Is Russia’s Foreign Agent Law Destroying Russian Journalism?

Life as a journalist or within the media in Russia has historically been far from easy. With Putin’s highly centralised authoritarian regime, any formation of media outlets are strictly limited. Over 20 journalists are estimated to have been murdered since 2000 for reporting on events or topics that in any way cross the blurred line of what Putin’s government sees fit to be circulated. Within the past month, however, the government has chosen to elevate this media crackdown further. Some of Russia’s pre-eminent media outlets have now either been banned outright or have been pinned as ‘foreign agents’, detaching them from the country and coining them to the likes of being the ‘enemy’.

Restrictions and hostility towards journalists and the media can be traced back across the last ten years and beyond. The Russian government has been after the independent media for a while, with many independent journalists critical of the regime being eradicated by state owners. Journalists such as these had no choice but to find new jobs and try to continue their careers under ever tightening policing.

Vladimir Putin. (Credit: theglobalpanorama via Creative Commons.)

Recent hostility towards the media, however, has only continued from this, with a recent crackdown across the past year making lives for journalists even more of a struggle. Particularly significant is Russia’s law on foreign agents, of which was adopted in 2012 and has been frequently modified since , repeatedly broadening the scope of who should be defined as a foreign agent. It has been looming as an indefinite threat over Russian journalists since. When it was initially introduced in 2012, it was targeted at suppressing human rights work, or those involved in sharing details of civic information. However, this changed in 2017 when the legislation was amended to include the phrase ‘foreign agent media’, alongside creating a blacklist of foreign agents. It requires non-profit organisations that partake in ‘political activity’ to both register and declare themselves as foreign agents. Essentially, the Ministry of Justice assumes journalists are engaged with some form of political activity within their journalism, be it foreign intelligence or other. This means that every small action and move made under this law is closely monitored, even including spending. Roman Anin, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of a Russian media outlet expressed how “this is a law that basically bans the profession. It’s not a law about foreign agents, it’s a ban on independent journalism”.

The consequences of this law become most evident, however, when considered alongside its penalties of non-compliance, and these are what have amplified alongside changes made to the law this year. As of March 2021, journalists who fail to submit their reports to the Ministry of Justice can look to face five years imprisonment.

However, Russia’s authoritarian regime has not prevented media outlets from using their platforms to protest against these restrictions, and the recent crackdowns in particular. Over twelve independent media platforms have recently signed an open letter, demanding a demise to the designating of journalists and outlets as ‘foreign agents’. The letter read that the outlets are collectively “convinced that these events are part of a coordinated campaign to destroy independent Russian media”. Equally, Radio Liberty, one of the media outlets which has been faced with 520 violations and over $2 million in fines, has also argued against the crackdowns. The company appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in April this year, arguing that Russia’s actions violate freedom of speech highlighted in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Nothing, however, has come from this protest in terms of the law changing in any way.

Subsequently, it can be questioned what the future holds for Russia’s independent media. Despite urges fired at Putin to stop these crackdowns, the nature and reputation of his government does not make the ceasing of these measures likely. Only time will tell if freedom of press and speech will ever truly be allowed for journalists in Russia.

Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

Politics meets religion: The Ayodhya dispute

Religious violence and contention is by no means unfamiliar to India. Conflicting religious beliefs have been rife for centuries, with historians tracing problematic relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country as far back as the thirteenth century, the time in which the formation of Islamic communities in India began. There is equally a consensus, however, that significant Hindu-Islamic tension is a more recent by-product of Partition in 1947, an event in itself driven by contemporary religious disputes. Nevertheless, conflict between the two religions in India is not confined to history, as recent controversies make it more pertinent than ever in the twenty-first century.

