Freedom in the World 2014

freedom

Green = free
Yellow = partly free
Blue = Not Free

The pro-democracy and human rights group Freedom House annually publishes what is probably now my most highly-awaited report, ‘Freedom in the World’.  Today they published their 2014 edition, containing reports compiled over 2013.  It’s been unveiled under the gloomy headline, “An Eighth Year of Decline in Political Rights and Civil Liberties,” which certainly is quite depressing.  Having had a quick nose through the report, however, I don’t believe there’s reason for complete despair just yet.  It’s a similar trend to which we saw last year, of progress and regression pushing against each other with little progress either way.  There’s a lot of good news in here too.

Countries which have made significant changes are:

Bhutan
Bhutan has for a while been hovering at the lower end of the ‘partly free’ spectrum as its recent experiment with democracy has continued.  These reforms have been entrenched by the country’s first democratic rotation of power in history, which has in turn improved the state of civil liberties.

Central African Republic
This poor, landlocked African country has more or less collapsed over the last year.  A coalition of rebels overthrew President Bozizé in March which has led to the rapid disintegration of law and order, characterised by horrific sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims.  France has sent 1,600 troops to help restore order and prevent a decline into civil war, with further pledges of support from other European and African states.

Egypt
Egypt is a very depressing case right now.  I had so many hopes that it was on a path to democracy, albeit Islamist-tinted, but in July, following mass protests, President Morsi was deposed by the army.  There’s subsequently been heavy repression by the state against political opponents, with the Muslim Brotherhood named once again a terrorist organisation.  A constitutional referendum has recently passed which demands fresh elections to be held later this year but I’m not particularly optimistic about these.

Mali
After Mali’s dramatic decline last year, jumping straight from ‘free’ to ‘not free’ as a result of the northern rebellion and military coup, it’s refreshing to see some positive developments once again.  Following a French and African Union-backed campaign to rid the north of Islamist rebels, elections deemed mostly free and fair have been able to occur.  The country has a long way to go to recover it’s previous position but it seems to be on the right track.

Nicaragua
I confess to know very little about Nicaragua, but it’s seen improvements both to political rights and civil liberties ratings.  As far as I’m aware this is due to general attempts to create constitutional reforms and reduce corruption.

South Sudan
South Sudan has also been in the news recently due to increased political and ethnic violence.  It’s thought that as many as 500,000 people have been displaced, while several cities and territories have fallen under rebel control.  The government appears to be reasserting itself but there are real fears of a descent into civil war.  This has unsurprisingly caused a decline in the country’s civil liberty ratings (it’s political rating would probably have fallen too had it not already been pretty poor).

Tunisia
Tunisia’s performance is my favourite aspect of this report.  There were fears that hard-fought gains might be lost in a climate of political assassinations and disputes, but political parties and movements seem to have managed to work together to continue the country’s transition to democracy, helping cause an increase to the country’s civil liberties rating.  Tunisia may end up being the Arab Spring’s only success story.

Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes and trends are Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Iraq,* Italy, Japan, Madagascar, the Maldives, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, Tonga and Zimbabwe.**

Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes and trends are Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, the Gambia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sierra Leone, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tanzania, Uganda, Ukraine, Venezuela, Zambia and the Gaza Strip.

Worst of the Worst
All nine of last year’s worst-performing countries maintain the lowest possible score on political rights and civil liberties – Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.  The Central African Republic has this year been added to the group, while the unrecognised states of Tibet and Western Sahara also remain on it.

Conclusion
This may seem very bleak but there are a significant number of success stories which can serve as further inspiration for the continuingly oppressed peoples around the world.  Each year Freedom House additionally numbers the amount of ‘electoral democracies’ in the world – I’m not entirely sure what their criteria for this is – which actually saw an increase of 5 in this report, bringing the total amount of electoral democracies to 63.1%, the highest since 2007.  Here’s hoping these foundations can bring about an overall increase next year.

For the full report, see here.

*I’m quite surprised by this too, although Iraq is still firmly in the ‘not free’ category.
**I’m also rather surprised by this, but I imagine this is simply because less people died during last year’s elections than in 2008.

