How would you reform the United Nations?

The UN logo

The United Nations isn’t perfect. So in a perfect world, how would you change it? This was the question I asked myself recently, after someone at our local Amnesty International group meeting suggested a particular reform.

Before you answer that question, it is best to understand the complexities of getting any reform agreed. The United Nations is governed by the UN Security Council.

  • It is made up of member states, each of which has one vote. However, there are five “permanent” member states that have a veto. This means that if any one of those five members doesn’t like something, they can vote against it and the motion fails. As those five are the USA, UK, China, France, and Russia, it means the various political and geographical divisions that exist between those states, often leads to stalemate.
  • The five permanent members are broadly speaking the major powers at the end of World War Two, and were all fighting against Germany and Japan. So as victors they enjoyed special status. And of course the UN is far from being a purely humanitarian body. Member states often look after their own interests first, with ambassadors appointed by their government.

The idea raised at our meeting was to replace the current five permanent members with five other members that were elected by the other members. An admirable idea maybe, but the proposal was short on detail. The questions in my mind were many:

  • Assuming each permanent member state would be for a set period, how long would that be?
  • Could a permanent member state seek re-election? If so, how many times?
  • With your permanent member state term having come to an end, would there be a period of time before you could seek re-election again? If so, how long?
  • Would the permanent member states, still have a veto?
  • What checks and balances would be implemented to prevent the current voting bottlenecks?

Perhaps the biggest question of all, is how the heck you expect such a reform from getting through the Security Council with the current setup? It is a classic case of idealism, with little realism. It just won’t happen.

Activism is healthy, as is having a questioning mind. It adds some checks and balances to what can often be overlooked. But having a solution, doesn’t make it a good idea. There is little point in betting your life’s savings on a donkey to win the Grand National. The chances of winning such a bet are so extreme, that it doesn’t make strategic sense. It is much better to have realistic aims.

To some this may seem like defeatism. To me it is achieving reform that may not otherwise happen. In a situation where you’re up against an immovable force, you may have to continually chip away at the bottom to bring the mighty oak tree tumbling down.

There is little doubt that the United Nations isn’t perfect, but then neither is any democratic body. That’s not to say I’m in favour of dictatorships. It’s just that we have to accept that not everyone thinks the same as us. If we accept this, we must expect shit to happen sometimes.

With the UN, there is little doubt in my mind that the current system sucks, but we’ve little or no chance of getting it changed. Plus the UN for all its faults has succeeded in many areas. It’s peacekeeping operations may not always have been successful, think of the Rwandan genocide or allegations of human rights abuses by UN troops, but they often have limited or stops armed insurrection. The UN has provided aid when there’s been a humanitarian catastrophe, and continues to work for impoverished sectors of society.

Would I reform the UN? Yes, but I’d ensure the aim was tempered with a strategic and realistic vision of what could be achieved.

Business and Human Rights: An oxymoron?

Can businesses be truly responsible? Large multinational businesses can easily fall foul of internationally recognised environmental and human right standards. Take criticism of Google for providing Dragonfly, a censored version of its search engine in China. Or how about Netflix pulling some of its shows from Saudi Arabia after legal challenges from the Saudi authorities.

This begs the question what multinationals can do to balance the need for profit, as well as respecting human rights in the territories in which they operate. The solution appears to be, work with the authorities to change the status quo. The problem comes where the authorities aren’t willing to change.

What then? Businesses have to decide whether the pressure for profit trumps the need for respect for the local population. But does it need to be that way?

I’ve been a member of Amnesty International for over 25 years, and active in the UK section for most of that time. Back in the 1990s, a business group was created here to lobby companies to consider human rights. It worked to ensure companies considered accountability with all there business dealings, including contracts with suppliers.

An ideal maybe, but an achievable one if there’s leadership from the top. The status quo proves that it is unworkable if change is to be effective. It will only come if someone is brave enough to say they won’t operate in a particular territory.

Who’ll blink first?

Forced repatriation: where did it occur?

When you think of evidence of forced repatriation throughout history, where do you think of?

