Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy

Julius_CaesarSummary: an extraordinarily gripping account of one of history’s most dramatic lives

I started reading this book because I felt I should: I realised I didn’t have a fully formed opinion of Julius Caesar, other than Shakespeare’s negative portrayal of him. I felt that this was something of a character flaw for an erudite chap of the 21st Century.

So I started reading and was quickly hooked. Certainly, as Goldsworthy points out, Caesar had a more dramatic life than almost any other human being who ever lived, from his conquest of Gaul, to his crossing of the Rubicon, to the delivery of Cleopatra to his bedchamber in a laundry basket, to his assassination in the Senate. But there was more than that: I was surprised by just how much I came to like Caesar.

One anecdote early on I found peculiarly endearing: At the height of the Catiline conspiracy crisis Cicero addressed the Senate demanding the death penalty for the conspirators. Caesar followed this by arguing for their banishment instead. Cato, a bitter opponent of Caesar, took this as indicating that Caesar was secretly in league with the conspirators and stood to denounce him in colourful terms. While this was going on a slave arrived in the Senate to deliver a message to Caesar. He read it quietly and then tucked it into his toga. Cato seeing this declared that there was proof of his collusion: see Caesar has just received a communication from the conspirators. Caesar calmly took the letter from his toga and handed it to Cato to read, whereupon Cato discovered that the suspicious letter was in fact a very passionate love letter from Caesar’s mistress, Servilia, Cato’s own sister. Enraged Cato threw the letter back at him.

I like to imagine Caesar having a chuckle at being the architect of such devilment.

Caesar was certainly, as well as being a military genius and a fine writer, a ruthless and self-interested man. But, by Goldsworthy’s account he was a considerably less gratuitously violent than most of his contemporaries, tending to use terrorism for clear political purposes rather than for its own sake or the sadistic enjoyment of it. While he made a vast fortune from the trafficking into slavery of thousands of Gallic prisoners of war, his conduct regarding the treatment of prisoners during the subsequent civil war was admirably humane by the standards of his contemporaries and indeed in comparison to many subsequent military leaders down to the present day. It is chilling to think though that his humaneness to the pirates who once held him for ransom, and who he befriended during his captivity, merely meant that he ordered their throats to be cut before their crucifixion.

The book is a exquisitely written account of his career, so gripping that it made me on several occasions miss my tube stop as I was reading it on the underground.


My speech to 103rd International Labour Conference, 28 May 2014

I would like to thank this Conference for the opportunity to speak on behalf of Anti-Slavery International and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

Everyone here is aware of the ILO estimates of a minimum of 21 million children and adults in forced labour and that the profits from this exploitation are estimated to be $150 billion per annum.

That is a dreadful indictment of how we conduct our business today.
We are no longer living in a 1930’s world. Today the expansion of globalisation means that the international law governing the contemporary realities of trade has become vital. Hence this Conference is the essential forum where the dark side of these new realities must be confronted, not with fine words and voluntary approaches, but with robust international law.

Unless robust action is taken to extend the rule of international law against forced labour the routine enslavement of marginalised workers will continue to be at worst facilitated and at best tolerated in the global political economy.

So, as the UN Special Rapporteurs on Slavery, Trafficking and Migration have recognised, a binding Protocol is required to ensure coherent international action. This is necessary to prevent a minority of unscrupulous businesses and corrupt political elites from systematically using forced labour to derive competitive advantage over the vast majority of honourable business executives and politicians who are striving against all odds to make a better world for their employees and their citizens.

We therefore appeal to this Conference to seek a binding Protocol with a strong Recommendation to the Convention that will require states to ensure law and practice that effectively identifies and protects victims of forced labour, giving special consideration to the particular risks faced by migrants, women and children and to ensure that the perpetrators of forced labour compensate their victims; that require states ensure their courts and law enforcement have sufficient capacity to ensure effective rule of law against forced labour so that states create a level playing field for ethical business, declaring also their expectations of business action to eradicate forced labour from their supply chains and how businesses should disclose their efforts towards these ends; that requires states and employers to promote freedom of association and collective bargaining for all workers; and that encourages states to incorporate into their aid, trade and diplomacy measures to reduce the risk of forced labour.

I am sure that everyone in this room is abhorred by the idea of forced labour and slavery. However that is not enough. This Conference has the power to do something directly about its realities. It is the duty of everyone here to demonstrate that they are as opposed to the idea of slavery in practice as they are in principle. That means a binding protocol and strong recommendation are necessary. If this Conference fails in that task then the judgement of history and of conscience will be harsh.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary Bass

Yahya Khan

Yahya Khan

The Blood Telegram takes its title from a dissenting diplomatic communication from the staff of the US Dacca mission, protesting the conduct of US policy in relation to what was then East Pakistan. The US was at the time uncritically supporting the Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan in spite of his very bloody crackdown on the people of East Bengal who had the temerity to defeat him in a democratic election. The slaughter Khan unleashed in East Pakistan was carried out substantially with US supplied weapons and with a disproportionate focus on the Hindu minority of the region, leading the US dissenters in the Dacca consulate, amongst others, to describe it as a genocide.

Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister

Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister

From this important incident in US diplomatic history the book opens out into a wider consideration of the Bangladeshi independence struggle and its geopolitical context. The bloodshed in East Pakistan prompted a massive outflow of refugees into India and led to the beginning of a guerrilla war between Bengali nationalists, supported by India, and the West Pakistani army, supported by the US. Nixon and Kissinger justified their uncritical support for West Pakistan because that country was providing a highly secret diplomatic channel between the US and China that promised to recast the entire Cold War. But it is clear from the transcripts of their White House conversations that they also held a visceral and irrational hatred of India and Indians which shaped their policy.

map_bangladeshThere is a strong echo of Shawcross’ Sideshow (Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia) in this book with its close consideration, from transcripts of White House conversations, of the role of these two’s formulation of foreign policy and bolstering the Pakistani dictatorship against the democratic will of the Pakistani people. However unlike Shawcross Bass augmented this enquiry with a careful consideration of India’s political, military and humanitarian response to the crisis and the politics of Bengali nationalism including and first hand and secondary accounts (many from Sydney Schanberg of The Killing Fields fame) of the actions of the Bengali guerrillas.

The result is a consistently gripping account of a war that is substantially forgotten in the West but which still casts a long shadow of the politics and development of South Asia.

The political economy of forced labour and slavery

The meaning of the term “political economy” has changed somewhat through history and today its meaning is still somewhat contentious. But being something of a moral philosopher by academic interest I was somewhat surprised to learn that the concept of political economy originated in moral philosophy. The term was originally used “for studying production and trade, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth.”

With the evolution of political economy into economics we seem to have established a dominant morality for our contemporary age cut free from the Aristotlean and Judaeo-Christian archetypes of earlier years. Perhaps this new dominant Western morality is most infamously encapsulated by Milton Friedman with his assertion that the only moral responsibility of business executives was to maximise profits for shareholders within the law.

This new morality becomes increasingly problematic because the loss of the term “political” from the term is not just a terminological shift, or a philosophical one that places the sphere of economics in the realm of quantitative science rather than in that much more slippery and realistically human sphere of moral philosophy. It also reflects another important political reality: many politicians now seem to believe that their responsibility in regulating business is restricted to asking business how it wishes to be regulated.

You can see this borne out if you look at the chapter on supply chains in the recent report in the UK of the Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons on the “modern slavery bill”: some people, myself included, argued to the committee that a law on forced labour in supply chains should be modelled on the UK Bribery Act making individual business executives legally accountable for forced labour in their supply chains. This idea was dismissed out of hand. Others argued for, perhaps a lower standard, a law modelled on the Californian Transparency in Supply Chains Act. There was a parade of evidence from business opposing this. What was acceptable to business was a slight modification of the Companies Act to require them to mention slavery in their annual reports. This of course became the committee’s recommendation.

The practice of business and trade substantially divorced from politics would be problematic if we were still living in an 18th or 19th Century political economy where most businesses were more confined and defined by national borders. In the contemporary globalising economy it is particularly devastating for millions of vulnerable workers, particularly those in poor and corrupt countries where rule of law is slight or where the law is cynically manipulated by the powerful to allow the exploitation of the vulnerable. In this contemporary globalised political economy those who do much of the production of goods and services are separated by great distances from those who commission the production and from those who consume. The scale of these distances means that it is now considerably easier to ignore the death or suffering of those workers than in the past when they were being produced in the same city or country as the consumers and bosses.

The expansion of globalisation means that the international law governing this new approach to doing business becomes increasingly vital. Unfortunately, as Tom Bingham notes in his book Rule of Law, international law has never been the most robust area of law, and that is probably putting the matter very mildly where international business is concerned: Indeed the question of how trans-national business can be held to legal account is a matter that Bingham, one of the most distinguished British jurists of the past 50 years, never even considered in his otherwise exceptionally fine book.

These risks are compounded because, to use a legal metaphor, there is a prima facie case, I believe, that a number of businesses, countries and regions of the world are basing their competitive advantage on the use of forced labour in their supply chains. Anti-Slavery investigations in India have shown how the routinised used of the forced labour of girls and young women is now a central feature of garment production for northern hemisphere markets. Further investigations in Thailand have shown how forced labour is a significant feature of production for export markets, most notoriously perhaps in the fisheries that supply prawns to our supermarket shelves.

In both these countries the failure of international rule of law is compounded by a failure of national rule of law. For Dalits in India, for Lao, Burmese and Cambodian migrants in Thailand, the notion of equal protection before the law would be a laughable notion if the consequences of its absence were not so tragic. In India the the courts are so overworked that it would take hundreds of years to clear the back log of cases in Delhi alone meaning that factories that use forced labour of vulnerable workers, such as those producing cotton garments in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, can act with virtual impunity. In Thailand, police describe migrant workers as walking ATMs, people to be harassed and extorted from not to be protected.