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2014 Predictions

New Year is rapidly becoming my favourite ‘holiday’ celebration.  Why?  Unlike Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and most of the others, it actually seems to have a purpose that’s neither religious nor consumerist.  Although not the greatest fan of fireworks, I do enjoy using New Year as an opportunity for reflection on the year past, and to take a look at the year ahead.  I do this for my own life – though that would be dreadfully boring to put on this blog – but I’m also increasingly trying to do it for the world at large.  The rushed predictions I made for this year turned out to be 65% correct; next year I hope to beat that record!  I’m going to split the predictions into categories rather than just focusing on exciting/dull political developments as I did for this year.  So, without further ado, here are my 2014 predictions:

UK Politics

  • The Coalition will survive to the end of the year, but the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will really start ramping up the rhetoric to differentiate themselves from one another.  The Liberal Democrats will focus on the social liberal policies while remaining economically right-wing.
  • European elections: The Conservatives will lose out massively, perhaps dropping to 15-20%, while I expect Labour to lead at maybe 25% or so.  UKIP will, of course, dominate the news, and I expect them to come a close second to Labour but they won’t have a massive breakthrough.  The Liberal Democrat vote will collapse, falling below 10%.  The Greens will (hopefully!) keep at least one seat, while I think the SNP will make some gains in Scotland.  There won’t, however, be a clear leader in the election.
  • The Scottish electorate will reject independence in the upcoming referendum, but it’ll be closer than most are currently predicting.  The share voting Yes will be above 35%.
  • We might finally get some decent policy announcements from Labour.  Maybe.

Elections Worldwide

  • The constitutional referendum in Egypt will go ahead and provide a Yes vote, resulting in parliamentary and presidential elections later in the year.  I expect Sisi will run for president, or push a figure from the military.  These elections might not be completely rigged but I don’t expect their results to be universally accepted.
  • Libya will finally end up with a government by the end of the year, which will be more liberal-leaning than many other post-revolutionary governments in the region.
  • North Korea’s ruling party candidates will be returned to parliament with 100% of the vote.
  • Iraq will struggle to hold parliamentary elections within an increasingly violent atmosphere; Shia candidates will narrowly achieve a majority over Sunni and secular alternatives – Nour al-Maliki will probably continue as Prime Minister.
  • The European Parliament as a whole will see a massive rise of national eurosceptic parties – like UKIP – gaining seats in the legislature.  Otherwise, perhaps a small shift towards the left?
  • The Bharatiya Janata Party will defeat the ruling Indian National Congress in India.
  • The Fidesz Party in Hungary will consolidate its rule, leading to increasing concerns of authoritarianism in the country.
  • The ANC will be re-elected in South Africa, although with a smaller majority than in any other post-Apartheid election.  President Zuma’s popularity will continue to decline nonetheless.
  • In Sweden the Social Democratic Party, in alliance with the Greens, shall sweep to power.
  • Despite mass protests against her government earlier this year, I expect President Rousseff shall cling onto power in Brazil.
  • The Democrats shall take control of the United States Congress, finally ending the gridlock upon American politics. (I can dream)

Other World Developments

  • The Syrian conflict will become so depressing I’ll probably stop writing and talking about it.  The death toll shall pass 200,000, the government and Islamic radicals will become increasing winners at the expense of the population, and the international community will twiddle its thumbs while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah more and more start to call the shots.
  • The Sochi Winter Olympics will pass without too many more terrorist incidents.  There will be heightened international criticism of Russia’s human rights record, which will then be largely forgotten once the media coverage dies down.
  • We’ll be seeing a lot more about the travesty of oil-drilling in the Arctic.
  • There will be another coup, either in Africa or Asia.
  • Something big will happen to a South American country.
  • At least two countries will become more democratic.
  • Keep an eye on Ukraine – I expect certain elements of the country to increasingly resist Russian influence.
  • China’s economic growth rate will recede although still stay above the majority of countries in the world.
  • The dictator whose political demise I’ll predict this time is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeria.

Cultural Predictions

  • Doctor Who: Steven Moffat will announce plans to resign within the next year, potentially followed by an announcement of a successor.  The return of an undivided series structure, alongside the return of multiple-episode stories (not yet announced) will improve series 8’s standing in my reviews.
  • Radiohead will release their ninth album, and it shall be amazing.
  • J.K. Rowling will publish her sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, which will become an instant best-seller.

 

Review: My 2013 Predictions

Last year I wrote a list of predictions for what I expected to occur across the world stage in 2013.  I’ve been looking through it over the year, pleased with some predictions, while despairing as other world events swept passed my expectations.  Here I’ll review each prediction, one by one, and tally up my score to see whether I should become a professional psychic or not.