More recently you may think of the Palestinians. A lot of their land has been forcibly repatriated by Israeli settlers, and access to what’s left made more difficult. Discrimination and harassment are daily issues for them.

Maybe you can think of Crimea in Ukraine. Annexed by Russia in 2014, although most of the population wanted this to happen.

How about Tibet? Or the indigenous populations of America or Australia? Both have suffered suppression of their culture, language, and confiscation of land.

Going further back in time, think of how European colonial settlers used divide and conquer tactics to suppress opposition. If that didn’t work, they weren’t afraid to use conflict to expand their empires. It could be argued that a lot of the problems in former colonial territories today, are a direct result of these actions.

All the above are good examples, but I bet there’s one that won’t make most people’s lists.

What? You need a clue?

OK. Here you are…

  • There’s evidence that humans existed here since 10,500 BC.
  • The west tends to be wetter on average, especially in the late autumn and winter months.
  • The Pine Martin and Red Fox are native species.
  • The population is less now than 200 years ago.
  • There’s only one city with more than a million population.

Still not got it? OK here are some giveaways…

  • Their patron saint is celebrated around the world by natives and non-natives alike each March.
  • They suffered a series of famines in the mid 19th century that decimated the potato crop.
  •  Known for their like of a good tipple, they spell whiskey with an “e”.

Ireland? Really?

Yes really. 

The UK’s Tudor and Stuart monarchs implemented a “plantation” policy which saw Protestant settlers from England and Scotland aggressively colonise the country.

From the mid-16th century, Irish landowners were dispossessed to make way for the settlers. This resulted in a vicious cycle of rebellion against the English government, but only resulted in further dispossession of lands as punishment. The province of Munster was the first region to be heavily colonized, but following the Flight of Earls Ulster became pet project of King James I.

The displacement of the Irish was compounded by the threat to the Catholic church in Ireland. English Protestants dominated the Irish government, and Catholics were barred from holding state office. Additionally the Irish Parliament was subservient to its English counterpart as a result of the 15th century Poynings’ Law. Then during the early 17th century Irish constituencies were changed to allow the election of English and Scottish Protestant representatives, resulting in a Protestant majority in the Irish Parliament.

The past is your history lesson

There’s little argument, that the policy of colonizing Ireland has resulted in the issues we face there today. It is at the very heart of Irish history ever since.

Whether it is the Battle of the Boyne, Confederate Wars, 1798 Rebellion, or Easter Uprising, they’ve all centred on one aim: ending British rule in Ireland. The fact that part of Ireland is still ruled (quite literally at the moment) from Westminster, is at the heart of Irish and UK politics to this day.

If you learn one thing from this post, it’s that forced repatriation is never a good idea.

Activism British Style

As a long time activist for Amnesty International, I’m no stranger to attending public events designed to draw attention to human rights. Whether it’s campaigning for a Turkish journalist imprisoned for writing an article critical of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or campaigning for Argentinian women to be given the right to sexual and reproductive healthcare, I’ve done it all.

Last week I took to the streets of London in a march targeting the US President Donald Trump. Unlike some there, I didn’t want to see the visit postponed. Like it or not, he is the democratically elected leader of the USA. He has the right to come here, but so have I to demonstrate against everything he represents.

Some say activists are a special breed. We spend hours, days, months, and even years campaigning on something. It can be a frustrating exercise when there doesn’t seem to be any success in sight. That’s why a sense of humour and a thick skin helps.

These qualities were very much in evidence in the anti-Trump march, but with a British twist. The British sense of humour is often understated, cutting, and anarchic; often all at the same time. Take these as an example:

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Has Irish Catholicism lost the knack?

Yesterday’s referendum on repealing the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution may not be a watershed moment in Irish history, but it does say a lot about how we Irish want the country to look like in the 21st century. For decades Ireland had some of the most socially conservative laws in the world.

But why was that? To answer that, we need to look back around a hundred years.

The Ireland of 1918 was a very different to that of today. It was still ruled from London. There wasn’t a split between the 26 counties of Ireland (The Irish Free State – later to become the Republic of Ireland and then just Ireland) and the six counties (Northern Ireland) until the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Irish Government (The Dáil) in 1922.