A specific conflict over land, known as the Ayodhya dispute, serves to prove this. A dispute prolific for causing riots and political tension over the last century or so in India, it has arguably caused the most political rupture within the past three decades. This one hundred and fifty year old debate between Hindus and Muslims across India concerns a disputed sacred area of land in Ayodhya, a city in Uttar Pradesh, the northern region of the country. The debate involved a supreme court case in which members of the two religions were both fighting for control and authority over this same plot of land. Indian Muslims are of the belief that a mosque was built on the site by a commander of Babur in the sixteenth century, and thus the site is sacred to them. However, the site is equally sacred to Hindus, as they believe the same site was the birthplace of Lord Ram, a sacred Hindu deity and reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Not unlike other examples of Hindu-Islamic contention across India’s history, violence has been central to this specific dispute from the very beginning. Fears of an outbreak over the case were evident in 1949 when the Indian government made orders denying permission for Muslims to be within two-hundred yards of the site. Concern over potential outbreak turned to violence in 1992, when unrest over the lack of progress in the case broke, and the sacred Ayodhya mosque was torn down and destroyed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu activist group, acting under the belief that the site was rightfully theirs. This event had national repercussions, triggering a mass of communal riots which left over 2000 dead, most of them Muslims. The Indian government even detained crowds of citizens in Ayodhya amid fears of violence following the final court ruling in 2019.

Hanuman Garhi, a major Hindu temple in Ayodhya close to the site mentioned in this article. Credit

The official end to this case shows the deeply political roots of Hindu-Islamic antagonism. The dispute came to an end in the eyes of the government in 2019, when India’s supreme court finally ruled in favour of the Hindus. This result was no surprise, however, considering the lack of independence of the Indian judiciary – former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi having been appointed by Modi – coupled with the aims of India’s ruling right-wing political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to define a national doctrine characterised by Hindu nationalism. Thus, it can be argued that this lengthy dispute illustrates a deep modern politicisation of India’s religious conflict, and furthermore, it has infiltrated the heart of the nation’s identity politics. Following the 2019 ruling, Modi, the Prime Minister of India, tweeted that the verdict “shouldn’t be seen as a win or loss for anybody”. Considering this concerns a debate that has severely exemplified the continuation of the polarisation of the country’s two dominating religions in the modern day, this statement blatantly implies sympathies towards Hindu nationalism, particularly as social and religious divisions have only deepened nationally since the BJP came into power in 2014.

Therefore, tensions between the two religions in India are undoubtedly far from over, and mosque-temple disputes are still central to Indian Hindu supremacist politics. Since 2019, other examples of similarly structured temple disputes have risen over similar issues, such as recent court orders in Varanasi this year to investigate whether there is any structural overlapping between Gyanvapi mosque which is adjacent to a Hindu temple. This particular example has unsurprisingly been a decision made by the court following petitions from Hindu nationalist groups, claiming a Muslim emperor demolished part of the Hindu temple in the seventeenth century to build a mosque.

Although antagonism between the two religions is clearly historically rooted in India, right-wing Hindu nationalism is what is continuing to fuel this conflict in the modern day. Thus, until crucial notions of right-wing Hindu nationalism cease to dominate the political landscape of India, further antagonism between the two religions will only continue. 

By Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

Work Environment and Culture

With workplace culture once again becoming important as people begin returning to the workplace, it is the perfect time to examine the differences between working in Asia and the UK. Despite inter-country disparities, work cultures in Asia share quite a few common traits. For one, employees in Asian countries such as India, China, Taiwan and Singapore work an average of 2100+ hours per year, compared to the 1700~ average in the UK. This amounts to an extra 8 hours per week. The culture of Asian countries offers a partial explanation where there is a heavier emphasis on work and less so on having a fulfilling work-life balance. Starting work at 9am and finishing at 9pm is often the norm, especially in places that have seen drastic economic improvements, such as China and Singapore. What results from this ‘pressure cooker’ work culture is that employees often report consistent poor physical and mental health, as reported in a study by Rand Europe. 

In tandem with the mental health stigma in many Asian countries, workers avoid seeking professional diagnosis or help for fear of social ostracisation. The culmination is a lack of productive labour and low living standards. Whereas in the UK, labour productivity is significantly higher than its Asian counterparts despite much lower working hours. In fact, research conducted by the OECD into the most labour-productive countries, only 2 Asian countries featured in the top 15. This is despite their consistently ranking high for number of hours worked annually. 