UK Predictions

  1. Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    Prince George (‘of Cambridge’) was born on the 22nd July 2013 in good health.  The BBC and other broadcasters had around the clock coverage; he was on virtually every newspaper front page; and we republicans did indeed grumble.
  2. The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
    Economically the coalition government has continued to assault the country with austerity upon austerity.  Just this month, chancellor George Osborne announced another billion pound cuts from government departments.  The economy does seem to be improving, at long last, however Labour leader Ed Miliband is rightfully bringing to attention a ‘cost of living crisis’ (perhaps because he has few other policies worth discussing).
    In terms of party politics, there doesn’t seem to be the separation of identities between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats I’d expected.  The Liberal Democrats have been highlighting their key policies of this government, such as raising the income tax threshold for low earners and pushing free school meals.  Yet, if anything, they’ve seemed to me to be moving further to the right.  When Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, he sounded more and more like a Tory with each passing question.

 World Predictions

  1. The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    Correct!  In January, following an Islamic rebel advance upon the south of the country, when it looked as though the capital Bamako itself might be under threat, France began a military campaign against the rebels on 11th January.  In one of the more successful Western interventions of recent times, the rebels were driven out of most major settlements in the north by February and had returned to government control.  Violence is persisting but the government remains in control with the help of French and African Union peacekeepers.  Elections came soon afterwards, during which Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, former Prime Minister from 1994-2000, became the President.
  2. The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    Uh, no.  No.  And no again.  News stories coming out of Syria during 2013 and have been getting more and more depressing, with no prospect of change coming soon.  The Assad regime did not fall; in fact, it looks stronger than at any other point during the course of the war.  In May, Lebanese Shia armed group Hezbollah entered the war on the regime’s side.  Its fighters flooded across the border and helped the government seize control of the strategic city of al-Qusayr and the surrounding countryside.  The rebels have also made gains, however more and more militias have been swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda linked Islamic fundamentalist organisation which has been making advancements against more moderate rebels in what’s described as a ‘civil war within a civil war’.  The death toll continues to mount: in September France estimated 120,000 people to have died, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights currently puts it at 160,000.
    In terms of international support, Western powers have continued to supply non-lethal equipment to the rebels, while in June US President Obama announced military aid would be supplied to the rebels, although it’s unclear how much ever arrived.  Recent developments concerning the rise of Islamists have caused even this aid to be suspended.
    Meanwhile, Russian support of the regime has only strengthened.  This became clear following the increased reports of chemical weapon use across the country.   Both sides blamed each other, of course, but after particularly horrific attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus the international community seemed to demand action.  It looked as though Western nations – primarily the USA, UK and France – were preparing to launch military strikes against Syria to send a message to Assad.  However, when the UK Parliament voted against action and Obama looked close to defeat in Congress, this never came to be.  At the last minute, Russian President Putin came to the aid of both President Assad and Obama by proposing an operation to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.  Despite difficulties accessing all the chemical weapons depots, some in contested areas of the country, the process of destroying them seems to be going successfully.  This has had the effect of restoring legitimacy to the Syrian regime, which is seen as an equal partner in these negotiations, and the West effectively giving up on Syria.
  3. Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    In hindsight, it’s probably a bad idea to predict anything won’t be dramatic.  Alongside the aforementioned Syria crisis,  he’s had to put up with threats of war from North Korea, the failure of his proposed gun law reform, the shutdown of the US government after political gridlock in Congress, a botched roll-out of his key ‘Obamacare’ policy and, perhaps worst of all for Obama, massive leaks about the level of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of US and international citizens by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which has brought international condemnation and affected relations with countries including Brazil and Germany.  He’s probably very glad for a new start next year.
  4. A war will not start over Iran.
    Correct!  There’s actual much cause for optimism over out future relations with Iran.  Everything seemed to change with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in June.  Though far from a radical – he’d never have been allowed to run otherwise – the fact that so many Iranian voters opted for the least conservative candidate has sent a clear message to the ruling elites that they want change.  Perhaps this is why Rouhani has been given something of a free reign to pursue his policies.  He held a phone call with President Obama in September, the first time the presidents of either country have spoken directly since the 1979 revolution which brought the current Iranian regime to power.  Then came a historic agreement in which Iran finally agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions.  There’s much progress to be made, but also reason to be optimistic.
  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    Correct.  Merkel achieved her best ever result in September, gaining 41.5% of the vote and nearly achieving a majority in the Bundestag, ensuring her a third term as chancellor.  After months of difficult talks, her Christian Democratic Union agreed to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with the opposition Social Democratic Party.  Merkel certainly seems to be bucking the trend of European leaders being brought down by the financial crisis – she’s in a stronger position than ever.
  6. Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    Um.  Not really.  Kind of?  Well, Libya has avoided descending into complete anarchy, but there are still many incidents of armed militias operating outwith the control of the government, the most frightening case being when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a hotel, although he was safely returned.  A timetable for national elections still hasn’t been established, but it’s hoped that Libya can have its first post-revolutionary government by the end of next year.  So really, I suppose, it’s too early to say on this one.