Gaining independence from the United Kingdom wasn’t quite as straight forward though. There was a sizable minority who felt there should be no independence deal, unless all 32 counties of Ireland were included. The non-acceptance of the split between the north and south was a major factor is the year long civil war. This ideal of a united Ireland is something that colours Irish politics to this day.

With the major fighting over in 1923, the Dáil started to build a country from a broken, impoverished state. Less than a century before, the country was ravaged by several famines. Many left Ireland for other shores. In the early 20th century, the continued independence struggle had taken its toll on the country’s infrastructure. The stand out conflict was the 1916 Easter Uprising, but even before then there was guerrilla action. After World War One, the IRA saw their chance and started the Irish War of Independence which ultimately lead to Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The first Dáil had a real issue. How do they rebuild a country, when there isn’t a lot of money. Thanks to the Catholic Church, which had suffered none of the financial upheaval, they were able to make a start. The quid quo pro was the cultivation of a one-dimensional type of nationality, culture and religion. In particular the Catholic Church was able to use the education system to foster this. To this day the majority of Irish schools are Catholic schools, run and largely funded by the church.

Roll on 50 years or so, and a series of scandals rocked the Catholic Church, and none more so than in Ireland. For the first time in a long while, Irish Catholics started to question the legitimacy of their faith. A growing number of couples couldn’t remarry after ending previous relationships. Divorce only became legal after the 15th constitutional amendment in 1995.

As the Celtic Tiger moved into the 20th century, the spotlight was shone on Ireland and the world liked what they saw. An young, educated, and hard working population seized their chance and made hay whilst the sun shone. Whilst the scandals certainly affected the association many had with the Catholic Church, so did this sudden feeling of financial and social independence.

The vote to allow abortion in Ireland up to 12 weeks pregnancy, is the latest in a line of revolts against the Catholic church’s stance on issues like divorce and homosexuality.

Perhaps the most telling of all is the Catholic Church’s own faith survey. The 2016 survey showed that whilst 78% still identified as Catholic, this is over 13% down on the 1991 survey. Furthermore less than half of Irish Catholics attended mass at least one a week, down from 81% in 1990. The fact that the Catholic Church’s doctrine describes this as a mortal sin, meaning the individual is likely to end up in hell unless they repent, seems not to worry most folk.

Whilst the education system may still be largely run by faith organisations, it is clear their influence is waning. So is the pull of the traditional faith system of attending services. The end result is a population unable or unwilling to hear a religion’s theological teaching.

Last Friday, the Irish nation said to the world it was no longer accepting of the past. It wants to be a modern, progressive society. It may still want to be identified as Catholic, but not in the same manner as before.

Could this have been prevented? Maybe. The current Pope seems to be the church’s best chance of progressing its theology, but that’s a big ask. If Pope Frances had arrived 30-40 years ago, he would have a better chance of making real theological chance, but then he wouldn’t have been elected back then. The Catholic Church can appear to be like a super tanker trying to turn around in the middle of the Suez Canal. The Catholic Church clearly hasn’t kept up with the times, and maybe has paid the price.

Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe: Should we do more to help her?

The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe is a distressing one. Nazanin, a dual British-Iranian citizen, was arrested in Tehrain in April 2016 along with her one year old daughter. She was visiting her parents, to allow them to see her daughter for the first time. Accused of spying, something she denies, resulted in a five year jail sentence. The incarceration is bad enough for Nazanin, but its affect must be brutal for her daughter whose not seen her Mother or Father for two years. There are reports that Nazanin’s physical and mental health are severely affected.


Back in the UK, her husband heads a campaign for her release. He’s lobbied the UK Government with only limited success. Even just getting access to Nazanin by telephone has taken a gargantuan effort. Her parents rarely are allowed to visit, and her daughter’s British passport has been confiscated. This means she too is trapped in Iran unable to leave, effectively a hostage. Whatever the charges proven or unproven against her Mother, not allowing a young child to return to the land of her birth is barbarous.