Street to Askakusa Shrine (Credit: roger4336, via Flickr)

Beyond employment, Asian living standards are comparatively lower than in the UK. This is partially caused by an intense work culture and exacerbated by high living costs in densely populated areas, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, leading to young people being unable to purchase property, having poorer physical health and experiencing a generally lower standard of living.

Rare, tragic cases like that of Nayoa Nishigaki, where overworking has led to their death, are still prevalent in several Asian countries. Despite some countries’ labour laws prohibiting employers from requiring their employees to work beyond a certain number of hours, the corporate cultural difference in how an employee is valued leads to employers and employees correlating hours worked with dedication and usefulness.

The intense work culture and social stigma around mental health issues all further contribute to the mental health crisis in Asia, with many Asian countries having a high proportion of their population suffering from mental health disorders yet never receiving treatment. A particularly severe example is South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate amongst OECD countries, and the second-highest number of hours worked.

It seems the occasionally toxic work environment and culture will not see any improvement until the fundamental culture surrounding work in Asia is changed. This could be done only through collective action, forcing a whole new mindset on work, its role in leading a productive and fulfilling life, and destigmatising the conversation around mental health. With the normal habits of work being disrupted worldwide due to Covid-19, it seems now is the best time to ignite the conversation around existing work culture and its priority in our lives.

May Lam, History in Politics Contributor

Merkel’s Immigration Policy: A Failure?

Many highlight Angela Merkel’s policy in relation to the 2015 migrant crisis as the beginning of her downfall. In that year, Germany’s net migration figure was 1.1 million, just under double the previous year’s total. As Europe struggled to cope with refugees, Merkel made her country the continent’s biggest destination, despite the Dublin Agreement mandating that refugees should seek asylum in the first country they entered. Even today, the refugee crisis is pointed to as a key moment in Merkel’s premiership, and the moment she began to lose her grip on power. But was her immigration policy actually a failure?

When thinking of Germany and immigration, a notable example is the Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, programme which began in the 1950s. These guest workers were invited to help rebuild West Germany after the Second World War, with the main source of guests through this period being Turkey. Many workers never returned home, remaining in Germany with their families. Such people are no longer known as guests, but as Germans.

As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has spoken at length about her view of immigration. She has a markedly positive attitude on the subject, at odds with many in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, talking of those who come to Germany as “enriching” society. She has always been clear on her approach to refugees: that there is a “moral obligation” to help those fleeing war, persecution or terror. It was this positive approach to immigration that culminated Germany’s policy during the 2015 refugee crisis.

 German Chancellor Angela Merkel receiving flowers from a Lebanese refugee; Migration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz looks on from the right, June 2018. (Credit: Reuters)

Since then, Germany has homed over 1.5 million refugees, in comparison to the 450,000 by France and 300,000 by Italy. This huge influx of people into Germany proved a huge task for both local and national government, with issues such as providing German classes and wider education, as well as integrating the new arrivals into German society. As a logistical challenge, it is clear that Merkel and her government, in combination with state bodies, handled the refugee crisis robustly and commendably. Language classes were provided by the government and an effective programme of enrolling young children into nurseries to begin their education was introduced. 

There is, however, a darker side to the consequences of this policy in Germany. On a national level, the most obvious of these has been the rise of the far right and explicitly anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which surged in the 2017 Bundestag elections and in state elections since the crisis. This has led to the erosion of CDU support and, arguably, to the circumstances amongst which Merkel stood down as her party’s leader in 2018. The future of that party is now in doubt, with right wing candidate Friedrich Merz, a fierce critic of Merkel and her immigration policy in particular, finishing second in both the 2018 and 2021 leadership elections, narrowly losing each time.

Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was forced to resign after CDU state parliament members in Thuringia defied her authority to vote with the AfD. Armin Laschet, the new leader, is seen as a moderate in comparison to Merz, but ran with health minister Jens Spahn, labelled the “anti-Merkel” for his fierce criticism of her handling of the 2015 crisis. Her moderate legacy in the CDU may be safe for now, but the future remains uncertain as there are fresh elections to contend in September, in the aftermath of disappointing results in March’s state elections.

Merkel’s immigration policy was a divisive path which sowed the seeds of her downfall, while providing refuge for millions fleeing war. In the short term, it has arguably been pivotal in her resignation both as CDU leader and Chancellor, while fracturing her party as it struggles with internal battles and the imposing presence of the AfD. In the long term, however, history will surely look kindly on Merkel: the Chancellor who brought millions in from the cold despite the political consequences and remained steadfast in her commitment to her instincts. A political failure but a moral success, and one which may be remembered as positively as the Gastarbeiter are today.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Hong Kong’s National Security Law: Power Not To The People

You might have heard of the unrest in Hong Kong last year, stemming from the Government’s attempt to introduce an extradition agreement with Mainland China and culminating in a full-blown humanitarian crisis with the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL). Why was the extradition agreement met with such vigour? The proposed Bill would have led to both foreign nationals residing in Hong Kong and local criminal suspects becoming extraditable to mainland China, which has a substantially different criminal justice system and a history of breaching fundamental human rights. This has included arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture, with the only requirement that “prima facie” evidence, which carries a significantly low standard of proof, be provided to the Chief Executive and the courts. Following escalating public clashes between the Government, police and citizens, and protests seeing over a million people in attendance and over 10,000 people arrested, the Bill was shelved. But by that time, the damage was done. The Bill exacerbated the deep fears of local citizens and expats in Hong Kong, who saw it as an early sign of China’s descent upon the nation and the dark future to come.

Several demands arose from the locals: the formal withdrawal of the Bill, release and exoneration of those arrested from the protests, the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police behaviour, universal suffrage for the Legislative Council, Chief Executive elections in addition to the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and lastly the retraction of the characterisation of protests as “riots”. Somewhat unsurprisingly, only the first demand was met, which was seen by the Hong Kong people as highly unsatisfactory, and protests continued with increasing intensity. All this culminated in the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacting the NSL, which opened a bigger can of worms.

Protesters marching at the “Stop Police Violence, Defend Press Freedom” silent march called after media professionals were insulted by police officers when covering protests against the extradition law to China. (Credit: Ivan Abreu, SOPA Images, Sipa via AP Images.)

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, resulting from the First and Second Opium War, Britain handed back control of Hong Kong to China on the condition that the “One Country, Two System” and freedoms of free speech, assembly, religious belief, amongst others, would continue to be enjoyed by the former until 2047. The NSL contained intentionally vague provisions, which would allow for ‘secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces’ to become punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Having already been exercised to charge 50+ individuals, this has naturally given rise to a sense of deep unease in both the domestic and international sphere. As the legislation would have also allowed cases to be tried in Mainland China under their legal system, there was a real risk of criminal suspects being deprived of fundamental human rights, like being held incommunicado in undisclosed locations for up to 6 months before being formally arrested or released. Whilst the UK has similar national security laws in that suspected terrorists can be detained without charge for up to 28 days, these individuals are nevertheless allowed legal representation after a maximum period of 48 hours upon arriving at the police station. Compared to Mainland China, the UK is subject to more intense public and legal scrutiny whenever human rights are undermined. The legislations effect is essentially a complete curtailing of free speech, press and political dissent in Hong Kong. Critics worldwide have speculated that this directly contravenes the Joint Declaration’s condition of “One Country, Two Systems”, with the addition of the NSL being also applicable to crimes committed abroad, to non-permanent residents and people outside of Hong Kong. This means that the reach of the law is far and extensive, essentially subjecting foreign nationals to r to the authority of the NSL. 

