends billions on international broadcasting but it hasn’t made much difference to its soft power – because it’s perceived as propaganda.

By overtly linking funding for the BBC to the UK’s soft power in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the government risks undermining the BBC’s reputation for independence and impartiality from the state – precisely what makes it attractive and popular with audiences around the world.

Of course the government’s intention in funding the World Service from its beginnings before the Second World War was always to increase British influence in the world, but when I first started working at World Service in the late 1980s it wasn’t something you talked about in those bald terms and certainly not much in public.

But times have changed and now Tony Hall himself made the link in his statement welcoming the new money.

“The World Service is one of the UK’s most important cultural exports and one of our best sources of global influence.” (my emphasis).

Indeed, pressure on funding has led the BBC down the path of pitching for more money by trying to leverage its contribution to the country’s soft power.

Take the BBC’s proposed new service for North Korea. There has been a small but persistent lobby in parliament for a Korean Service for years, but the BBC had always resisted this on the grounds it wouldn’t be cost effective because not many North Koreans would be able to hear it given jamming and strict controls on radio sales.

Despite the advent of digital and online, the same applies today as access to the internet in the country is highly restricted.

The danger is that if the BBC aligns itself too closely and too publicly with the government’s foreign policy goals and ministers talk about the BBC as part of the country’s security strategy, people abroad may come to distrust it, which in turn could mean the BBC’s influence – and its audience – will decline.

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator” when the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is talking about the danger his ideals may not survive his death.

“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”

The words may come from a movie, but the BBC and the government should take heed.

 

Would Islamic State have attacked Paris twice this year killing almost 150 people if France weren’t bombing it in Iraq and Syria?

Would IS have blown up an airliner killing 229 Russian tourists and aircrew, if Moscow had not intervened in Syria?

Would IS have bombed Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut killing at least 43 if Hezbollah was not fighting alongside President Assad’s forces?

Would IS have launched attacks in Turkey killing 134 peace protesters if Ankara had not turned against it over Syria?

I’m not asking these questions to imply the victims of these attacks somehow brought it on themselves.

I’m asking because as President Hollande said this week his country is “at war” with IS – it has been since it started air strikes against its forces last year – and in a war you are likely to get attacked.

I’m also asking because when IS – or ISIL or ISIS or Daesh – hit world headlines by seizing Iraq’s second city, Mosul, last year, the conventional wisdom among the experts and analysts was that IS was a different kind of threat from al Qaeda – whose signature is mass casualty terrorist attacks anywhere it finds a target, like the 9/11 attacks in the US or the Bali bombing.

It may have emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the argument went that ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – was what it said on the tin – an organisation dedicated to carving out a state from those two countries.

It followed from there that IS was fighting a more conventional style war with the aim of capturing territory. Sure it used terror against its enemies by publicising on social media the atrocities it carried out when it occupied towns and took prisoners – be they regular Iraqi troops or Yezidi women and girls – but it was not interested in attacking targets further afield.

If this was a correct reading of IS then, we now know only too well it isn’t anymore.

It is tempting to see IS attacks outside Syria and Iraq as a direct response to the intervention of foreign forces against it that began after the fall of Mosul and its advances across the border in Syria.

But one of the first such incidents linked to IS was the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 – before the fall of Mosul and several months before the US-led campaign against it began.

Whatever motivated the change in tactics by IS, the conventional wisdom has been proved to be very wrong.

With the escalation of terrorist strikes and the shock of its assault in the heart of a major western capital, the focus is on how to eradicate the Islamist group.

Here another piece of conventional wisdom comes in – that destroying Islamic State in Syria and Iraq can be achieved, but only by using large numbers of ground troops.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US air strikes have had some success and recently retook the town of Sinjar. But the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies have made heavy weather of retaking Ramadi and the much-awaited offensive to retake Mosul is still to get underway. They clearly need reinforcements though where they may come from is not clear.

But is this wisdom also flawed?

Is there the danger the defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq would see it resorting to more mass casualty attacks in the region and beyond?

Remember, after 9/11, the overthrow of its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan didn’t prevent al Qaeda and its followers around the world carrying out further terrorist attacks, including Europe’s worst to date: the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed more than 190 people as they travelled to work.

The challenge many European countries face is that they have quite a few young Muslim citizens who are attracted to Islamist ideology.

This seems to be because they are deeply alienated from mainstream society and deeply angry about what they see as their countries’ policies towards the Muslim world.

But being attracted to the ideology and carrying out acts of terrorist violence for the cause are two different things.

What makes some people take to bombing and shooting their fellow citizens is not yet well enough understood. The studies that have been done suggest it’s a complex combination of societal and psychological factors as well as ideology.

Whatever the precise triggers, European countries, like France and Britain, are grappling with a volatile mix – the legacy of their imperial past in the Middle East and North Africa added to recent policies in the region which have angered substantial numbers of alienated young Muslim men and women.

The final ingredient – the detonator – seems to be the appeal of groups like IS offering what to these young people may appear a romantic cause of fighting to restore a glorious past – in this case the Caliphate.

So alongside more effective security measures and increased vigilance from ordinary people, to stop further attacks European countries need to take a deep breath, not overreact to Paris, and try to address the causes of Islamist violence.

So far the prospects don’t look good.

The French and British governments are both proposing changes that will enhance powers that will restrict people’s freedom.

Yet, French politicians and commentators have echoed their counterparts in Britain and other countries that have suffered Islamist-inspired violence by saying the terrorists’ target is the European way of life. So, surely the worst response would be to resort to unreasonable restrictions on people’s rights and freedoms in the name of defeating IS?

If this is partly an ideological struggle, that would be conceding valuable ground.

 

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