Just this week there are reports of new charges being placed on Nazanin. This isn’t uncommon in Iran, but in Nazanin’s case each step forward seems to result in two steps back. It is a shocking case of human’s being used as a political football in a wider geo-political power game.

The UK Government has raised her case with the Iranian authorities. Our Foreign Secretary has visited Tehran and mentioned her case there, even if his attempts appeared cack handed. Quite what was said is open to conjecture, as Nazanin’s husband was refused a visa to join in. The UK Ambassador backed a recent request for Nazanin to be temporarily released for her daughter’s fourth birthday. Our Government says it is doing “everything possible” to bring Nazanin home.

That’s diplomatic language. Could they do more? Yes of course. Would that be wise? That depends on your viewpoint.

The real sadness of this case is the lack of communication, at least in public, between the Iranian and UK Governments. The relationship has been fractious for a long time, and doesn’t show signs of improving any time soon. There may well be diplomatic efforts being made behind the scenes, but the wider context of trade and Middle Eastern politics often seem to get in the way. Nazanin’s case just don’t hold the same importance as the Syrian Civil War or Israel and Palestine to the great and the good of both countries. Oh and let’s not forget that Iran is involved in a proxy war in both those places.

Reading about Nazanin’s case, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is a hopeless struggle. The Iranians won’t budge, so why waste your time with it. To anyone thinking like that, I’d ask them to think about the last time they were treated unfairly. Did they just accept the injustice? More likely they spoke out and tried to change things. If we all just accepted the status quo, the world would be anarchic with egotistical maniacs reeking havoc on us poor mortals.

Maybe you feel that keeping the Iranians “on side” is more important than one woman’s freedom. I believe it is not an either or option. We can ensure they keep to their international obligations AND free a woman who clearly hasn’t committed any crime.

So if you want to help Nazanin and her family, just do one thing. Go to, click on the “How You Can Help” link and take action.

Go on, do it now before you forget. Thank you.

Am I an anti-Semite?


There’s a convenient line of attack, that if you’re anti-Israeli, you’re by definition anti Jewish. I’m neither, but I have a big problem with that line of defence. It is like saying that because you hate crunchy peanut butter, you hate all nuts. What really bothers me though, is how effective that argument is. Such a head on attack dog strategy, deflects the argument onto ground where the accuser has to be defensive. In doing so, the original argument’s credibility is weakened and diluted.

You may wonder what the answer is to the Israel and Palestine issue. It’s become so polarised that anyone speaking out against Israel is immediately pounced on as anti-Jewish or anti-Israel. Side with the Palestinians and you’re accused of undermining international law.

The recent violence in Gaza is a case in point. Any minor event is likely to raise tensions, but the official opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem was anything but minor. The move of the US administration to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and moving their Embassy from Tel Aviv, was bound to inflame deep seated grievances.

The violence followed a well trodden path. Crowds of young Palestinians gather and throw rocks at members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The IDF respond initially with tear gas, followed by live ammunition. The IDF say they came under gunfire. Whilst this hasn’t been verified, there may well have been Hamas fighters nearby. I’d expect a country to defend itself from external aggression, but in this case it is less clear who’s country needs defending. A bigger question is, was the IDF’s response disproportionate?

This flash point originated because of the US administration’s de facto approval of the whole of Jerusalem being Israel’s capital. Prior to 1967 Jerusalem was divided into East Jerusalem under Palestinian control, and West Jerusalem under Israeli control. It was an uneasy peace, but by invading and annexing the east side of the city in 1967, Israel lit the blue touch paper of the largest firework ever to be seen in the region.

East Jerusalem still isn’t recognised as part of Israel under international law. Throw in the treatment of Palestinians both in East Jerusalem and Gaza, plus the unlawful building of Israeli settlements, and Israel has a lot to answer for. As for Hamas, it is a terrorist organisation in the eyes of many countries. It is also backed by states with good reasons for seeing Israel’s demise.

Perhaps unwisely, I believe that a two state solution is the only way of allowing the Palestinians and Israeli’s to live side by side. In order to achieve this, Israel must accept they’ll have to give back East Jerusalem. As unpalatable as this may be. That isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The settlements built in East Jerusalem for Israelis is a major issue. So is how the border between East and West Jerusalem would be policed. As for whether Hamas and their backers would accept the status quo and cease their claim to all of Palestine, including all of Israel?

I never said solving the Israel versus Palestine issue was easy.

Should sporting celebrities be political?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Such sentences underline the difficulties when determining what is acceptable to say when it comes to topics that are even vaguely political. Of course there are clear cut cases where it is unacceptable. For example, any sportsperson supporting holy jihad. But when it comes to less clear cut cases, where should the line be drawn?

There have been numerous cases of sportsmen and women falling foul of their sporting authority’s rules. Recent cases that spring to mind include:

  • Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer was fined for wearing a “No. 40 decal” on his helmet to honour former Arizona Cardinals teammate Pat Tillman who was killed in Iraq. See this Outside the Beltway blog post.
  • The English Football Association was fined £35000 by FIFA after the England squad wore shirts with the annual British Legion poppy symbol.  See this See Independent Newspaper article.
  • Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, formally manager of Barcelona, has been charged by the English FA for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of imprisoned Catalan politicians. See this BBC Website story.

In the modern big money world of branding, you can understand why sporting bodies get all hot under the collar when people don’t stay on message, but is that acceptable?

You could argue that straying off message is not only against the rules, but also is direct defiance of your employment contract. I’m sure most of us who are employed could find something we dislike about our employer’s ethical, environmental, or personnel policies. But most of us choose to ignore these policies and keep quiet. Whether this is for fear of being disciplined, or just that it’s not such a big deal is irrelevant. By not doing anything, we acquiesce to our employer’s views. If we stick our head above the parapet, we must expect some push back. We’re disobeying their rules after all, whether we like it or not. If we continue to disobey the rules, we must expect the ultimate sanction to be a disciplinary case resulting in dismissal.

So should a sporting celebrity by allowed to speak out? Of course. I’d defend that to the hilt. The real issue is whether they’d do so, if they were to lose their income, fame, and livelihood as a result. Some would no doubt, but I’d suggest that in all the cases above, they know that any fine is small enough to not really matter in the long run. That’s OK too. It gives both sides a win-win. One side can speak out when they feel strongly about something, and the other can cry foul and demand retribution in the form of a small financial slap on the wrist.

Is it time to reverse the Second Amendment?

It’s easy for a country whose constitution doesn’t explicitly state a citizen’s right to bear arms, to criticise another where it does. We get accused of outside interference or not “getting it”. The point is though that without interference, the status quo won’t change. And if the status quo remains, the cycle of mass shootings followed by indignation continues.

The US Constitution has changed 27 times since it was ratified in 1787. Ten amendments were made in 1791 which became known as the Bill of Rights, effectively outlining the rights of every US citizen. The second amendment gives the right to bear arms. The other 17 amendments include some pretty important amendments: the abolition of slavery (1865) and a women’s right to vote (1920) are two that spring to mind. The 21st amendment overturned the ill thought out 18th on prohibition. There’s a few procedural amendments, like changing the way a President is elected or the amount Congressmen get paid.

So what does it take to get the constitution changed? The 25th amendment describes what happens if a President or Vice President dies or resigns, more than likely as a result of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. His death left a judiciary wondering if Vice President Lyndon Johnson had a legal right to succeed. In practical turns though, an amendment can be written by Congress and passed by a simple two thirds majority. State governments can also call a convention to pass changes, although this hasn’t happened since 1787.

Congress is the key to a change, but only the prohibition change has ever been overturned. So could the right to bear arms do the same? Arguably as the second amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, it is more difficult. The key is the National Rifle Association (NRA). This lobby group is well funded, organised, and has the ear of a lot of congress men and women.

With each mass shooting, it is easy to say the NRA is mad not to change their attitude to gun control. They say it isn’t gun ownership that causes these mass casualties. I have some sympathy with this argument, but when anyone can go into a gun store and buy weapons with little or no checks, something is wrong. There is no perfect solution, as mass shootings have demonstrated here in the UK. But when the NRA refuses to even acknowledge that gun ownership is even a small part of the overall problem, you need to speak out.

Wanting regulation doesn’t mean you’re against the second amendment. In the same way the US wouldn’t allow anyone with a serious mental illness to join the army, or allow someone with a history of heart attacks to fly a 747, you shouldn’t allow someone with mental illness to buy a semi automatic machine gun. Yes the literal interpretation of the second amendment is everyone has the right regardless of who they are or what their medical history is. By that logic the first amendment (freedom of speech) allows citizens to say whatever they like, even if it preaches hate. Practically though if I was a US citizen and demand jihad against western targets, I’m sure that right to speak would be challenged.

Unfortunately I’m not hopeful of a change to the US constitution anytime soon. It could happen in the future though. It may take a brave politician to take the NRA lobby on. If they do, there’s a chance.

Think again before cancelling that DD

The recent exposure of Oxfam staff in Haiti using the services of prostitutes is disturbing, but maybe not for the reasons most expect. You can question the charity’s procedures when dealing with the issue, and definitely when dealing with the media once the story broke. That’s not to say the men weren’t wrong to act like they did. As one of the world’s leading relief agencies, the staff must have known how women are trafficked or forced into prostitution. Then there’s the mental and physical scars working in the profession can have, sometimes lasting many years. Those Oxfam staff involved were right to be disciplined.

Some will say that prostitution isn’t illegal. That may be true in many countries, but not in Haiti. There are also allegations that some of the women “used” were under age. Some illegal activity  has taken place. The fact that prostitution is illegal but accepted as a norm in some countries makes no difference. It may be seen as a way for women to make a scant living, but when doing so risks their very being it is wrong on so many levels. It’s still against the law and those found breaking it should be brought to justice.

The danger of this tragic episode is that many will see this as an opportunity to withdraw financial support from Oxfam, and perhaps other charities by association. And all this at a time when many charities face funding decisions that are the difference between life and death. If that happens it will be tragic, but also misguided.


For a start there is no evidence that Oxfam directly paid the prostitutes. This was the men acting as individuals. Admittedly they were paying for services with their Oxfam wages, but that’s not sufficient case to chastise the charity. If I worked for the International Vegan Rights Alliance, but decided to buy a burger from McDonalds, that up to me.

For me the issue we should be debating is how charities like Oxfam educate their staff about what is acceptable, and ensure robust procedures are in place to deal with staff who digress. The disturbing thing about this case, is how a group of men responsible for providing relief in one of the poorest countries on this planet, thought even for a second, that it’s acceptable to act the way they did. Oxfam should make it crystal clear what is acceptable to staff, and have procedures in place to quickly and effectively investigate cases where employees are suspected of digressing.

This case raises certain questions:

  • The allegations against the main culprit, their Country Director, were known before he was sent to Haiti. In fact there were concerns he was using prostitutes whilst stationed in Chad.
    Why was it thought acceptable to assign him to another country?
  • The Country Director apparently used a Haitian villa provided to him by Oxfam to meet the prostitutes. Such a flagrant misuse of Oxfam’s facilities must have raised eyebrows, yet this all happened in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
    How come this continued for several years despite rumours of such activities by Oxfam’s own staff on the ground?
  • Finally Oxfam have admitted that the use of prostitutes wasn’t “explicitly contrary” to their code of conduct.
    It should have been. Why wasn’t it?

One thing is for sure: Oxfam’s procedures were found wanting. These have started to be addressed, but it’s too late for those involved and the adverse publicity created. There will be those who withdraw financial support as a result. Perhaps that’s understandable.

My issue here is that the charity does fantastic work around the world. It provides help to millions of people when they need it most. Whether they are refugees fleeing from war, a province dealing with a natural disaster, or a country dealing with famine. Oxfam and other charities provide the basics of human life. They provide shelter and food, and care for the sick and dying. They also campaign to get the status quo changed.

All of this takes money. It is understandable for those funding Oxfam to question what they knew about this affair, and what changes they’ve made to ensure it doesn’t occur again. However the money is needed. So if you’re thinking of cancelling that monthly Direct Debit, think again.