This is the text of a letter I have sent to the Prime Minister and which will be referenced in national media tomorrow.

Recognising the complexities of such matters and the difficult role of the Prime Minister in them, I wrote the letter as a constructive stimulus to discussion of the wider questions provoked by what is happening in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Attempting to fix the immediate will prove costly in every respect, if we don't have a long-term, overarching and holistic vision for what we – along with other governments, agencies and partners (such as the churches) – need to achieve. The lack of clarity about such a comprehensive and coherent vision is being commonly remarked upon, and my letter seeks concisely and respectfully to elicit some response to these serious questions.

 

Dear Prime Minister,

Iraq and IS

I am conscious of the speed at which events are moving in Iraq and Syria, and write recognising the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges faced by the international community in responding to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

However, in common with many bishops and other correspondents here in the UK, I remain very concerned about the Government’s response to several issues. I write with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to put these questions to you.

1. It appears that, in common with the United States and other partners, the UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach. Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government’s response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq? Behind this question is the serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon, and it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect. The Church internationally must be a primary partner in addressing this complexity.

2. The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?

3. As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse. The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK Government. Therefore, I ask for a response to the question of whether there is any intention to offer asylum to Iraqi migrants (as part of a holistic strategy to addressing the challenges of Iraq)?

4. Following on from this, I note that the Bishop of Coventry tabled a series of questions to HM Government in the House of Lords on Monday 28 July. All but two were answered on Monday 11 August. The outstanding questions included the following: “The Lord Bishop of Coventry to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to resettling here in the UK a fair proportion of those displaced from ISIS controlled areas of Northern Iraq.” I would be grateful to know why this question has not so far been answered – something that causes me and colleagues some concern.

5. Underlying these concerns is the need for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the Government, given the departure of ministers who championed this. Will the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Panel continue under the new Foreign Secretary? Is this not the time to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom – which would demonstrate the Government’s serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy (backed by expertise) against Islamist extremism and violence?.

I look forward to your considered response to these pressing questions.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines (The Bishop of Leeds)

 

 

Having had a big needle in my shoulder yesterday, I followed the Syria crisis developments without knowing whether to or how to respond. So much has been said and is being said that adding to it seems pointless. Nevertheless, ahead of the debate in the UK Parliament yesterday, Dr Charles Reed offered a concise elucidation of 'just war theory' (in a series of short blog posts) in order to provide a framework for ethical thinking in relation to the decisions to be made.

No one doubts the seriousness of the issue, and any sign of gloating over David Cameron's 'humiliation' in the House of Commons last night simply demonstrates the ethical confusion that is around. The debate seemed – to me, at least – to revolve around pragmatic questions of achievability rather than questions of ethical consistency. And that is not a criticism. It was not clear what the objective of military action should be and, if done, how its effectiveness might be gauged.

Perhaps these questions focus the matter a little more sharply:

  • Is military action intended to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons and, if so, what action might achievably serve as an effective deterrent?
  • Is military action intended to weaken Assad's military strength and disrupt his ability to fight his civil war – and, if so, how achievable is this, especially when the civil war is being fought by monsters on both sides?
  • Is military action intended to target stocks of chemical weapons and render them useless – and, if so, how does blowing them up not create an even bigger chemical problem?
  • Why is mass murder using chemical weapons the trigger for military intervention when sustained and systematic mass murder using 'conventional' weaponry was not?
  • Is military action intended to make a difference on the ground in Syria, or to salve the consciences of those who look on helplessly from outside?
  • What is the point of the United Nations when resolutions can be sought, but subsequently overridden by 'exceptional circumstances'?

Contrary to some assertions in the last few weeks, chemical weapons have been used more recently. Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds. I seem to remember that it was the West that funded and equipped Saddam during the 1980s when our later enemy was our friend because he opposed our then enemy Iran. Can someone remind me who paid for the chemical weapons and who supplied them?