Whilst the realistic probability of extraditing foreign citizens in the West for crimes committed against the communist party are relatively slim, the law has already caused a growing reluctance amongst foreign investors to conduct business in Hong Kong for fear of being subject to the extensive powers of the NSL. After the emergence of Covid-19 and consequent increasing criticism towards the Communist Party, it will be a matter of great importance for there to be checks and controls to prevent Mainland China’s ever-increasing influence. If they are left unchecked, one can only hope to stay out of the line of sight of the Chinese Government, and that is something I concern myself with, as this article has the potential to be considered “subversion” under the draconian National Security Law.

May Lam, History in Politics Contributor

Book Review: J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a classic statement of liberal values and an iconic text in the arena of moral and political thought. Published in 1859, it was originally conceived as a short essay upon which Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, fleshed out the liberal values and morality that still provide much of the basis for political structures today. In essence, it seeks to address the question of how far the state or society as a whole should go in controlling individual beliefs and actions, and its answer is a resounding defence of individuality.

Title page of the first edition of On Liberty (1859). (Credit: Public Domain)

Mill opens his account with a historical assessment of the ancient struggle between liberty and authority, suggesting an evolving relationship between ruler and ruled whereby people came to believe that rulers no longer needed to be independent powers opposed to their interests, thus giving rise to notions of democracy. But, whilst government tyranny is a concern for Mill, ‘On Liberty’ focuses more on the dangers of democratic and social coercion and its hindrance upon the individual; perhaps an unsurprising view in the context of Victorian social conservatism. On Liberty sees Mill warn against a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and it is with this in mind that Mill sets out the individual freedoms and protections that ground liberal values to this day. 

‘On Liberty’ focuses on four key freedoms: freedom of thought, speech, action, and association, all of which would challenge the Victorian orthodoxy of custom and restraint in the social and political sphere. 

Freedom of thought, by which Mill means ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects’, is a staple in the genre of classical liberalism; a rejection of group-think and the elevation of individual thought over social customs. Mill’s conception of freedom of speech is arguably more profound and more contentious. His defence of free speech extends up until such speech becomes incitement to violence. He sees value in speech no matter how potentially hateful or self-evidently incorrect, for such speech is necessary to reinforce the strength of our convictions and stop our beliefs and values from becoming mere platitudes. One might perceive this opinion as at the crux of today’s disagreements over the limits of free speech.

Mill’s conceptualisation of freedom of act divides action into two categories: self-regarding action and other-regarding action, and sees only limitations on the latter as permissible. In essence, one should be free to act in any way they please, unless in doing so they directly harm somebody else; a classical liberal statement if there ever was one. Finally, freedom of association; the freedom to unite with any person so long as the purpose does not involve harm. 

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

J. S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’

‘On Liberty’ is evidently a defence of individualism and individual freedoms, but it represents a major departure from previous liberal thinkers. Mill’s support for liberty is rooted in his utilitarianism. Whereas liberal thinkers such as John Locke see liberty as a valuable end in itself, and man as endowed with natural rights by way of existing, Mill’s individual liberties merely serve a purpose, that purpose being utility. In short, ‘in proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others’. He has come under severe criticism for this, with many doubting his liberal credentials, but as he states in ‘On Liberty’, without firm grounding, ‘there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical’.

Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is not liberty merely for liberty’s sake, but rather it is liberty with a purpose, and his robust defence of individual freedoms still providing the framework for liberal thought today makes ‘On Liberty’ one of politics’ greatest hits.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

Diamonds, Best Friend or Mortal Enemy?

Diamonds symbolise love, wealth, and commitment to both the purchaser and the recipient, after all, they are known to be a woman’s best friend. Yet, the process of retrieving such a valuable commodity remains a battleground for those who work in the diamond mines. Alongside diamond production, the construction of worker exploitation, violence, and civil wars is generated proving that beauty is in fact, pain. 

The tale of the present-day diamond market emerged on the African continent, South Africa to be precise. The Democratic Republic of the Congo ranks fourth in the world when it comes to diamond production with 12 million carats being produced in 2020, the African region dominates the top 10 rankings with seven out of 54 countries acting as some of the world’s largest diamond producers.

