Wednesday, March 30, 2005

New Report - Reconciliation: Rhetoric or Relevant?

Grainne Kelly and myself, as Democratic Dialogue Associates, have recently put together the first of two DD reports on the theme of reconciliation entitled Reconciliation: Rhetoric or Relevant? This project, funded by the EU Peace II programme via the Community Relations Council, generated a workable definition of what has hitherto been a rather nebulous concept, on the basis of a round table drawing together international and local experts and practitioners. The Special EU Programmes Body has found this a very useful piece of work. Hard copies are available for £7.50 (£4 unwaged, £10 institutions) plus postage and packing from DD, send an email to info@democraticdialogue.org. A PDF version can be downloaded by clicking here.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

And finally...I read the Da Vinci Code

If you haven't heard of the book the Da Vinci Code then you have probably have been on another planet. In fact I suspect I might be the last person on earth to have read it! The Da Vinci Code certainly does live up to its reputation. It is an entertaining thriller about deception, the church, religious intrigue, secret societies and the quest for hidden truths. Lots of people are getting very excited about this book because of its focus on various religious sects and conspiracy theories about them (see for example the Yahoo! Da Vinci Code page), but in the final instance it is nothing more than a fantastic read and a great thriller set within an intriguing setting. Next time you need a page turner to pass the hours, try this one. In its genre, highly recommended and dare I say, great fun if nothing else. More information on the book at Amazon, click your location US UK CA SA.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

British society would do well to modernise some traditions

Few issues could throw the British media into the frenzy created by the pending royal wedding between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles and the newly legislated ban on fox-hunting.

While ostensibly separate issues, the debate on both has centred on the same principle, namely that, in each case, national tradition is ‘under threat’. The moral standards of the country will crumble, cry some commentators, if an adulterous divorcee becomes supreme governor of the Church of England, a position to be bestowed upon Prince Charles when he becomes king. Fox-hunters too cry foul, claiming that another great centuries-old tradition is being undermined. But is tradition a good enough reason to retain the status quo? And is tradition beyond change? For centuries, in Western culture, it was traditional for women not to be educated and for universities to be all-male institutions. Witch burning and female circumcision are traditional practices still carried out in parts of Africa today. Tradition hardly seems an appropriate reason to retain any of these customs. Just because we have always done something does not make it right. Such thinking implies certain practices have always been there, or at least been around for a long time, and have not changed since. This paints traditions as timeless, innate and static by nature. Yet the most enduring traditions evolve in order to fit the changing society in which they are practised, just as, in nature, adaptation is often the key to their endurance. Both fox-hunters and royal enthusiasts would do well to remember this before their refusal to evolve renders their traditions extinct. While the ban on fox-hunting and the latest royal wedding might signal the end of something, they are also the start of something new. The reality is that the tradition of fox-hunting has not been destroyed completely, but has been overhauled. Fox-hunters can still ride out red-coated on horseback, take part in drag hunts, exercise their dogs and even shoot foxes if they want. The aspect of the tradition which has been outlawed is the final tearing to pieces of the fox by hounds. This might be precisely the change needed to make fox-hunting less brutal and more acceptable and appealing to a wider cross-section of the population. Equally, perhaps if the supreme governor of the Church of England is an adulterous divorcee many who have had a similar life experience may feel less estranged from the church as a result and be more inclined to see it as relevant to them. None of this is to say that traditions are not important. They have value because they connect us to our past and give us a sense of identity. But it is healthier to see traditions not as a stagnant force in society, but as mirrors of positive change.

It was not so long ago that some people said the old South African flag would never die. As I watched England play cricket in South Africa recently, stands awash with the new flag, I wondered if anyone was seriously longing to see the old flag again. Perhaps someone out there is, but the vast majority seemed proud to display the new flag with its overtones of diversity and progress.