It seems to me that democracy worked last night and for that we should be grateful. Recriminations for political decisions should not take our eye away from what is happening to innocent people in Syria. The regime is behaving barbarically, but so are the rebels. As in the 1980s with Iran and Iraq, taking a short-term approach to funding, equipping and supporting one faction (Islamist fundamentalists, for example) now will lead inexorably to further injustices, cruelties and problems later. That is what history tells us, but what we find hard to learn.

David Cameron's political misjudgement or humiliation is irrelevant. The point of this whole business is how to find an effective way of galvanising international power to bring an end to the brutal civil war in Syria. Our MPs have reflected what seems to be the mood of the country – which, of course, doesn't make it right – and declined the use of military force by the UK. So, what is now their alternative strategy? My guess is that it lies somewhere in diplomatic battles with Russia, China and Iran – however difficult that may be. And Obama must decide, having taken a longer-term view, what will be most effective rather than what might make the USA look strong. This is about Syria, not the political power of 'us' and 'ours'.

In conclusion, I just wonder how those who now 'humiliate' David Cameron would be reacting if Tony Blair's 'winning the vote' over Iraq had equally failed. Would we then have praised the power of democracy – or would we have called for his head for having put his case to Parliament and failed? I would give Cameron some space: he is asking the right questions and they have not gone away just because the UK has vetoed the possible use of our forces in an intervention.

 

I caught a hint of a glimpse of a headline somewhere yesterday while on the move. It simply raised the question of how we, citizens of a democratic country, would have responded several decades ago to the suggestion that every individual would carry around on his or her person a tracking device. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? We would reject such a notion as being an infringement of personal privacy and a seriously worrying intrusion by the state (or other powers).

Well, like many things, we allow it to happen because rather than be presented to us as a policy, it simply creeps up incrementally as 'technological development'. So, now, without really thinking a great deal about it, we live in a surveillance state, whereby the 'powers' can know where I am, what I am buying, who I am texting/phoning, which websites I am perusing, where I am driving, who I am with, and so on. CCTV, road cameras, debit/credit cards, social media, mobile signal triangulation, store cards, etc. – the mere fact of this coverage makes any idea of privacy seem a little ironic (in an Orwellian, 1984 sense).

So, I was amused to read this morning's (always) excellent Newsbiscuit piece about GCHQ.

 

I was at the BBC studios in MediaCity, Salford, this morning to take part in a radio discussion about immigration. Well, not about immigration itself, but the campaign currently being run by the Tory part of the government (their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are distinctly queasy about it) to show how hard they are regarding illegal immigrants.

Maybe it is a coincidence – and I know Godwin's Law might be invoked here – but yesterday was the anniversary of Zigeunernacht – the night of 2/3 August 1944 when the Gypsy Family Camp (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was ‘liquidated’. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis, their corpses being burned in pits. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered.

Well, it all began with the corruption of language. That's how propaganda works. You change the associations and re-align semantics in order (often subliminally) to change perceptions and manipulate affections. So, yes, I have banged on about language many times before now – and, no, I am not suggesting that the government's current immigration campaign will inevitably lead to another holocaust. But, what I failed to get across coherently on the radio this morning is this:

  • We need a full, informed and intelligent public debate about immigration, and not the current polarised, nasty slanging match in which parties compete to be the 'hardest'.
  • We must distinguish between the 'issue' of immigration and the current campaign by the government. Immigration is a good thing and without it Britain would be stuffed. Our wealth has been created (for good and ill) by immigrants to this country in recent centuries.
  • It is a nasty little distraction to compensate for complete failure by governments to establish, monitor and run an effective immigration policy by targeting a few illegal immigrants with a crude campaign.
  • If effectiveness is important in evaluating any policy, then this one must surely be doomed. How many 'offenders' have turned themselves in so far? We are getting daily updates on numbers of 'immigration offenders' on the Home Office's twitter feed, so why not a daily update on the numbers of those handing themselves over?
  • Isn't it the great British addition to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty? Then why are these people called 'immigration offenders' when they can only be 'suspected immigration offenders'? And how many of them are turning out to be people whose applications for asylum or right to remain are held up in the massive and endless backlog queues at the Home Office?
  • Net migration is not a problem. Yet, from time to time we hear that we are not getting enough immigrants to met the needs of our economy. Why are immigrants being targeted (and impugned as a financial and social burden) – and why is this being coupled with welfare costs or burdens on the NHS?