Congolese workers searching for rough diamonds in mines in the south west region of Kasai in the Democratic Republic of Congo, August 9, 2015. (Credit: Lynsey Addario, Getty Images Reportage for Time Magazine)

The diamond trade contributes approximately $8.5 billion per year to Africa and Nelson Mandela has previously stated that the industry is “vital to the Southern African economy”. The wages of the diamond miners, however, do not reflect the value of this work and its contributions to the financial expansion of African countries. An estimated one million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than a dollar a day, an unlivable wage stooping below the extreme poverty line. Despite the significant revenues from the diamond industry, both through taxation and profit-sharing arrangements, governments often fail to re-invest these funds in local communities. The government in Angola receives about $150 million per year in diamond revenues yet conditions near major diamond mining projects are appalling. Public schools, water supply systems and health clinics are near non-existent. Many African countries are still healing from the impact of colonisation and are dealing with corruption, incompetence and weak political systems. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that governments fail to invest their diamond revenues productively. 

Adjacent to being excessively underpaid and overworked, miners endure work in exceptionally hazardous conditions often lacking safety equipment and the adequate tools for their role. Injuries are a likely possibility in the everyday life of a miner sometimes leading to fatality. The risk of landslides, mine collapses and a variety of other accidents is a constant fear. Additionally, diamond mining also contributes to public health problems since the sex trade flourishes in many diamond mining towns leading to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Children are considered an easy source of cheap labour and so they tend to be regularly employed in the diamond mining industry. One survey of diamond miners in the Lunda Norte province of Angola found that 46% of miners were between the ages of 5 and 16. Life as a diamond miner is full of hardship, and this appalling way of living is only heightened for younger kids who are more prone to injuries and accidents. Since most of these kids do not attend school, they tend to be pigeonholed into this way of life throughout adulthood, robbing them of their childhood and bright futures. 

African countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and Côte d’Ivoire have endured ferocious civil conflicts fuelled by diamonds. Diamonds that instigate such civil wars are often called “blood” diamonds as they intensify civil wars by financing militaries and rebel militias. Control over diamond rich territories causes rival groups to fight, resulting in tragic situations such as bloodshed, loss of life and disturbing human right abuses. 

Whilst purchasing diamonds from a conflict-free country such as Canada can buy you a clean conscience, you must not forget about the miners being violated every day for the benefit of others but never themselves. Just as we have the opportunity to choose fair trade foods benefitting the producers, consumers of one of the most valuable products one may ever own should not be left in the dark regarding the strenuous work of digging miners do behind the stage of glamour and wealth. A true fair trade certification process must be set in place through which miners are adequately awarded for their dedication and commitment to such a relentless industry, especially in countries that are still processing generational trauma that has been caused by dominating nations.

Lydia Benaicha, History in Politics Contributor

The Cost of Casual Scepticism to Human Rights

Modern aversion to human rights protection in the United Kingdom can be seen on the surface of British politics, from Theresa May’s indignation that she was  unable to deport an illegal immigrant because he had a pet cat, to Nigel Farage’s demand that we “scrap the EU Human Rights Act”. The modern rallying cry for human rights sceptics often takes the form that we, the British,  have no need for coffee-drinking, baguette-eating European to tell us how to do human rights. The problem though is that rights protection is not that simple, and never has been, so why do we let human rights be disparaged by these tabloid-level soundbites and mantras?

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. (Credit: Europe’s Human Rights Watchdog)

When bashing human rights, politicians are most commonly referring to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which was created by the Council of Europe which, for clarity’s sake, has nothing to do with the European Union – incidentally making Farage’s claims about the “EU Human Rights Act” farcical. The ECHR established the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), frequently referred to as ‘Strasbourg’ in lieu of its location. These elements of European influence running through our human rights make it an easy target for politicians wanting to exploit the rife Euroscepticism that exists in modern Britain. This is why, perhaps unsurprisingly, key features of the ECHR’s history are left out by its critics.