Introducing a new national flag has meant hope, not dissolution, for South Africa. Banning fox-hunting with dogs and allowing a fallible divorcee to hold an important spiritual office will not signal the end of all that is British. To be honest, I am not that interested in fox-hunting or the royals, but British society would do well to think of modernising some enduring traditions to reflect the sensibilities of their time. Perhaps seeing tradition in this way could, in itself, become a new tradition that Britain can be as proud of as South Africans are of our new flag.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, March 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 11 March 2005.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Update on Greensboro TRC

As some you know this blog has been following some of the developments of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is focusing on the 1979 "Greensboro Massacre" that took place in broad daylight and was taped by local television news crews. It is the first TRC in the US. Recently the Washington Post published a piece on it that tells of the progress so far. To read the article, click here.

Friday, March 4, 2005

You can kill burglars. . . can't you?

"You can kill burglars," screamed the UK tabloids. Such headlines were promoted by a comment by Sir John Stevens, the outgoing police commissioner, that the public should be allowed to use whatever force is necessary against intruders in their home. His statement was swiftly followed by a pamphlet produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service reaffirming that "reasonable force" can be used against burglars.

Much public debate then ensued about what householders can and cannot do if someone breaks into their home. Radio talk shows ran tiresome debates about the acceptability of belting someone over the head with a baseball bat when they make off with your television.

The frenzy about it hardly matches the degree to which it is a major social problem in the UK. What is fascinating about this issue in the UK context is how it has even made it into the news. In the past 15 years there have been eleven householders prosecuted for excessive use of violence against intruders. Of these only five were prosecuted for using violence not deemed self-defence. One of these prosecutions included a man who set a trap for a burglar, captured him, beat him to death and then set him alight.

According to the British Crime Survey, the total number of domestic burglaries in England and Wales in 2002/3 was around 974 000. This means in the UK the average homeowner has a roughly one in a million chance of ending up in court associated with the use of excessive violence against an intruder.

So what is going on?

On one level the hysteria is closely linked with the UK elections that will take place in May. The focus on this issue is another dimension of the growing politics of fear that pervades the West. Highlighting the rights of citizens helps convince the electorate that the government is on their side and will allow them to enforce their individual rights at any cost.

But on another level something more sinister is afoot. While the public debate what their rights are in a fair fight with a burglar, the British government is busy whittling away at their more substantive civil liberties.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 was quickly cobbled together by the British government. This new law meant that foreign nationals could effectively be detained without trial at the discretion of the Home Secretary. Twelve individuals have been detained on this basis since December 2001. But last month the House of Lords ruled that such practices were not consistent with European human rights law. The response from the British government was astounding. Since they can no longer detain people without trial in prisons, the government decided to seek legislation that will put terror suspects under house arrest using ‘control orders’. Such orders would entail suspects not being able to leave their homes, banning them from the use of phones or the Internet, electronic tagging and the enforcement of curfews. Under these proposed plans both British citizens and foreigners suspected of ‘international or domestic’ terrorism could be detained as a ‘preventive’ measure without charge or trials potentially indefinitely. In other words, while the debate rages about what rights people have in their home, the British government is drafting legislation which will erode rights and turn houses into prisons.

Now if there is one thing South Africans can teach the British about it is prisons, and specifically the vagaries of detention without trial. In the 1980s in South Africa over 80 000 people were detained without trial, some for up to two-and-a-half years. Although it may be argued by some that the practice temporarily removed some alleged threats, in the long run it served as a tool to create anger and animosity, and fuelled cycles of violence. The practice left a generation who had little respect for the law because they had only ever experienced it as partial and inconsistent. Is Britain heading the same way? Only time will tell what the full impact of the control order and associated proposals will be, but right now, the message is loud and clear. The law is there to be manipulated by government and European human rights laws disrespected.

The youth, in this case mainly young Muslim men who are the most likely victims of the proposed laws, will grow up seeing the law as a weapon to be used against them. As a consequence the law will be resented and not respected. Treat people with respect and the chance of them respecting you is all the more likely. Treat them as terrorists without a fair trial and more terror will be the result. Instead of creating a safer world through laws that promise more security, greater levels of global insecurity will prevail.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 25 February 2005.