The setting of the sun on the British Empire: Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer

imageSummary: a lucid and witty addition to the literature on the British Empire, its greed, incompetence and atrocities… though Edwina and Dickie were decent enough old sticks

The sub-title of this book, “The secret history of the end of an empire” is probably a bit misleading. It seems to derive from the author’s very sympathetic exploration of the not very secret menage à trois that developed between Edwina Mountbatten, Nehru, and Edwina’s husband Louis, the last Viceroy. Rather than a secret history this is a fine narrative history of the coming of Indian and Pakistani independence and the bloody aftermath. Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten are the author’s particular heroes, though she also seems to have a healthy respect for Jinnah and Gandhi, and a soft spot for Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten who, for all his limitations, comes across as a very likeable and fundamentally decent chap.

There is much else to admire in the book, not least the author’s portrayal of the true awfulness of the carnage that erupted with partition and her assessment of controversies, such as the origins of the Kashmir conflict, I found fair-minded and careful. Personally I was left with a much more negative opinion of Gandhi as a result of reading this book: He was unquestionably a brave and principled man of considerable moral courage, but his calling a halt to the campaign for the British to quit India in the 1920s seemed to have meant the loss of an opportunity for Indian independence unsullied by partition, and the holocaust that entailed. Others may prefer to emphasize the failures of twentieth century British policy towards India, up to and including the management of their departure. However given Gandhi’s retrogressive position on caste it is probably time for a more sober reassessment of the man’s life and achievements.

As a bonus the author also has a lovely gift for humour and the narrative is peppered with some excellent jokes that emerge naturally from her account, rather than being shoe-horned into it. The result is an elegantly written and erudrite popular history of run up to Indian independence and the bloody chaos of the sub-continent’s partitioning.

“Its a midnight run for crissake!”… (not)

I remember watching the Robert DeNiro/Charles Grodin movie Midnight Run when it first came out and looking at my watch after about an hour and a half and thinking: “Fantastic! There is another hour to go!”

I had a similar reaction after about 200 pages of this book: “Great! There is another 100 pages to go!”

Screwed is the second in Eoin Colfer’s series about the misadventures of ex-Irish Army sergeant Daniel McEvoy on the fringes of the New Jersey criminal underworld. In this novel Dan is required to deliver a package to a criminal in New York in order to part-pay a debt to another local crime lord. Nobody says “Its a midnight run, for crissake!” but you know, because this is Dan’s world, that the rest of the book is going to chart a couple of days for Dan similarly fraught to the ones Grodin and DeNiro endured all those years ago. Indeed, nothing is ever as straightforward as Dan would like it to be and the novel charts Dan’s subsequent antics hoping from frying pans to fires and back again.

The series seems to be finding its feet with this novel: its funny, exciting, and with a welcome reduction on some of the wise cracking of the previous novel even if Dan does tend rather too often to “with one bound” free himself from some terrifying situations. Still the novel is knowing enough to forgive this and leaves one looking forward to the next installment.

Challenges and lessons learnt in combating contemporary forms of slavery: my address to slavery side event to UN Human Rights Council, 13 Sept 2013

First of all it is as always a pleasure and privilege to be here. And I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Gulnara Shahinian on her tenure as Special Rapporteur on Slavery. In her term Gulnara has raised the profile of slavery in the UN and made crucial interventions on on particularly reprehensible forms of slavery such as bonded labour, domestic servitude and servile marriage. Her interventions have helped move forward understanding of and action on these issues.

I am also grateful to have the opportunity to pay tribute directly to the UK ambassador for the role of the UK in establishing this mandate. In doing this the UK keeps faith with the historical tradition of British leadership in the international struggle against slavery since the time of the great British abolitionists such as Clarkson and Equiano.

Anti-Slavery International also can trace our origin back to the end of the 18th Century when Thomas Clarkson was my most illustrious predecessor. As the oldest international human rights organization in the world we have a longer, historical, perspective on the issue than most and also a broader, geographical perspective than many.

So in considering the challenges in combating contemporary forms of slavery there are a couple of matters we would particularly highlight.

First through the history of the struggle against slavery there has been an erroneous belief in “silver bullets”. That is there has been a belief that we just need one particular thing to end the problem, whether that is ending the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or making slavery itself illegal. Each of these achievements has confined slavery further and further to the margins of society, but none of them have completely managed to eradicate slavery in any single country let alone the world. This is simply because slavery evolves faster than the systems hitherto established to eradicate it. What is needed is a more dynamic and permanent set of processes that will aim to progressively reduce the scope of slavery and contribute to the empowerment of those vulnerable to slavery.

Slavery is a diverse matter. The term slavery may describe situations as varied as that of a young woman in domestic servitude in a diplomatic household in London, to a family born into chattel slavery in Mauritania, to the young women and girls who are kept in forced labour in India,  the world’s largest democracy, to produce garments for the high streets of Europe and North America.

Each of these diverse situations requires a different set of response to ameliorate it.

But if we look more closely at these various forms of slavery as we have in Anti-Slavery over the years through both qualitative research and programmatic work we can see that slavery emerges at the conjunction of three broad factors: individual vulnerability usually this is poverty but it can simply be about physical weakness; social exclusion; and failure of government and the rule of law. 

The issue of social exclusion and with it discrimination is a fundamental one in slavery: In Latin America today many in forced labour are indigenous people. In Western Europe most people in slavery are migrants workers. In South Asia most people in slavery are Dalits or from other scheduled castes or minority groups.

This is important for a variety of reasons, not least that it inhibits the issue from becoming a political one: if this is being inflicted upon groups and individuals who the wider society simply does not like, then that wider community is more likely to tolerate the abuses if they see them and not raise their voice to demand that governments do their jobs to stop the problem.