  7. Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    Hahaha, oh, how wrong is it possible to be?  Unfortunately not.  To save me repeating the dramatic events of the 3rd July, you can read the post I wrote about it at the time.  Since the coup, things have only got worse.  Protests have continued from both sides, pulling Egypt down into further instability.  This culminated in a horrific massacre where dozens of protesters were killed by security forces.  The ruling military regime has since strengthened its hold on power, imposing curfews and recently branding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi’s party, a ‘terrorist organisation’.  The country is appearing more and more to be under the grip of a General new to the scene, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, currently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister.  Elections are expected for next year, which Sisi is widely predicted to run for.  In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Egypt.
  8. Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    Well, technically, Berlusconi was elected to the Italian Senate, but if we assume I meant elected as Prime Minister then I got this correct.  Italy’s election this year left no party in a position of power, meaning multiple parties had to come together to form government, including his People of Freedom party.  However, the Prime Minister of this unstable government turned out to be Enrica Letta of the Democratic Party.  Berlusconi himself has been involved in continuing scandal after scandal, being recently convicted of tax-fraud and sentenced to four years in prison (none of which he’ll actually serve due to his age), and barred from political office for six years.  Subsequently, he was expelled from the Italian Senate.  I wouldn’t underestimate Berlusconi, but I can’t imagine his career recovering from this.
  9. The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    Pretty much.  I haven’t been following this in too much detail, but I’m aware of various talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government being on, off, on again, off again, and so on.  Really not much seems to be happening in the run up to NATO’s withdrawal next year.
  10. I expect more crises from North Korea.
    Yup.  There was that strange period last April when North Korea threatened war against South Korea, Japan and the USA which I referred to earlier – I don’t think anyone knows what that was really about.  Needless to say, that came to nothing and North Korea soon quietened down again.  I imagine it was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to create a warlike atmosphere within the country to further entrench his rule – nothing increases loyalty like giving people a common enemy.  Then, even more shockingly, earlier this month Kim had his very own uncle executed as part of a wider purge.  I wrote about it here.  Nothing which has yet threatened to spiral out of control from the perspective of the West, but erratic and worrying behaviour nonetheless.
  11. Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    Pretty much.  I largely covered this earlier.
  12. This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    Unfortunately, Mugabe is still President of his long-suffering nation.  My reasons behind this prediction were Mugabe’s age, having turned 89 this year, and the fact an election was due to be held earlier this year.  However his health seems to be as strong as ever, while the election this year re-elected him in very fraudulent conditions indeed.
  13. There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    I’d consider events in Egypt earlier this year to be a coup, so got that one right.  I think Mali could count as having become more democratic, having achieved mostly free and fair elections after a year of chaos.  I can’t think of any other standout examples, which is a shame, but Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014 report (due to be published fairly soon) might shine a light on this.
  14. Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    This is really impossible to say.  Again, I await the Freedom in the World 2014 with great interest.  I’m going to take the lack of any particular evidence to the contrary as evidence that Burma at least isn’t backsliding.  Aung San Suu Kyi did recently announced that her National League for Democracy plans to contest the 2015 general election – widely hoped to be Burma’s first free election – even if the constitution isn’t amended to allow her to run for the Presidency.  Which seems to be a good sign.  Hopefully.  I really don’t know.  I think I’ll give myself this one…
  15. Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    Nope – President Chavez of Venezuela died of cancer on the 5th March, later to be succeeded by his Vice-President, Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be carrying on his divisive legacy.
  16. Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    Despite continued advances by Somalian and African Union forces against Al-Shabab, they’re far from having been cleared from the country and still control much territory, particularly in rural areas.  So wrong on that one.
  17. More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    This was unfortunately a pretty safe bet.  As I wrote earlier the death toll in Syria continues to mount; there have been continued protests and unrest in Sudan, though not coming to much; Egypt has had what were tipped to be the ‘largest protests in history’ which deposed President Morsi; April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008; Libya’s been having increased issues with militias, as I indicated earlier; and Lebanon has had increased bombings, assassinations and clashes as the Syrian Civil War continues to spill over.
  18. Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    Yes.  She was ousted earlier than I expected, having her position as leader of the Labor party usurped by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister.  The Labor party was then met with disaster in the September election, losing 17 seats and its tentative majority to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, ending 6 years of Labor Party rule.
  19. Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    To be honest, his dictatorship was rather consolidated anyway by the end of 2012, but it certainly hasn’t weakened.  He’s continued pressing forward in policies such as the ‘anti-gay laws’, infringing the rights of LGBT people.  Things have become more interesting in the last month in the run-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi: Putin granted an amnesty to many high-profile political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the remaining two members of Pussy Riot and the ‘Arctic 30’.  Perhaps this is a big to improve Russia’s standing among the international community.  He must have been shaken by two bomb attacks in the last couple of days in Volgograd, which might be part of a continuing campaign by Cechen rebels.  But nevertheless, his authority in Russia seems pretty powerful.
  20. The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    Yeah, I’ll give myself that one.  There have been many discoveries on Mars, including pretty strong evidence that it once had running water.  That’s more interesting than I expected, but I don’t suppose it’s something the majority of people noticed or continue to think about.
  21. Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.
    Yes!  Sorry, that explanation mark makes me sound more enthused about this than I am.  See more here.

