SPQR, by Mary Beard

Summary: history that the victors would not want you to read

It is axiomatic that history is written by the winners. But, as far as Mary Beard is concerned, that’s no reason to take every tale they spin at face value.

SPQR is, perhaps, more of a histiography of the Roman Empire than a traditional narrative history. Each story of Empire she presents, from Romulus and Remus to Cicero and Caesar, she interrogates with great rigour, testing both it’s internal logic and it’s consistency with other available evidence, particularly the available archeological findings.

Hence it is a sustained lesson in critical thinking as well as classical history. Consequently Beard is no respecter of received wisdoms or conventional understandings. She thinks anew about this subject and demands her readers do too.

Sometimes this iconoclasm can go a bit far. For example, she dismisses Hannibal’s sanguinary victory at Cannae, one that has inspired generations of commanders, with the conclusion that all he really did was sneak around behind the Romans… which is true. But this does seem rather to underestimate all that this involved when outnumbered by thousands of armed and angry Italians.

Elsewhere she notes with approval the comment of a Roman writer that the real skill required to be a general is that of being able to organise a good dinner party. Again perhaps not wholly fair, but an eminently healthy attitude in any society, like Rome, like much of the contemporary world, which lionises the military – or the paramilitary – and turns a blind eye to their atrocities.

For all Beard’s remarkable communication skills SPQR is perhaps not a book that I would recommend as an introduction to ancient Roman history. But it is a vital one for anyone who wishes to get beyond the more simplistic narratives of that empire and to learn how to think more carefully about our own times and the false narratives and propaganda our own leaders still try to force down our throats.

‘The Irish Abroad’ – how does Ireland ensure that Irish companies respect human rights when operating overseas?

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

One of the recurring issues that has come up on the blog has been the extent to which Ireland acts to ensure that Irish companies are not complicit in human rights violations when operating abroad (see here, here and here). How companies that are connected with such violations might be liable to litigation in Ireland will be considered at a forthcoming conference at NUI Galway organised by the Irish Centre for Human Rights. In advance of the conference, I intend to run a series of posts highlighting some current examples of where it is claimed that Irish companies are involved in rights violations overseas.

The situation in Western Sahara and the activities of an Irish oil company have previously been mentioned here, and last week in the Dáil, Maureen Sullivan raised the issue again with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan. He was asked to explain…

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The UK Modern Slavery Act and the continuing constraints on forced labour eradication

The first thing to say is that the Modern Slavery Act is a decent law with some very important provisions: the measures on victim protection, particularly of children, and the transparency in supply chain clause both represent significant steps forward in government understanding of and action on combating the realities of contemporary slavery.

Of course, as with any law or policy, particularly anti-slavery measures across the world, the challenge is in implementation. And this is where it gets difficult, because, of course, this law does not exist in isolation but in the wider context of national and international law and policy.

Slavery occurs at the conjunction of three factors: individual vulnerability, usually, but not exclusively as a result of poverty; social exclusion; and failure of rule of law. So it is a truism to say that anyone can be enslaved. Generally speaking those who are enslaved are poor people who come from communities that the wider society does not particularly like: Dalits and Adavasi in South Asia, for example, or migrants in Europe.

Understanding that, we see that the cataclysm of war that the West has exported to the Middle East has rendered millions more people, both in the camps and those who have made it to the shores of Europe, vulnerable to slavery. It matters not that the government has spent much of the summer disingenuously describing the phenomenon of refugee flight as trafficking. It is the failure of Europe to establish safe migration routes in the context of a coherent humanitarian and security policy that renders these people vulnerable to slavery, not those in Libya or Turkey who cynically rent or sell those refugees dangerous boats. And let me remind everyone, safe legal migration routes are strategies to prevent trafficking. It is lack of safe migration routes to the gulf states that presents us with the prospect of seeing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar brought to us by the enslavement of tens of thousands of South Asian migrant workers and the manslaughter of thousands more. Qatar front page

The risks are of course exacerbated by the rising tide of xenophobic rhetoric that is being bandied about in this country and in other parts of Europe. I may be idealistic but I still believe it is the duty of politicians to demonstrate moral courage in leadership, not to pander to the prejudices of the ignorant. That path leads only to rising tides of hatred which, in turn, make it easier for traffickers to enslave and exploit vulnerable migrant workers, secure in the knowledge that national political leaders in the countries in which traffickers operate have told their compatriots to resent and fear migrants as sources of all their woes.

And these are not the only obstacles that the effective national anti-slavery strategy in the UK faces.

domestic worker protestThere is of course the Overseas Domestic Worker visa which in remains a government-issued license for trafficking for domestic servitude to the UK.

Then there is limited labour inspection in the UK with the remit of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority restricted to food and agriculture, with other risky industries such as construction, catering, cleaning, hospitality, care and, of course, and perhaps most seriously, domestic work, uninspected. Even with the guidance of the Modern Slavery Act it is difficult to see how the police can compensate for this lack of inspection, when, apart from a few outstanding specialist units, they lack a culture of slavery awareness.

And, even if they had one, it is difficult to see how they will fulfil all the anti-slavery expectations of the government given the prospect of eye-watering cuts to the police that we are being warned about.

The conflation of labour inspection and immigration patrols that is being mooted around the new UK Immigration bill threatens to worsen the situation even further. Such an arrangement would effectively break trust between potential victims of crime and the inspectors who, if the history of the UK Borders Agency involvement in anti-trafficking work is anything to go by, would prioritise the deportation of trafficking victims, who would also, by the way be witnesses to crime, over their recognition, protection and rehabilitation.