These are just some of the questions hanging around. The real issue, however, has to do with the motivation for this unpleasant political campaign. And it is political. It is a macho PR stunt that will achieve little, but cause real damage to language, culture and community. It relies on the sort of categorisation of 'sorts of people' that dehumanises them by association – thus rendering them subject to 'different' values of behaviour or treatment.

The point is that the campaign with the vans, the twitter feed and the selective picking on people at London stations (based on crude racial profiling – if you are not white, you are fair game for stopping and checking) contributes to a coarsening of perceptions about immigrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. It increases fear on the part of immigrants, creates a culture of suspicion and 'anti-otherness', and achieves nothing of any positive purpose.

It all begins with the corruption of language and the confusion of issues. 'Illegal immigrants' morphs into 'immigrants' and the categorisation has begun.

Has any Home Office minister ever visited airport deportation centres and sat down with frightened people to listen to their human story? Aha! But, there's the rub: that would humanise the 'illegal immigrant' and make it harder to get rid of him/her.

If the government wants to address immigration, it should do so by sorting out a workable policy and ensure that those who do apply for asylum or a right to remain are treated humanely, efficiently and effectively – and, if appropriate, prevented from entering the country in the first place. To distract attention with displays of hardness has everything to do with political PR and little to do with reality – except for those whose reality is to be a victim of the campaign.

(And I haven't even started on a Christian theological anthropology of immigration…)

 

Oh dear. Tens of millions of pounds lost to the taxpayer by firms overcharging for privatised services. Good on the Justice Minister for referring the whole mess to the Serious Fraud Office.

What now, then? Will the whole system of privatised services be questioned in the same way as is the welfare system? Will business owners be pursued because of their moral failings as well as their bureaucratic or financial ‘weaknesses’ (or are ‘scroungers and skivers’ more morally culpable than those who steal money in other ways)?

Just asking (during a spare minute at the desk).

Today a letter has been published in the Financial Times and, probably, other newspapers around the world, signed by 80 of the world's religious leaders and urging G8 governments not to drop the Millennium Development Goal ball with 1000 days to go. Here is the text of the press release:

Religious leaders from across the G8 countries have called on Heads of Government to follow the UK in fulfilling existing commitments to spend 0.7% of national income on aid, in a letter to the Financial Times. From today, the 79 signatories including the Archbishop of Canterbury, point out, 1000 days remain to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline.

With a focus on tax, trade and transparency, the religious leaders argue, the UK Presidency of the G8 has the potential to advance the MDG agenda in ways that strike at the underlying causes of poverty, in particular by ensuring the wealth created by developing countries is not lost through unfair tax practices, a lack of transparency or a failure to secure the benefits of trade for developing countries.

“Meeting the remaining targets, while challenging, is possible – but only if governments do not waver from the moral and political commitments made over a decade ago,” the letter stresses.

The Rt Rev Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford said: “With only 1000 days left to achieve the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN, it is imperative that the G8 Heads of Government set the pace and do not allow this to fail. I shall be tweeting my support using #1000DaysToGo and hoping the flood of comments encourages governments not to waver.”

They argue for a G8 Convention on Tax Transparency committing signatory countries to prevent individuals and companies from hiding wealth so that it is untraceable. Further, they call on the G8 to press for greater financial transparency from governments of developing countries so citizens can hold their governments to account for the money they spend.

“Development is working but challenges remain,” the letter points out. “The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved ahead of time and 14,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990. Yet one in eight people still go to bed hungry every night and more than 2 million die of malnutrition each year.”