Overall, I seem to have actually fared better than I expected, having been more or less correct on 65% of the issues!  Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of predictions for 2014 – watch this space.

North Korea: Orwell Was Not Exaggerating

Just a quick thought.  When I was doing research for my Advanced Higher English dissertation last year on dystopian literature, I came across a few critics who argued that Orwell intended Nineteen Eighty-Four to be an unrealistically extreme example of a totalitarian state to make his warning and message more effective.  I strongly disagreed back then; recent events in North Korea, meanwhile, are serving to remind me so much of the novel that, frankly, it’s frightening.

Back in November the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Chang Song-thaek, was hauled out of a session of the ruling party by armed guards.  Recent reports indicate he has now been machine-gunned to death.  Formerly considered to be the most powerful man in the country during the leadership transition in 2011-2012, he has fallen victim to Kim Jong-un’s first serious purge.  Just like in Orwell’s Oceania, leading figures in The Party and the lower classes alike can be disappeared upon the whims of the country’s leadership.

The propaganda screaming out of the North Korean state media is even more terrifying.  Read it for yourself – it contains horrific excerpts like, “However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.”  From memory, this is just as extreme as any of the propaganda in Nineteen Eighty-four, perhaps even worse.  I remember from various BBC documentaries, state imagery is prevalent across Pyongyang and much of the capital: great murals idealising the country’s leaders and quasi-Communist ideology; loudspeakers blare party doctrine and patriotic music across the city; the state controls both the television and the internet – North Koreans are only permitted to use a heavily censored country-wide intranet.  Like Oceania, the totalitarian state’s propaganda pervades every aspect of life.

In the novel, Winston works at the ‘Ministry of Truth’.  His job involves literally rewriting history: writing disgraced figures out of newspaper archives, editing history books and news broadcasts, and so on; doing whatever necessary to fit The Party’s current stance.  The state not only kills dissenters – it removes them from existence.  If you read that North Korean official announcement I linked to, it attempts to discredit Chang by suggesting he has planned to seize power ever since ‘long ago’ and destroy the revolution.  But it’s far worse than that – a recent state-sponsored documentary has reportedly had all mention of Chang edited out, while images have literally been photoshopped in order to pretend Kim Jong-un never truly trusted him within his inner circle.  While I couldn’t comment on whether the people of North Korea are so psychologically conditioned as the citizens of Oceania to just accept this change without thought, I certainly doubt it will be seriously questioned.