The ECHR can find its origins in the ruins of Europe following World War Two, and the Holocaust, in which it was decided action must be taken to prevent future human rights abuses across the continent. Winston Churchill, and the British delegation, played a key role in the drafting of the Convention and were ardent supporters of it. Since then, the Convention has evolved according to the changing nature of Europe and has helped in reducing discrimination and exposing rights abuses. 

Looking then at the face of modern Europe, the significant role of the ECHR may seem unnecessary and can even seem to be an inconvenience to public protection and government policy. However, the Convention should not be perceived as only existing to prevent grave breaches of human rights, but also to remedy all forms of discrimination, such as the right of LGBT couples to adopt or for people of all faiths to have the same job opportunities. These breaches still occur across Europe, with significant examples appearing in Poland and Hungary where radical anti-LGBT policies are being enacted, such as ‘LGBT free zones’.

This is one reason why it is more crucial than ever that other States party to the Convention continue to believe in and abide by it. If disagreements with Strasbourg start to appear over issues, for example prisoner voting rights, it waters down the impact of the ECtHR’s rulings and threatens the possibility that judgments given by the Court to clear breaches(such as those appearing in Eastern Europe), are swept aside, and ignored by the violating State. Arguing and fighting for proper rights protection is not done only for yourself, or your group’s, but is done for the wider community.

This is why the rhetoric used in modern politics about seemingly humorous issues, like the failed deportation of a man because of his cat, and other false remarks which attempt to sabotage the mechanisms for rights protection are dangerous. Dangerous not only for the prevention of relatively benign issues that may appear in nations like the UK, but also for those that rely on the Convention to prevent fundamental breaches of human rights, which appear more likely to occur  on a daily basis, and cause one to consider the events that led to the creation of the ECHR.

Aidan Taylor, History in Politics Contributor

Seeing like Cassandra: a New Role for Literature in Political Risk Analysis?

Political conflicts and situations of crises in a multitude of forms continue to mark our present. Indeed, early crisis prevention is a question so pertinent to our times that it has prompted researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany to explore an unusual  method of conflict prediction: studying fictional literature of specific regions prone to crises  to examine if it is possible to identify potential future threats through literary texts. The project is entitled “Projekt Cassandra”, alluding to the Greek mythological figure of Cassandra, who was famously able to predict the future, although cursed so that nobody would believe her prophecies. 

The study led by Tübingen  appears to have demonstrated potential  as an alternative method of strategic analysis  and is being partially being funded by the German Ministry of Defence. The “Projekt Cassandra” has so far investigated three centres of conflict for model analyses, notably the Serbo-Kosovan conflict (1998-1999), the Nigerian terror epidemic caused by the group Boko Haram, and the tensions in Algeria preceding the election in 2019. While the study is still underway, it poses an essential question: can literature truly function as a tool for the early detection of crises?

Tens of thousands of Algerians protesting Algeria’s presidential vote, Algiers, December 12, 2019. (Credit: Ramzi Boudina, via Reuters)

Conflict and crisis prediction are an essential part in the field of risk analysis. With regard to the hypothesis of “Projekt Cassandra”, we can draw parallels with the idea that “history repeats itself”. While the extent to which the past really “repeats” itself is debatable, this argument  rests on the assumption that history provides us with patterns which allow for a certain degree of “prediction”. A similar concept could be applied in the case of literature through the ages, where the identification of patterns relating to past crises could help identify future potential conflicts. 

In considering concrete examples, the picture becomes more complex. By association, we might immediately consider literature as actively imagining the future, such as the famous 1984 by George Orwell. This dystopian classic from 1949 is set in a distorted future of censorship and surveillance, which could be interpreted as a prediction of certain elements that we now  find in our present. However, it must be noted that  science fiction and dystopian literature often provides less a prediction of the future,  than a reflection of respective historical circumstances. 1984 for instance stems from the context of the beginning Cold War, in which surveillance and espionage were considered primary threats. This however does not mean that there is a necessary correlation between the content of a novel like 1984 and the  realities of the future. 