The financial crisis may be a reason but is not an excuse for hesitation or deferral, the letter states. “Reaching a purposeful consensus on these areas won't be easy. But, if the political will and moral leadership is forthcoming, this year's G8 could help to create an environment that encourages the conditions for inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth – conditions that are desperately needed if we are to realise the MDGs and even greater things beyond.”

And here is the text of the letter itself:

To G8 Heads of Government,

Today marks the start of the 1000 day countdown to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline. It is an appropriate moment to pause and to reflect on progress to date.

Development is working. But challenges remain. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved ahead of time and 14,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990. Yet 1 in 8 people still go to bed hungry every night and over 2 million die of malnutrition each year.

Even as conversations accelerate as to what ought to replace the MDGs, we should not slacken our efforts towards realising existing goals. Meeting the remaining targets, while challenging, is possible – but only if governments do not waiver from the moral and political commitments made over a decade ago.

Thirteen years on from the start of the Millennium the values and principles that drive these goals are as imperative as ever. The financial crisis may be a reason but is not an excuse for hesitation or deferral. The MDGs remind us that in addition to providing for the well being of our own societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold human dignity and the common good at the global level. Each individual has a value that can never be lost and must never be ignored.

With a focus on tax, trade and transparency, the UK Presidency of the G8 this year has the potential to advance the MDG agenda in ways that strike at the underlying causes of poverty, in particular by ensuring the wealth created by developing countries is not lost through unfair tax practices, a lack of transparency or a failure to secure the benefits of trade for developing countries.

As religious leaders from across the G8 we recommend that our Heads of Government take the following actions when they meet in June. First, fulfil existing commitments to spend 0.7% of national income on aid. Secondly, launch a G8 Convention on Tax Transparency committing signatory countries to prevent individuals and companies from hiding wealth so that it’s untraceable. Thirdly, press for greater financial transparency from governments of developing countries so that the citizens of these countries can hold their governments to account for the money they spend.

Reaching a purposeful consensus on these areas won’t be easy. But, if the political will and moral leadership is forthcoming, this year’s G8 could help to create an environment that encourages the conditions for inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth – conditions that are desperately needed if we are to realise the MDGs and even greater things beyond.

Anyone can join in the associated Twitter campaign.

Since 2005 the has been a religious leaders' summit held immediately prior to each G8 meeting in the host country. This year we have decided to try a different approach to raise consciousness and make representation to governments.

 

How interesting.

Papers released today from Margaret Thatcher's personal archive reveal that not everyone in her cabinet was in favour of sending the Task Force to the South Atlantic in 1982 to reclaim the Falkland Islands from the dastardly Argentinian invaders.

I was working in Cheltenham at the time and remember well many of the details of it all. Most of us also remember that the UK had given off many signals that our interest in maintaining the Falklands was weak – for example, the announced withdrawal of HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic. Not that this justifies the invasion, but you know how politics work.

However, that's not the interesting bit of today's news reporting.

Apparently, Thatcher's cabinet was 'split'. In other words, not everyone shared the same point of view as to how to respond to the invasion. We have discovered – much to our apparent shock or surprise – that opinions ranged from 'just let the islands go' to 'stick it up 'em, Captain Mainwaring'. But, what is shocking is simply that anybody should think of being shocked.

Do we not think that adults disagree – even when in government and faced with a quick decision about war? Isn't the whole point of collective cabinet government that different opinions are represented and given space for being voiced? Shouldn't we expect our leaders to be a little bit clever, a little bit concerned to look at all options, a little bit open to having views changed and developed as well as potentially confirmed by argument? This is why confidentiality matters: people with responsibility need a safe space within which to rehearse even their heresies in order to see what holds water and what doesn't.

Our problem is that we live in a culture where adults holding differing opinions is called 'division' or 'split'. Goodness knows we understand how all this language plays out in representation of the church. it is a little bit pathetic, but it also has the effect of inhibiting grown-up debate. 'Difference' is not the same as 'division' – it just doesn't sound as dramatic.

When will we grow up?

 

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