As the former North Korean ambassador for the UK has just told Newsnight, there is a real chance of North Korea starting up another crisis similar to the one we saw earlier this year, threatening to start World War Three and to turn South Korea into a ‘sea of fire’ alongside other such insane rhetoric.  Absolutely baseless, of course, but it serves a logical purpose: the North Korean people’s confidence in their leadership will be shaken after this recent report, so what better way to unify them alongside the ruling party than to show the country facing a threat from evil imperialistic powers?  By artificially creating a state of war and siege within the country, dissent can successfully be quelled through what may be only the beginning of a wider purge.  This is a central theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell dedicating an entire chapter to the political theory behind it, in fact – as Oceania is always at war with either Eastasia or Eurasia.  The constant state of war rallies people behind The Party and create a deep sense of patriotism and loyalty.

Dissenting citizens of Oceania are taken to the Ministry of Love where, through a combination of torture and brainwashing, they are forced to love Big Brother.  The aim is not to rehabilitate them into society; everyone entering the Ministry of Love has a death sentence above their heads.  For the Party it is not enough to kill a dissenter – they must die fully under its control.  North Korea, meanwhile, has its own form of repression.  According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are incarcerated in massive prison and labour camps.  This counts for almost 1 in 100 people.  Many of these are political prisoners of conscience, while others will be there through guilt by association to other dissenters alone – the family members of political enemies, for example.  Mass executions are common: that report mentions prisoners are often made to dig their own graves before being killed by a hammer blow to the neck; others are publicly beaten before being shot to death.  Women are frequently raped and then ‘disappeared’ to hide the evidence.  This goes on every single moment of every single day while we carry on largely oblivious.  Just like in Orwell’s vision, the North Korean state systematically tortures its own citizens.

These are only a few examples of how the North Korean state is in many ways identical to the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty Four.  Orwell’s masterpiece is not an exaggeration nor a satire; it exists today within North Korea.  The North Korean state is living proof that such a world is possible – it’s only by luck that we’ve avoided the same fate.  Stories coming out of North Korea might seem funny and weird but I hope I’ve convinced you that it really isn’t a laughing matter.  It is shameful for our entire species that these atrocities are still allowed to occur.  I have no solutions. I suspect, barring a spontaneous change within the North Korean political system – not impossible – the totalitarian state will only collapse once it loses the support of China.  By that point, I’m convinced, it would be utterly unable to function.  Until such a time, the anonymous millions within North Korea are destined to continue their suffering.

Image attribution: By stngiam (Mural outside Songdowon Hotel, Wonsan, North Korea) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Goodbye, Nelson Mandela

President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela, Ju...

I’ve just read the news that Nelson Mandela has died, at the fine age of 95, and felt a very bizarre flood of emotions.  We’ve seen this sad day coming through numerous reports of the former South African president’s ill health, yet I never considered just how much it would hit me – and, I’m sure, the entire world – when his time was finally up.  Almost like a form of personal grief but for a man I’ve never met.  I’m sure part of this is due to the not wholly undeserved hero-worship which has built up around Mandela in recent years, though I’m certain I would consider him a personal hero regardless of his image in the media.

From my studies of South Africa in Advanced Higher History last year I became enthralled by his consistent courage opposing Apartheid; but, I would argue, this is not what made Mandela special.  History is littered with freedom-fighters who fought for and won their causes.  Why Mandela stands above these people and became such a shining figure in human history is that, after decades of persecution and oppression by the hideous Apartheid regime, he forgave.  Under his presidency there was no retribution or revenge of the like which has torn many other African nations apart following the horrors of colonialism; the groundbreaking policy of truth and reconciliation he oversaw, though not undeserving of criticism, in my opinion saved South Africa from the brink of what must have seemed an inevitable, bloody civil war.  I’m loath to deify anyone but there’s no word for Mandela’s capacity to forgive other than superhuman.

I hope this example can continue to inspire South Africans – and, indeed, the world – long after he’s gone.  I’m aware there were fears that Mandela served as a symbolic father figure holding the nation together but I’m confident that his legacy can go on if we have the courage to not give in to the temptation to seek revenge and intolerance.  Quotes from the great man will be flying around all over the place right now but one which particularly speaks to me is:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Farewell, Madiba.  All across the world you will be mourned and, most importantly, you will be remembered.