Countries such as India and Thailand are, however considerably more advanced in terms of rule of law than those such as United Arab Emirates and the Gulf states which have fashioned the law, most glaringly with their use of the kafalah system, in order to facilitate the forced labour of vulnerable migrant workers. The 2022 World Cup is already being prepared using the forced labour of thousands of south Asian migrants to Qatar. Again the western companies who trade with and profit from this forced labour system and, most craven of all, FIFA who facilitated one of the greatest forced labour opportunities since the end of the Cold War, are able to do so with impunity.

The kafalah system, which is also practiced in the UK in relation to domestic workers, is only the most glaring example of how national and international law ratchets up the risks for migrant workers seeking decent work by failing to provide sufficient opportunities for safe migration. There is an hypocrisy at the core of this attitude to migration: on one hand governments will decry contemporary slavery and praise those migrant workers whose remittances are often more important contributions to their countries development than international aid. On the other hand those same governments will refuse, lest they upset business interests to back measures in international law that have some prospect of making the world a little safer for them to seek decent work in.

So, if we are considering the contemporary political economy, how human beings arrange their law, custom and government to facilitate production and trade it is clear that large portions of the political economy are crafted to facilitate the exploitation and enslavement of vulnerable workers and that the economic and geographic separation between those who craft they system and the screams of those who serve it allows complacency to build the inertia that allows for the lack of change.

I went to see Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lumumba in A Season in the Congo a few months ago. There is one notorious scene in that play where back in Europe the Western business interests are shown in conference discussing how much they had to give up in Congo without affecting their principle interests. How to ensure not so much that the new boss becomes the old boss, so much as how to ensure that the old bosses remain the bosses under a facade of some form of change.

I think we see a lot of that still with some of the recent political posturing regarding contemporary slavery. In the UK there is a strong emphasis in the “modern slavery bill” on a criminal justice response to slavery, and a refusal to contemplate a migrants’ rights perspective on the issue, a perspective that might contribute more usefully to the majority of people enslaved by disorganised crime as well as the minority in the hands of organised crime.

I don’t wish to be too churlish about the US and UK military/intelligence responses to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls, because I believe such a response is necessary, but there are already hundreds of thousands of child slaves in Nigeria, carried off and raped in ones and twos rather than hundreds, under the thinest of veils of respectability that is provided by forced child marriage and the fifth wife form of enslavement. We still await a systematic response for these numberless, nameless victims of slavery across Nigeria and the rest of West Africa. A minimum that should include a commitment to obtaining universal children’s education in the region on a curriculum that has a strong emphasis on girls’ and women’s rights.

Most people who have the power to shape law, government or custom in a fashion that would undermine aspects of slavery are against slavery in principle. Few of them are, however against slavery in practice. When they do engage with the issue they do so in a manner that is reminiscent of the political economy of the old Soviet Union, statist, inflexible and oblivious to the functioning of the market economy, when one of the things we do know about slavery is that it is highly entrepreneurial and constantly evolving: an exemplar of unfettered capitalism in fact. Now a lesson we should have learned from the Cold War is that when a statist bureaucracy confronts a free market system the free market approach will triumph. And that is what is happening at the moment.

What I believe we need is a much more social democratic approach to this challenge: one that recognises the human face of the problem and ceases to treat the economic and business aspects as somehow sacrosanct or inevitable. This implies a strong emphasis on regulation of international business, putting forced labour abuses on the same legal basis as bribery is currently treated in the UK, empowerment of those vulnerable to slavery and a co-option of the diverse institutions of society from aid agencies to the courts into the struggle. Slavery eradication must be put at the heart of anti-poverty efforts; the authority and capacity of national and international courts must be extended to allow them to effectively hold to account businesses that may otherwise transgress the basic ideals of the universal declaration of human rights. This should also imply increased attention to safe migration and a holding to account of those states that tolerate slavery within their borders.

There’s a lot of folk at the moment want to be the new Wilberforce, the shinning hero who delivers a great leap in moral progress. I don’t have a lot of time for that. Harry Truman once said “Its amazing what can be achieved when you are not bothered who gets the credit!” Indeed that is because, as the song says, it is “we” who “will overcome” not me.

So that is an immediate question: how do we, professionally, as citizens and collectively fashion a political economy that repudiates slavery in all its forms and all its evolutions – and to hell with who gets the credit for that.

A human rights approach to Ireland’s natural resources

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

A forthcoming article in the Irish Yearbook of International Law  by Josh Curtis provides an excellent human rights based analysis of natural resource management in Ireland. The essay comes at a time of increased focus in Ireland on the ‘ownership’ of oil and gas reserves (see Eddie Hobbs’  Our Own Oil for example), as well as the possibility of the introduction of fracking for the extraction of shale gas. In his article, Josh argues that human rights must be taken into consideration to ensure that natural resources are managed in a way that provides benefits for all. Here is the abstract:

This paper proceeds from the premise that international human rights law provides both an important counterpoint to mainstream economic theory and a paradigmatic context that can enlighten the proper place of foreign direct investment (FDI) in national development. The people’s rights to self-determination and permanent sovereignty over their natural resources…

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