It is in this context that we should also understand the government’s antipathy to the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights. Nothing upsets the PR bandwagon like a judgement against a country for failure in its human rights obligations. In the past the UK has been held to account in the Court over its failures in anti-slavery law and policy, notably the case of CN versus the United Kingdom in 2012. Given some of the wrong-headedness of UK policy relating to slavery, even with the Modern Slavery Act on the statue books, I would anticipate it will be held to account again if it remains subject to its jurisdiction.

But while it may feel politically expedient to evade this possibility the UK pulling out of the Court will be a signal to other countries, with less robust institutions and shallower human rights traditions, that the UK, one of the moving forces behind the Council of Europe, itself a legacy of Winston Churchill’s vision, now regards key ideals of international rule of law as optional. In such a future mistaken, ill-advised, racist or just plain stupid government behaviour across Europe on the issue of slavery in particular, and human rights in general, could go unchecked if other countries follow the UK’s example.

The government will of course counter that a British Bill of Rights will provide proper protections, at least to people living here. But cuts to legal aid will make into a forlorn hope any recourse to the courts for remedy in the face of bureaucratic incompetence or official indifference.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights argue that businesses have the responsibility to respect human rights and that governments have the responsibility to protect them. It is of course difficult for business to respect the rights of workers if governments are not doing their job of protecting them. This was a matter that compelled UK businesses to seek the transparency in supply chain clause in the Act. I hope that the reports of businesses will not limit themselves to accounts of the management measures they have introduced in order to counter risks of trafficking in their supply chains. I hope the reports will also, as I have attempted to do here, enumerate the law and policy failings in the states in which they are working that increase risks of human trafficking. Because it is a fundamental truth of contemporary politics that the voice of business carries greater weight than that of conscience. With that great power comes a responsibility for business to use its voice to help set out the laws, policies and practices that are necessary to eliminate slavery in their supply chains and, ultimately, in the world.

This goes to the heart of the matter. The elimination of slavery is a political issue. It is not a simple criminal justice challenge or a matter that can be resolved by giving material things, like mosquito nets or vaccines, to people who don’t have things. Those who are enslaved are excluded from power in part so they can be enslaved. So in addition to the national and European issues of government policy and law that I have set out that are essential to effective anti-slavery practice domestically, there are a range of measures in diplomacy and international education, aid and trade policy that are necessary if the UK is to truly provide a leading voice in the struggle against slavery in the world today.

The Modern Slavery Act is an important measure and let me it is a tribute to the good work of Karen Bradley, the minister responsible for bringing this law into existence. I hope people of conscience in the government, in parliament and beyond will recognise this and work to build a more comprehensive anti-slavery system rather than dismantle the foundations that have barely been laid.

The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, by Mark Bowden

The Finish is an account of the hunt for, and assassination of. Osama Bin Laden by the United States. It focuses on a number of individuals who had pivotal roles in this effort including Barack Obama as well as various special forces and intelligence figures.

It is a decent work of journalism detailing the evolution of American war making since the 11 Sept attack on the Twin Towers, particularly in relation to the integration of intelligence gathering and information management with special forces operations. However it is not the best work by Mark Bowden that I have read and it is not without controversy.

In Roadwork, an earlier collection of his journalism, Mark Bowden has written thoughtfully and highly critically on the issue of torture. Here he argues, with some discomfort, that a key lead in the hunt for Bin Laden emerged from a number of interrogations of different people under torture during the Bush administration. However the information gleaned from these interrogations was not recognised as important until advances in US information systems allowed for the effective analysis of the multitudinous quantities of intelligence that the US had gathered.

A practical (as opposed to moral) argument against torture has always been that the person being tortured will say anything to get the torture to stop. Hence the information they give cannot generally be relied upon. In her book Audacity to Believe Shelia Cassidy describes this very phenomenon in her account of her torture in Pinochet’s Chile. She also describes how her torturers had time to check every detail that she gave and so with repeated visits to the torture chamber were able to break her utterly. In this book Bowden suggests that advances in information systems which allow for cross checking of all sorts of information has automated the torture verification process that Cassidy’s interrogators undertook at such leisure. So such systems could become used in the future for continued justification for the use of torture.

Bowden acknowledges that his sources did not reveal to him how they actually turned the vague indication from torture interrogations into a solid lead on a real person. However Kevin Toolis, a filmmaker and writer who has made a movie, Complicit, about the use of torture in the “war on terror” argues that in the end the location of Bin Laden resulted from simply bribing a senior member of Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence to help reveal his hiding place. This corresponds with the Obama administration’s official position that torture was not used to locate Bin Laden.

This controversy over torture and a rather superficial treatment of the criticisms of the use of drones aside this is a gripping narrative and still provides a useful and thought-provoking insight into evolution of counter-insurgency and some of the moral questions associated with it.

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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President Michael D. Higgins on business and human rights

Business & Human Rights in Ireland

Before he was elected President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins was an active Labour politician and served as a member of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Human Rights. In 2008, the Sub-Committee devoted some attention to the role of the private sector in relation to human rights. Michael D. Higgins was somewhat pessimistic in his views, remarking during the session on the absence of notable progress in this area:

I am at a loss to identify any great achievements of the ethical globalisation movement, to which reference has been made. It reminds me uncomfortably — perhaps I am wrong — of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which I encountered for the first time when it was present at the United Nations conference on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. The council had no difficulty in signing up to the concept of sustainability. The chair was the vice…

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“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.