A Political Day in Edinburgh

Sorry, this is going to be another one of those cobbled together ‘recounted a somewhat interesting day I had’ blog posts.  I promise I’ll try to get a more coherent program of output sometime soon, but for the moment my life’s still rather hectic (university’s utterly mad!).

The first round of excitement was a protest outside the Scottish Parliament I decided to attend, organised by the University of Edinburgh Amnesty International society.  I wasn’t involved in the planning but I gather it had also been put together in less than a week which, given the result, was very impressive indeed!   We were protesting against human rights abuses in Sri Lanka by the government of President Rajapaksa, specifically aimed at convincing David Cameron to raise the issue during an upcoming Commonwealth meeting hosted in Sri Lanka.  This was my first proper protest and I wasn’t disappointed.  We set out a fake beach for people dressed as Cameron and Rajapaksa to lay upon, wearing scarves (this is a Scottish beach), while the rest of held banners and shouted exciting protest chants.  The Amnesty Facebook page has a picture of the event here! (I’m the one in the bright yellow jacket who happens to be blinking at the moment of capture).

Then, even more excitingly, we were joined by some MSPs.  My political hero Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, came out and had some pictures taken with us.  Fellow Green Alison Johnstone was also there, along with Scottish National Party MSP Marco Biagi and Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson.  It was thrilling to see so much support from within the political establishment; we weren’t shouting at a deaf parliament.

So that was all very fun indeed – if ‘fun’ is the right way to refer to a protest – well, it was fun!  My second political event of the day was a debate on Scottish independence hosted by the university.  Speaking in favour of independence was MSP Marco Biagi, whose schedule today appeared to be as busy as mine, and University of Edinburgh rector Peter McColl, representing the Green Party.  Speaking against the motion was a Labour-Conservative partnership, something becoming increasingly common in Scotland, featuring Labour MP Sheila Gilmore* and Conservative MSP Gavin Brown.  Not much new was raised I didn’t know previously, aside from the startling fact that Spain has suggested it would veto an independent Scotland’s membership into the EU purely to quell Catalonian aspirations.  Considering this behaviour, I have every sympathy for Catalonian secessionists.

The voting was very interesting, however.  The initial audience vote turned out to be –

Yes: 17 votes (21.25%)
No: 30 votes (37.5%)
Undecided: 33 votes (41.25%).

Compared to national polls the Yes/No divide was very similar but there were far many more undecided votes than I expected.  Glad most people went into it with an open mind.  Even more interesting was to be the post-debate results:

Yes: 36 votes** (42%)
No: 37 votes (45%)
Undecided: 9 votes (11%)

I certainly didn’t expect the Yes vote to make such progress, which was very interesting.  Of course it’s worth remembering that the room had a significant number of international students in it, who I’d presume would tend to be more positive towards independence (internationalism was a central theme of the debate; I was particularly impressed by Peter McColl’s “I’m not a nationalist; I’m an internationalist” speech).

So, yeah.  I really enjoyed my engagement with politics today and, in a bit of a post-political high, decided to stop putting off something I’ve been considering for a while and finally joined a political party – the Scottish Greens.  I share so many views and aims with the party that it makes sense.

To many more exciting days like this!

*It’s probably a bit unfair to lump Sheila Gilmore together with the Tories, as she seems one of the more principled members of the Labour Party and earned my respect through the debate.
**I somehow got it into my head that the Yes/No final result had been 46/47, but this would have added about 20 people to the audience so I’m assuming I just misheard.  The No result definitely only had a lead of one vote, either way.

German Ghost Border Strikes Back

Upon analysing the results of the recent German Election, which has been a huge victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), I came across this fascinating graph.  It’s one of a series showing where each party has its base (Social Democrats in north-west, CDU in the south – and everywhere else, really) and this particular map shows where votes for the ‘Die Linke’ (Left) party are concentrated.  Just as I discovered with religious observance, there’s a clear east-west divide along the former border of the Iron Curtain.

I can see two immediate responses to this.  A Marxist might say that the Communist government of East Germany so successfully instilled its ideals into the population that, as with religion, they continue to advocate the state’s beliefs long after it exists.  Others might argue that this is merely the inevitable result of increased poverty in the east as a result of inefficient rule, or due to the difficulties the region must be facing in adapting to a capitalist system.

Either way, I continue to be fascinated by how history is so clearly alive today in the most surprising ways.  Do you know of any other examples of these ‘ghost borders’?  Please let me know!