And slavery is very much a failure of government and the rule of law. Child labourers enslaved in the garment workshops of Delhi tell how when the workshop owners fail to pay bribes to the police, the police come, arrest the children and hold them hostage, stopping work, until the bribes are paid. The appalling lack of capacity of Indian courts exacerbates further these factors. Generally Indian courts rule progressively when slavery cases come to trial. But the backlog of cases in those courts means that few do come to trial, effectively making a nonsense of the promises of that country’s laws and constitution.

So a central  front in the struggle to end slavery must relate to building the capacity of states to effect rule of law. There must be sufficient judges properly trained in human rights in general and in anti-slavery rights in particular to ensure that rule of law pertains within the states borders for all its citizens. And beyond those borders states should ensure that they deploy labour attaches to every country that their citizens travel to for work to press for the respecting of their rights and the building of the rule of law where their citizens seek decent work.

Of course there remains a huge lacuna with regards to international rule of law and this is the  question of how, in this globalising political economy, international businesses and individual business executives can be held to account on human rights issues in their supply chains. This is a central requirement in the struggle against contemporary slavery, particularly as they extend their operations into countries where extant evidence shows slavery is rife and regularly pollutes business supply chains.

The UK just last week became the first country to publish an action plan on the Ruggie principles. We would urge other Governments to follow this lead, and to introduce extra-territorial legislation to establish legal accountability of international business entities and their executives in relation to slavery in their supply chains. If history shows us one thing it is that a request for voluntary initiatives to respond to systemic abuses such as slavery do little to dent the system. What is needed is a change in the system such as that which the UK has pioneered on bribery.

The second major challenge that I wanted to consider was the comforting myth that slavery is a thing of the past. Such a belief is perhaps forgivable for the mass of ordinary people who live their lives beyond the challenges of reducing poverty and advancing human rights. But this myth is bought into by the mass of major humanitarian and development actors and here it is unacceptable because it threatens to fatally undermine the stated aspirations of those very actors. As development and anti-poverty work is currently practiced it is blind to the continuing atrocity of a minimum of 21 million people in slavery. Hence development practices often threaten to either absolutely or relatively worsen the situations of those in slavery. For example in 2005 during the west African famine our colleagues in the  organization Timidria noticed that slaves were being used in food for work programmes: they were being sent to these schemes by their masters who would then confiscate the ration card they received for their labour. In other words an important and well meaning humanitarian programme was contributing to the absolute worsening of their lives.

This is not an isolated case. Hence the imperative of reducing slavery needs to become a central focus of the entire international development sector. This can be obtained by two principle means. First slavery eradication must be made a post 2015 development goal recognising the fundamental constraint that slavery is on poverty reduction as well as the continuing human rights atrocity that it is. Second, and to advance this development goal, all aid actors must be required to state how their programmes address the challenges of slavery and non-gender based discrimination in their operations. It should be an acceptable response to say that it will have no impact, some programmes will necessarily respond to other priorities. But the requirement should be that at least they consider this matter in the same way as they are now rightly required to consider gender in programming.

Slavery is a human institution and like all human institutions it can be changed by human action. But we must stop just tinkering at its edges and instead aim to destroy it utterly. 

Citizen philosophers and a dimwit go to war for Old Ireland: my review of Insurrection by Liam O’Flaherty

imageLiam O’Flaherty’s 1950 novel is an account of a small group of rebels progress through Easter Week 1916, starting with the storming of the General Post Office, through an action clearly based on the intense fighting around Mount Street Bridge, to the final hours around the GPO leading up to the surrender.

As in his books Skerrit and The Informer, O’Flaherty’s principle protagonist is a pretty dim one, in this case a Connemara man Bartley Madden, who is transformed, though not intellectually, by his experiences during the novel. How much you enjoy having a Stage Irishman at the centre of the novel you are reading is probably a matter of personal taste, but I could have done without it. Such a device seems to have been chosen by O’Flaherty in order to explore his political and philosophical ideas, and it is these more than the fighting that are central to his concerns in this novel.

And, unfortunately this makes for a rather unbelievable and clumsy novel. Pages are taken up with philosophical and cod-philosophical discourse. Perhaps this is how soldiers, most particularly citizen-soldiers, spend their time in battle. But even if it rings true I found many of their conversations uninteresting and the view of O’Flaherty, who had been a combatant in both the first world war and the struggles around Irish independence, bleak.

Those who know a little about the 1916 rising will recognise that O’Flaherty is generally faithful to the course of events and the geography of Dublin. However if one is searching for a gripping introduction to the 1916 rebellion, Charles Townsend’s historical account is both more informative and, for me, much more exciting.

Seamus Heaney

imageI remember sitting in the back of Newry Town Hall in November 1980 when Seamus Heaney came to give a poetry reading. It was a revelation to my teenage self who had not once been out of the island of Ireland at that point.

Heaney represented something that was identifiably Irish in his reflections on life, the countryside and the horrors of the Troubles. But he was also a voice that refused to be provincial showing how we shared the same hopes and tragedies that ordinary people from England to Greece, Italy and America had suffered over the centuries.

The universality of that voice is one of the reasons that his death has so resonated across the world. His poetry spoke to people in their diverse individual lives.

But it was also clearly the voice of one of the world’s great gentlemen, someone whose graciousness was evident in even the most cursory meetings.

imageThe world has been enriched by his life’s work. But that must be little consolation to his wife and family now. I am sure the country’s hearts go out to them in their grieving.

The world is a bit smaller without him, but his poetry, even before he wrote the words himself, helped inspire many, myself included, to try to do a little bit to encourage that “longed-for tidal wave of justice” to “rise up, and [make] hope and history rhyme.”