The ‘Projekt Cassandra’ logo. (Credit: Project Cassandra, via Twitter)

 So how can early crisis detection through literature function? Predicting crises is a lot about the identification of patterns. This is why it also matters what type of crisis is being investigated. For instance, a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic can hardly be said to have been predicted by Camus, merely because his novel The Plague (1947) describes a situation that is eerily similar to current events. 

We do however find a poignant example favouring this hypothesis relating to military conflict in British literature. Starting in the 1870s, literature imagining a new European war, at various instances between Britain and France or Britain and Germany, was increasingly popularized, so much so that “invasion literature” became an entirely new genre in British literature. The most famous example is the novel The Invasion of 1910 (1906), which propagated Germanophobia in Britain, through its imagined German invasion of Britain.  This can in hindsight, be considered a near-prescient account of elements of the First World War. Invasion literature even influenced politics:popularised concerns  of a new European conflict accelerated the arms race of the 1900s,which ultimately played  a role in the eruption of the First World War. 

Literature, it must be reiterated, is not an accurate tool of strategic prediction. It does however frequently capture underlying social currents that can later become problematic, such as ethnic tensions or larger societal unrest. These currents are often subtle, yet can function as inspiration for authors. To the extent that these societal undercurrents can effectively alert us to the potential of future crises and conflict, only Cassandra knows.

Cristina Coellen

Who Won the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, heralding a new era of peace after the decades of violence that characterised the Troubles. But who benefitted the most from the signing of the Agreement, and is the answer different today than it was twenty years ago?

For unionists, represented most prominently by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Good Friday Agreement ultimately symbolised the enshrining of the status quo in law: Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK. In addition, the Republic of Ireland renounced articles two and three of its Constitution, which laid claim to the entire island of Ireland. It may seem, then, that unionism was the victor in 1998, but elements of the Good Friday Agreement have been responsible for tectonic shifts in the period since, arguably exposing it, ultimately, as a victory for nationalism.

While Irish republicans in the form of the Provisional IRA were required to put down their weapons and suspend the violent struggle for a united Ireland, there is a compelling argument that the Good Friday Agreement laid the platform for the growth of the movement and perhaps even the fulfilment of the goal of Irish unity. For one, it mandated power-sharing between the two sides of the Northern Irish divide: both unionists and nationalists must share the leadership of government. Since 1998, this has acted to legitimise the nationalist cause, rooting it as a political movement rather than an armed struggle. Sinn Féin, the leading nationalist party in the North, have moved from the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness to new, younger leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. Irish unity propaganda now emphasises the economic sense of a united Ireland, the need to counter the worst effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland and a sensible debate about the constitutional nature of a new country, rather than the adversarial anti-unionist simplicity of the Troubles. Here, nationalism did gain significantly from the Good Friday Agreement because it allowed this transition from the Armalite to the ballot box in return for legitimacy as a movement.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (right) signing the Good Friday Agreement. (Credit: PA, via BBC)

Most prominently for nationalists, however, is the fact that the Good Friday Agreement spells out the route to a united Ireland, explicitly stating that a ‘majority’ in a referendum would mandate Northern Ireland’s exit from the UK. While unclear on whether majorities would be required both in the Republic and Northern Ireland, as was sought for the Agreement itself in 1998, as well as what criteria would have to be met in order to hold a vote, this gives Irish nationalism a legal and binding route to its ultimate goal of Irish unity, arguably the most prominent victory of the peace process.

Since 1998, Northern Ireland has seen a huge amount of political tension, governmental gridlock and occasional outbreaks of violence, most recently witnessed in the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019. However, the Good Friday Agreement has served crucially to preserve peace on a scale unimaginable in the most intense years of the Troubles. If Irish nationalism achieves its goal of uniting the island, it will come about through a democratic referendum, not through violence. The very existence of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly its survival for over 20 years, is testament to the deep will for peace across the communities of Northern Ireland, forged in decades of conflict; it is this desire being fulfilled, even as the parties squabble in Stormont and the political status of Northern Ireland remains in the balance, that continues to make the biggest difference in the daily lives of both unionists and nationalists.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer