Love is a Battlefield: The Politics of Same-Sex Unions in Italy

Marriage equality is arguably one of the most defining socio-political developments of the 21st century, with 18 countries worldwide now recognising the right for two consenting adults in a committed relationship to enjoy the same legal protections and tear-jerker flash mob proposals regardless of their sex or gender. It’s a movement which in 2015 alone gave us everything from the staggering expat #HomeToVote pilgrimage for Ireland’s historic referendum, to the frenzy to produce the most viral “Love Wins”-themed advertisement, to the straight couple who hilariously threatened to get divorced if marriage equality passes in Australian parliament – prompting a predictable reply from the internet.

 

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Marital joy and the rainbow flag industry: both on the rise in 2015 [x]

It’s a movement that has seen significant gains particularly in Europe, with the Netherlands leading the charge towards a brighter, sparklier future, as it became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001. Since then, the number of countries in the EU that allow same-sex marriage has risen to 11, with a total of 22 countries providing some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.

The latest country to join this group is Italy, with the Senate passing a bill to allow civil unions for same-sex couples in late February. While the bill still has to pass the lower chamber in order to become law, it is widely regarded as a sealed deal – although one that comes as something of a compromised victory for LGBTQ activists.

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Like this, except instead of cake, it’s vital and fundamental rights. [x]

The bill that passed the Senate lacks crucial legislation that would legalise the adoption of children by the partner of the child’s biological parent. The so called “stepchild adoption” provision became the central bargaining chip in negotiations over the bill, and saw the process delayed by several days after Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party walked away from a deal with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in mid-February. The deal would have kept the provision in the bill in the face of conservative opposition and amendments, however M5S ended up boycotting the final vote altogether. It’s a cynical move from a formerly laughable party (literally – Beppe Grillo is most famous for his career as a comedian) making rapid gains across the political spectrum, as it spots an opportunity to get more conservative voters on side.

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Because, y’know, you can’t make a governmental omelette without breaking a few standards of common decency.

In the end, the Prime Minister hastened the process by calling a confidence vote on the bill, an audacious move that would have seen the government obliged to resign if it did not pass. By removing the stepchild adoption provision, however, the Democratic party were able to come to an agreement with the centre-right Nuovo Centrodestra party that allowed for a final vote supporting the legislation by 173 to 71.

Of course, the civil unions bill, which has been debated in the Senate since January, has faced significant opposition from several quarters. As might be expected, one of the strongest forces opposing marriage equality in Italy is the Vatican, which despite being a separate sovereign state is still permitted to loudly voice its opinion on Italian politics thanks to the complexities of the Patti Lateranensi or Lateran Treaty, established in 1929. Nevertheless, Renzi none-too-gently informed the bishops’ conference where to shove it after its leader Angelo Bagnasco weighed in on the democratic process.

Protesters also voiced opposition to the Vatican’s stance, taking to the piazzas with giant alarm clocks and asking politicians to “wake up,” presumably to the fact that it’s already a quarter past 2016 and they are late to the gay marriage party.

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It’s not the kind of party you can be fashionably late to. [x]

But how does marriage equality fare across Europe? On a global scale, those 11 countries in the EU represent a whopping 61% of all countries that have legalised same-sex marriage (add Iceland and Norway to the equation, and Europe has a whole 72% slice of the delicious equality pie). But while much has been made about how Italy is dragging its feet as far as its Western European neighbours go, there is significant – and in some cases surprising – inconsistency in the EU.

Germany, Austria, Northern Ireland and much of Central Europe confine the rights of same-sex couples to civil unions, with accompanying limitations to various aspects of marriage such as adoption rights.

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I’d like to thank the designer of this graph for allowing me to make a pun about the EU’s chequered record with gay rights. [x]

Considering Germany’s attempts to present itself as a progressive leader in recent years (and months) it’s puzzling that they haven’t managed to get this sorted out sooner, but Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is no closer to allowing same-sex couples to tie the knot, even after Catholic stronghold Ireland proved you don’t have to choose between #LoveWins and the Lord.

When the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) weighed in on the debate in Italy last July, it found that by not offering equal protection to homosexual couples as it did to heterosexual couples, Italy was in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Given that the purview of the ECtHR extends to all 47 members of the Council of Europe (almost twice the number of member states in the EU), this is a not insignificant precedent to set. Sadly, like many European-level governmental and legislative structures, the ECtHR suffers from an inability to enforce its rulings beyond portraying the offending member state as a hypocrite.

The fact that the provision most often denied to same-sex couples is adoption only compounds the tragedy of this situation. Nothing screams hypocrisy quite like denying parents legal rights to their children in the name of “defending families”. Reinforcing social ostracism, marginalisation, and the idea that a mother should have to carry around a paper saying she’s “allowed” to care for her child is reprehensible, and particularly stupid considering there are good arguments that legalising gay marriage would give Italy an economic boost it sorely needs.

Fattoria Tregole Wedding Photographer

Because everybody loves a wedding in Tuscany, no matter what your sexual orientation may be.

But if the history of the fight for total marriage equality in Italy is anything to go by, the battle is far from lost. Just look at former Mayor of Rome Ignazio Marino, who in 2014 casually brushed away Italian law to recognise the marriages of 16 same-sex couples, and presumably proceeded to enjoy the full benefits of 16 different reception buffets, open bars, dance floors and hours of tearful, heartfelt speeches. And while the Interior Minister dismissed Marino’s signing of the marriage contracts as merely “[giving] these very respectable couples his autograph,” it speaks to the growing pressure for equal rights in recent years, in a country where the struggle for equality has been fierce and its victories hard-won.

CB

 

The Primary Objective

As the field of candidates begins to narrow in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, it’s worth sparing a thought for those forced to withdraw. Far from spending  the next four years in the White House, many of them will soon be consigned to the undignified rank of tough-pub-quiz-question, showing the same levels of name-recognition that garnered them such low poll ratings in the first place. For every Jeb Bush that will probably continue to have a role in public life, there’ll be many Bobby Jindals who it’s difficult to believe ever thought he was presidential. But lest we forget those who sacrificed their careers at the altar of vanity and power, here are five past candidates who, for better or worse, stayed in the public eye after their presidential ambitions were squashed.


2012 – Herman Cain

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A former businessman with no political experience. A man whose anti-Mulsim remarks were met with disdain. A candidate enjoying a surprise early poll lead. Remind you of anyone? While Herman Cain’s greatest contribution to politics may end up being his use as a comparison to Trump (at least until that all stopped being quite so funny) his legacy to comedy was much greater. The former Godfather’s Pizza boss briefly ran in 2000, but it was in 2012 that Cain made his mark. His central economic policy was to rip us the US tax code and replace it with his snappily titled 9-9-9 tax policy; a flat 9% rate of tax for personal income, business transactions and federal sales. The clever sound-bite failed to stack up as a workable policy and was widely ridiculed. A bizarre ad in which his campaign chief blew smoke into the camera before Cain grinned slowly while a power ballad played in the background did nothing to alleviate this and led to merciless and endless parody.

These days he tries to convince people that chimps believe in God and spams his mailing list with erectile dysfunction remedies.


2004/2008 – John Edwards

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As an inexperienced first-term senator Edwards never looked likely to win the 2004 Democratic nomination, but showed enough promise that he was marked out for big things in the future. John Kerry even saw fit to offer him the Vice Presidential nomination that year. In 2008, Edwards’ campaign was hard-fought but ultimately drowned out by the epic clash which emerged between Senators Obama and Clinton. Edwards’ failure to secure the nomination wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to him that year, as his less-than-honourable personal life caught up with him. He initially denied allegations that he had had an affair with campaign worker Rielle Hunter and fathered a child with her. Whilst he later admitted the affair, he continued to disown the child until 2010, something unlikely to earn him any “world’s greatest dad” mugs in Father’s Days to come. One former aide later accused Edwards of convincing him to admit paternity in order to cover up the deception. All of which was made worse by the fact that it happened at a time when his wife, herself a respected attorney, author and activist was dying of cancer. She lived just long enough to see him finally admit paternity of his lovechild and to write a scathing book about their relationship. Now firmly entrenched as American politics’ bastard-in-chief, John Edwards was indicted on charges of misusing up to $1 million of campaign funds to cover up his affair. He was acquitted of one charge and five others were dismissed due to mistrial. He’s now managed to slide his way back into the courtroom by returning to practising law.


2000 – John McCain

Before, anyone gets smug and says “but surely McCain won the Republican nomination?” yes, that is true of 2008 John McCain but a much younger, sexier John McCain had a first crack of the whip eight years previously.

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Younger, sexier.

A Vietnam veteran who spent time as a POW in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison, McCain was elected Congressman for Arizona in 1983, upgrading to Senator four years later. By 2000 he was a well-respected if sometimes unpredictable member of the GOP, known to reach across the aisle on matters of principle. He teamed up with fellow Senator and veteran John Kerry to declare that there were no secret prisoners still being held in Vietnam, something many veterans still believed and for which some never forgave him. On paper his experience and backstory was in obvious contrast to Presidential scion George W. Bush, whose rowdy and alcoholic youth and perceived inability to speak in coherent English were potential stumbling blocks to his nomination. As his challenge to the establishment-backed Bush grew stronger, McCain became the victim of an anonymous poison-pen campaign. As the New York Times later recalled:

“Literature began to pepper the windshields of cars at political events suggesting that Mr. McCain had committed treason while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, that he was mentally unstable after years in a P.O.W. camp, that he was the homosexual candidate and that Mrs. McCain, who had admitted to abusing prescription drugs years earlier, was an addict.”

McCain lost the South Carolina primary soon afterwards and his candidacy never recovered. In 2004, he was often mentioned as a Vice Presidential candidate for Democrat John Kerry as part of a unity ticket, but nothing ever came of it. By 2008 McCain’s time had finally come and he won the Republican nomination. With a deeply unpopular incumbent Republican President, McCain had an uphill battle on his hands, one only made harder by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. In contrast to the rancour during this year’s Primary season, during which Donald Trump offered the supreme diss of “I like people who weren’t captured,” McCain at least attempted to make the vote about policy, valiantly attempting to talk down a supporter who railed against Obama as an Arab.

Less edifying was his channelling of the Beach Boys to advocate bombing Iran.

Since his defeat he’s returned to the Senate when he’s become chair of the Armed Services Committee.


1992 – Ralph Nader

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The only person other than John McCain to eventually make it onto the ballot for the Presidential election, Nader first challenged as a write-in Democrat in 1992. A strong left-winger and environmentalist, he was the Green Party candidate in 1996 and again in 2000, when he may have inadvertently been very influential in the race. The closeness of George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore led some to suggest that Nader’s siphoning (however small) of the liberal vote cost Gore the election. Somewhat ironically of course, Al Gore would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent global warming. For his part Nader refused to give up his presidential ambitions (or perhaps just hoped to influence the debate) by running again as an independent in 2004 and 2008.


1988/1992 – David Duke

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A candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and the Republicans in 1992, David Duke is the sort of name you don’t want (but I now have) in your search history. A white supremacist, vocal anti-Semite and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Duke was notorious as far back as his student days for parading around Louisiana State University campus in a Nazi uniform. Not content with the number of K’s in his organisation he founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan or KKKK. His unashamed far-right views notwithstanding, he won a seat in the Louisiana state house in 1989, though failed as an effective lawmaker during his single term, due to his inability to get to grips with procedure. Whilst his own bids for President never looked like taking off, he has kept busy in politics, meeting with former BNP leader Nick Griffin and recently endorsing Donald Trump. Trump’s inability to immediately disavow Duke may be one reason his electoral success has shown signs of slowing in recent weeks.

In the 1990s David Duke raised funds from supporters, claiming he was in dire financial straits. This turned out not to be the case, the money mainly being spent on gambling, and Duke was convicted of fraud. More recently, he was detained and eventually asked to leave the Czech Republic because of his record of Holocaust denial, whilst he was deported from Italy in 2013 after it was discovered that Switzerland had issued him with a Schengen-wide travel ban. He received an honorary doctorate from the obscure Ukrainian Interregional Academy of Personnel Management and is now insistent on styling himself Dr. David Duke. Perhaps he just misses being associated with three repeated initials.


So there you have it, every cycle has its own quirks. Who knows, if we survive the coming Trumpocalypse we may one day look back upon Ben Carson’s grain stores or Chris Christie’s huge mistake with fondness.

TF

 

FEAR #6: Food Fraud

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR is designed to put you off your dinner.

This Sunday 6th March it’s Mother’s Day in the UK, but rather than do a lengthy, meaningful and no doubt terrifying psychoanalytic article about the relationship between mother and child, I’m going to focus on a different holiday (because I’m my own man damn it). In case you didn’t already know, this Sunday it’s also National Frozen Food Day in the U.S.A. (where else right?), and what better way to honour it than focussing on all the dodgy dealings of the food industry. Hold on to your stomach.

In 2013 the horse meat scandal broke and confirmed what many of the turkey twizzler generation suspected all along – if you are what you eat, most of us are a fraud. But after the jokes died down (personal favourite: don’t worry – horse wasn’t the mane ingredient) and the public had been placated with enough terrible stock photos of food scientists checking food for various types of DNA, the world turned and the whole ugly business carried on as usual.

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There’s nothing worse than a scientist fingering your meat.

There are several reasons large scale food fraud is so popular (think I’m exaggerating? here, here and here say otherwise): firstly, it is a low risk, high reward venture. The penalties that criminal groups incur if caught with their fingers in illicit pies is minimal, bordering on a slap on the wrist when compared to the lengthy sentences handed down for drug related felonies.

There’s no greater illustration of this systemic weakness than the case of Castle Cheese, a U.S. based company who were recently found to have supplied fake Parmesan cheese for 30 years. Even worse, according to a report by Food and Drug Administration, the actual product contained a significant percentage of wood pulp and “no Parmesan cheese was used” (plus this substantiates my belief that American cheese is awful, so it must be true). Despite this obviously long-term and intentional fraud, the company’s president only faces a year-long jail sentence and a $100,000 fine. Not bad given they had $19 million in sales in 2013.

We may well expect this from a country that thinks that anything less than 30 pieces of insect in 100g of peanut butter is just an “aesthetic” problem, but if you’re inclined to think the high level of tolerance for this kind of crime is restricted to the U.S., think again. Even in the Netherlands a man who sold 300 tonnes of horse meat as beef only got sentenced to two and a half years. Admittedly, no one was hurt, but he didn’t know that and the discovery of phenylbutzone in horse carcasses means they easily could have been.

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Effects of horse meat consumption include jaundice.

Another advantage food fraud has over other rackets is the vast customer base; everybody’s gotta eat so it’s pretty much a captive audience. This makes the scope for fraud enormous because the crime can vary from simple mislabelling to make the product worth more, like labelling farmed salmon as wild, to extremely sophisticated, such as adding melamine to milk to make the protein content appear higher. The latter case occurred in the U.S. a few years ago and resulted in the tragic death of six infants and hospitalised many more.

Although this is a particularly galling example, more often than not the ingredients cut into food are benign. This is not done as a socially responsible gesture aimed at maintaining the health of Joe Public, it’s done in the knowledge that people getting poisoned tends to arouse the interest of the authorities.

These criminal organisations have invested heavily in the fake food business and in most countries they are one step (at least) ahead of law enforcement. The UK is particularly behind the curve. Despite setting up a food fraud database as part of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2007, there was little movement on the issue until after the horse meat scandal. A root and branch analysis of food supply networks in the UK was published in the Elliot review in 2014. Elliot’s suggestions were hardly rocket science, for example, the creation of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), as part of the FSA so food fraud investigations can be centralised. Elliot has since criticised the FSA for misinterpreting his report and waiting for two years before actually actively investigating anything. They still haven’t started actively investigating.

Government cut-backs and general mismanagement have also played their part in the problem. At the height of the horse meat scandal a report by the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee claimed that the Border Force “neglected to examine freight for illicit goods” after having made 500 staff redundant between 2010 and 2012.

People may argue back and forth about the austerity program, but it’s hard to see the logic in trimming border force budgets when the result is an estimated loss of half a billion pounds annually in beer smuggling alone. In fact, the all-party parliamentary beer group (yes, that is a thing) estimates that duty has not been paid on 10-20% of all cans and bottles on sale in the UK.

Couple this with cuts to local government, which have led to a reduction in the number of trading-standards officers and it’s little surprise that criminals see this as a chance to cash in. It seems more and more like the health of the nation is being put at risk by negligence and ignorance at various levels.

In fairness to the government, despite further cuts to local authorities, last November’s spending review did promise an increase in spending on the border force. While this is welcome news, I (cynically) suspect that this has much more to do with searching freight for illegal migrants than for suspect food.

The Elliot review also encouraged a zero tolerance approach towards food fraud:

“In sectors where margins are tight and the potential for fraud is high, even minor dishonesties must be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties deliberately punitive”.

While this is definitely a step in the right direction, when there’s no-one investigating it’s difficult to prosecute and the whole thing reeks of an empty threat.

Further to this, the globalisation of the food process, with multiple suppliers in different countries makes the fraud difficult to trace. This is especially true in highly processed foods where discerning which of the ingredients introduced the contamination is the investigative equivalent of unscrambling an egg.

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It’ll give you the trots.

The extent of the problem and the seemingly pitiful effort made to resolve it has led to reduced consumer confidence and shunning of guilty brands. This was highlighted by the sale of the European operations of the Findus Group, who were caught selling horse meat in their already grim crispy pancakes. This may seem like a victory for consumers, but the parent company Young’s Seafood made £500 million on the sale and most Findus meals are going to be shamelessly re-branded as “Chef’s Classics”. 

In all, the fraudsters are hardly feeling the brunt of consumer backlash and will continue to take advantage of a poorly managed and under investigated food network. Hopefully confidence will return when NFCU investigations become active later this year, but until then we all have a reason to be a bit long in the face.

JW

The Good, The Ads & The Ugly, Feb 2016 – Turkish Airlines/Fly to Gotham City

Do you want things? Generally, yes – but which things? Adverts attempt to make that decision for you but sometimes they go the opposite way and make you hate the corporate world more than you thought imaginable. This is The Good, The Ads & The Ugly.

There’s a theory in robotics which postulates the presence of the “uncanny valley“. For the uninitiated, the theory suggests that as robots look more and more human-like, people’s positive reaction to them grows. Then at some point the similarity becomes so close that they stop looking like humanoid robots and start looking like robotic humans. This almost-human-but-not quality is incredibly off-putting and people’s perceptions of the robots take a sharp tumble.

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From here.

Now keep that principle in mind as we watch this Turkish Airlines advert.

From the very outset, something seems slightly wrong. The voiceover a little too measured, the music marginally too dramatic and that certainly looks like a city, but which one exactly? And then the name hits you. Gotham. City. Ben Affleck, in character as Bruce Wayne, strides from a building to his waiting car looking every bit like a no win-no fee injury lawyer. Whilst part of your brain knows this is fake, the scene is uncannily realistic. Look – all the African-Americans are in service roles!

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Someone needs to talk to the “dark” knight about cultural appropriation.

We whizz through some more establishing shots which look like they’re lifted straight from the film, an inexplicably jarring club scene which is actually the only four seconds of footage that feels like it belongs in an advert (specifically any advert for spirits ever), and then back to Ben, sorry Bruce, on a plane.

Affleck’s career has had some ups and downs in its time and his casting as Batman was not met with unanimous joy, but he has been on an upswing recently. Let’s not forget that one of the last times he filmed on an aeroplane, he was fleeing the Iranian Revolution in his Oscar-winning film Argo. To go from that to doing conceptually forced sponsorship tie-ins seems like a definite step down. Just look at his face – it’s difficult to tell whether he’s brilliantly acting the cocky smile of a self-confident billionaire playboy or if the grim resignation of an actor who wishes he’d read to page 34 of his contract is showing through.

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Take me back to Iran.

Finally we exit the uncanny valley and the ad is over. But wait…

Another advert, almost identical to the other has been produced for Metropolis. Thankfully, Superman himself doesn’t make an appearance; Twitter would have imploded under the weight of “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yes… actually it is a plane” jokes. Despite the fact they are advertising exactly the same thing, someone has tried vainly to make these opening shots look different. Planes pointing different way? Check. Dusk changed to dawn? Check. Appreciably different not-New-York-but-essentially-New-York cityscape? Check, just about.

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It wouldn’t be surprising if one of these planes read “senilriA hsikruT”.

Speaking of which, does an airline really want to be associated with films which repeatedly destroy skyscrapers in faux New York? Is that really the connotation that Turkish Airlines want to invoke when people think about them? Perhaps they’re just trying to prevent people mentally autocorrecting Turkish Air… to the more newsworthy Turkish airspace. After all, it’s not the fault of the commercial airline that Turkey’s military became embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious spat with Russia, which revolves around the fatal shooting-down of a Russian bomber in November 2015.

Either way, let’s hope that we pull back from the uncanny valley of ads that look like films and go back to what we’re more used to – films so full of product placement, they look like adverts.

TF

Asylum Seekers and Denmark: A Tale of Three Treaties

Denmark – a country primarily known for its pastries, its Vikings, its mopey Shakespearean princes and its superlatively happy population – has recently been gaining the incongruous image of a small-time mob boss, shaking down newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees for their valuables before letting them into the country.

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“Give us your non-sentimental lunch money in excess of 10,000 kroner, punk” [x]

In an attempt to offset both the political and financial costs of the current refugee crisis, the Danish parliament has approved the so-called “jewellery bill” allowing police to search incoming asylum seekers and seize non-essential items without sentimental value that are worth more than 10,000 Danish kroner, or about £1,000. These goods will apparently help fund the welfare expenses of some 20,000 people who applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015, although since the bill’s implementation on the 5th of February this year the measures have generated exactly zero kroner.

Indeed, some commentators are of the opinion that the measure is intended to be a symbolic deterrent rather than a revenue generator, although it’s hard to say which is more destructive for one’s faith in humanity – the idea that the government wants to claim what little possessions refugees might have managed to drag halfway across the world with them in order to sweeten the welfare pot, or the prospect of trying to compete with countries like Hungary for Worst Place to Be a Refugee.

Although it’s taking a lot of heat at the moment, Denmark is far from the first country to employ these tactics in recent years. Australia’s soul-crushingly terrible deterrent policies regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat have inspired wannabe copycats in Europe, and are now vying seriously with Apartheid and Rolf Harris to be the shittiest thing Australia has ever exported to the rest of the world.

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When your immigration policy is being praised by the Dutch Donald Trump, it might be time to rethink your life choices. [x] [x]

In fact Denmark is joining the company of countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and parts of Germany in requiring refugees to surrender their valuables in exchange for asylum. While these bills are undoubtedly kind of a dick move, they are far from the most worrying political motion currently in play. In the midst of this entire ruckus, the Prime Minister of Denmark has actually called for the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention to be revised to a more convenient version that would reduce European countries’ obligations to provide asylum.

This is serious business. The 1951 Refugee Convention is used as an international standard for the protection of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights, and was set up in the wake of the last great crisis that saw millions of people displaced from their homes. There are 147 countries party to the Convention worldwide, including all the EU member states. It is the oldest and perhaps most well established of the three treaties or agreements that are currently having the greatest impact on refugee policy at a European level. To understand why Denmark is calling for revisions to one of the most important humanitarian documents in history, we have to understand how these three treaties interact.

So what are the other two? First up is the Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement between 26 countries (22 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). In essence this means you can travel from Treviso to Tromsø without ever needing to show your passport or change visas, which is good news for people who hate train delays, airport queues and immigration paperwork (read: everybody). The inimitable CGP Grey explains a little about how Schengen fits into the EU’s whole deal here:

 

The other treaty to consider is the Dublin Regulation, also sometimes referred to as Dublin III. It primarily aims to be a mechanism by which everyone can decide which state should be responsible for dealing with an individual’s claim for refugee status. The BBC has helpfully put together a 90 second video that gives an overview of the Dublin Regulation here:

 

This is where things get complicated, for two main reasons. As the video above points out, under the Dublin Regulations there are several countries that end up taking a disproportionate burden of responsibility for asylum seekers entering the EU due to their location on the coast or southern edges of Europe. Since Dublin III usually dictates that the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU should be responsible for that person’s application, Italy and Greece end up in the position of either processing a huge number of applications or throwing their hands up and letting people move inland to other, less bureaucratically clogged states.

In fact, this leads to the second complication – due to the Schengen Agreement, asylum seekers can in theory travel unhindered through Europe until they reach a country where applying for refugee status might be easier/be more desirable/take less than five freaking years. After years of complaining about the Dublin Regulation’s ineffectiveness, Germany chose to stop enforcing the rules by which asylum seekers might be returned to other countries in August last year. Around the same time, Denmark – which is sandwiched between two of the countries with the highest number of applications for asylum in all of Europe – started receiving a huge amount of foot and train traffic travelling north from Germany to Sweden and promptly freaked out. Since January, national borders have been reinstated between Germany, Denmark and Sweden in an effort to control the movement of people northwards. Many see this development as the beginning of the end for the Schengen Agreement.

European regulations and treaties are complicated beasts at the best of times. The European Union is basically held together on the premise that its members want to be part of the great European project, and by agreements that they all want to operate under common rules to streamline economic and social processes. While there are courts and political systems to act as instruments that uphold various laws and treaties, when it comes down to it the consequences of breaking such agreements are often more along the lines of severe side-eye and a lot of snarky comments about how the offending Member State can’t be trusted to keep its word.

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“And on Wednesdays, we take in acceptable quotas of refugees.” [x]

The suspension of the Schengen Agreement and the condemnation of the Dublin Regulation could mean that these treaties will be renegotiated and restructured to address the changing situation in Europe – in Dublin III’s case, this process could begin as early as March. While these measures will certainly have complex long term ramifications for asylum seekers, refugees and (especially when it comes to Schengen) Europe as a whole, a project as vast and (relatively) new as the European Union is necessarily going to see some changes over time as it figures out what it is and what it’s going to be.

But the Danish government’s call to rethink the 1951 Refugee Convention is a different ballpark altogether. 65 years after it was brought in, the Convention remains crucial to the work of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and underpins the fundamental notions of who refugees are and what their rights should be. At a time when more people than ever before are left vulnerable by displacement and conflict, the notion of reducing those protections in such a core piece of legislation is almost unthinkable. After all, we seem to have enough trouble even considering refugees as human at the moment:

 

All this isn’t to say that there isn’t hope. A great number of Danes are deeply concerned with the plight of refugees, and there have been some fantastic local outreach and integration initiatives within the country. But as long as politicians are willing to use the plight of refugees and asylum seekers for political gains, there is a very real danger that even the most basic of human rights could be under threat.

CB

Trident and the Nuclear Deterrent

After the atomic bomb was first used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the USSR raced to match the technology of the Americans and tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949. A nuclear arms race began in the late 1950s as the Cold War became increasingly hostile, and by the 1980s each side had tens of thousands of warheads (see graph below). Into this fray wandered Britain, who had still not quite come to terms with the fact that the imperial dream was over and that it had ceded superpower status to its renegade colony across the Atlantic. Britain first tested a nuclear weapon in 1952 (France would follow in 1960 and China in 1968). To date these countries, along with India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the only ones known to have nuclear weapons, to a greater or (in North Korea’s case much) lesser extent.

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What goes up must come down? From here.

After attempting to develop their own Blue Streak missile system, the British eventually realised it would be much easier to deliver death to their enemies by buying the American Polaris missiles and attaching their own nuclear warheads to the tips. A Polaris-armed submarine first went out on patrol in 1968 and, despite the end of the Cold War, the patrols continued for over a quarter of a century until another American missile system, Trident, replaced it in 1994.

The idea of these weapons during the Cold War was that if Britain was devastated by a nuclear attack, it could in turn obliterate the main cities of the country (i.e. the USSR) which launched it. For this reason some of the nuclear weapons, and the only ones which still remain today, were based on submarines patrolling the ocean and able to respond even if the mainland defences were destroyed. The ability of both sides to almost simultaneously wipe each other out is known as “mutually-assured destruction” and is the reason Trident is often referred to as a “nuclear deterrent”. It’s a situation which Yes, Prime Minister is still the best at explaining.

But is a nuclear deterrent useful on the modern world stage? It’s not possible to do much more than scratch the surface of the question in this sort of format, but the main threats to Britain in recent years have been ISIS, al-Qaeda, and arguably the occasional lone FSB agent or remaining Irish republican paramilitary. All of which are groups or individuals who are particularly difficult to target by a nuclear strike. In the case of ISIS it would feel like a hollow victory to free the people of Iraq and Syria from the caliphate only to hand back to them a radioactive wasteland. For the kind of warfare fought today, intelligence and targeted drone strikes are far more valuable for achieving our objectives. Yet still it’s difficult to shake that nagging feeling that the first person to put down their gun runs the risk of getting shot. (It should be remembered however, that South Africa once developed a nuclear weapons programme, before voluntarily dismantling it.)

Another dimension to this argument is that to simply think of the nuclear deterrent in terms of our own national interest is in fact rather selfish. That as a developed nation, a world power with resources to maintain a nuclear arsenal, we are responsible not just for protecting ourselves but also for defending smaller nations from the despotic tendencies of their better-armed neighbours. It’s an argument not without merit and is one that should at least be seriously considered. All military intervention is quite reasonably seen through the prism of Iraq these days, but at the turn of the century air support and boots on the ground in Kosovo and Sierra Leone almost certainly saved lives. An attitude of isolationism is not necessarily desirable, either in our own interests or in terms of our moral responsibility to the world community.

Trident Nuclear Submarine HMS Victorious

“Hey guys, me and the crew wondered if you needed any extreme defending doing.”

A reading of this view in terms of nuclear weapons, however, brings us back full circle to the question of whether the button would ever be pressed. Russia recently annexed Crimea, the territory of another sovereign state, and vastly increased its influence in other east Ukrainian provinces. Despite strong evidence to the contrary Russia denies a military involvement in the conflict and this just illustrates how differently wars are fought from seventy years ago. Could a nuclear strike be justified if there wasn’t 100% surety the country being targeted was even an aggressor? And even if there was that surety, is Crimea worth the mutually-assured destruction of starting a nuclear war for? The answer, as evidenced by the fact we’re all still here is, apparently, no.

Another possibility for retaining peace of mind as we deal with the nuclear anachronism would be to decommission the weapons multilaterally, that is, all sides agree to do it. Following the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) meetings in the 1980s, weapon numbers ceased to rise significantly and have started to come down, albeit very slowly. If the pure outdatedness of such weapons isn’t enough to encourage us to destroy them, maybe their capacity for a new kind of threat will be. The weapons storage sites in the former USSR are notoriously insecure. The International Atomic Energy Agency has recorded 18 incidents of loss or theft of plutonium and uranium, not to mention any cases which have gone unnoticed. Nuclear material could easily pass through the former Soviet states either side of the Caspian Sea and then on into Afghanistan, or through Turkey’s porous Eastern border to Iraq and Syria. Fears of terrorists creating a low-grade yet nonetheless devastating “dirty bomb” and using it have long been voiced and if we imagine that such an attack might be a suicide bomb, the nuclear deterrent quickly loses its ace in the hole. And in case we think that Russia is the only one taking poor care of its nuclear arsenal, this eye-opening video about America’s nuclear weapons should bring us back to Earth.

The decision on whether to renew the Trident system will come before Parliament this year and with a majority Conservative government the result is only likely to go one way. However, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been in favour of unilateral disarmament and recently shuffled his top team to make sure his shadow defence secretary was too. With many of the Labour membership supportive of Corbyn’s views but a majority of his MPs opposed there are likely to be some ugly scenes ahead, and it’s difficult to say who will come out on top. Andy Burnham has said recently that an agreement which satisfies the whole party may be “impossible”.  However, what can be said is that for the first time in many years we will probably have a genuine debate about the pros and cons of maintaining Trident.

TF

FEAR #5: The Hunt for E.T.

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at where our quest to end our crushing loneliness will lead us.

At the time of writing there is no substantive evidence to suggest the existence of extra-terrestrial life, unless of course there is the mother of all conspiracies going on (Wake up sheeple!!!!!1). Many people are attracted by such theories, even omnigeezer Danny Dyer has got in on the act, but if you’re one of them Stephen Hawking thinks you should shut up:

“If the government is covering up knowledge of aliens, they are doing a better job of it than they do at anything else.”

SETI TELESCOPE

They’re listening to Uranus.

So if the aliens aren’t already here, do they exist at all? Given the vastness of the universe and the seeming universality of physics and chemistry it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest there is probably some biology out there too. The question is how much biology is “some” biology? If we ignore the majority of the universe (sorry guys), which is expanding away from us so fast that it is unlikely that we’ll ever reach it, and focus on the Milky Way then we still have somewhere around 100-400 billion stars to work with. Restricting the estimate to sun-like stars with habitable planets only limits us to a minimum of 1.5 billion habitable planets. From there we can only speculate on the probability of life evolving on these planets, but even if the odds are millions to one we would still expect a few thousand instances of life in the galaxy. This paradoxical combination of seemingly favourable odds and the total dearth of evidence is known as the Fermi paradox.

CURIOSITY

A very expensive selfie.

In order to resolve this paradox, humanity has gone hunting for life in the cosmos. The search has formed into two main branches, one is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), which involves listening in on the universe via massive radio telescopes, and the other is NASA digging around in the dirt on Mars with rovers like Curiosity (it’s probably more complex than that).

On the face of it, the discovery of fossilised prokaryotes on Mars may not seem as significant as the discovery of a radio message from a civilisation of super-beings, but if it were to be successful it would have massive implications for humanity. For starters it would show that life was not a rare fluke, comforting if you’re worried about being all alone in the universe, but terrifying when you think a bit harder. If simple life is common, either we’re the lucky first ones to develop intelligence (not impossible but highly unlikely given the age of the Earth) or there is something killing everything off before it develops into a highly intelligent civilisation. This theory is known as “The Great Filter” and it is to civilisation what Dutch sailors were to the Dodo. There are many candidates for a Great Filter, including the initial evolution of life, development of eukaryotic life and development of intelligence a.k.a. stuff we’ve already done. What’s scary is the possibility that The Great Filter lies ahead of us and our day of reckoning may be nigh! Or maybe it isn’t, no one really knows.

Stepping back from the doom mongering for a moment, let’s think about the other contact scenario, a message received by SETI. Firstly, consider that we have only been transmitting and listening to radio signals for around 100 years, which is small in comparison with the lifetime of the universe, stars, planets and even our species. Secondly, the focus of radio observations is skewed towards detection of signals from “intelligent” life. Given the time scales and the bias of the system we can’t really expect to intercept messages from anything other than some kind of super-being.

pond scum

Idiots.

Historically, when a more technologically advanced civilisation comes into contact with a less technologically advanced one it doesn’t end amicably (just ask people living the Americas in 1491). However, debating whether they will be warmongers or pacifists is anthropocentric, their history and culture will not necessarily be a reflection of ours. The fact is that until we detect any signals the nature of any intelligent life in the universe besides our own is unknowable and there is the distinct possibility that their advances will be incomprehensible to us. In this situation they may look upon our “intelligence” in the same way that we look upon pond scum, it exists but we don’t feel any affinity for it and certainly don’t factor it into our decision making processes. It’s unsettling to think that we could be steamrollered without even knowing what’s coming and without them even considering if our existence is worth saving (hopefully we’d appreciate the irony given our treatment of other species here on Earth).

LIGHTYEAR EXPLANATION

Lonely, but safe. Taken from here.

Thankfully we may have one saving grace, the vast distances involved. This offers us the time to deal with whatever message we receive in a considered manner because it will have taken years to traverse interstellar space. There are already preparations underway, the SETI post detection subcommittee was set up “to prepare, reflect on, manage, advise, and consult in preparation for and upon the discovery of a putative signal of extraterrestrial intelligent (ETI) origin.” and the widely adopted SETI post detection protocol encourages information sharing and international consultations on a response, including informing the Secretary General of the UN.

While it would be nice if a message from extra-terrestrials united us in our common humanity, it would take a fair slice of naïvety to expect things to actually go down like that. It’s likely that the post detection protocol will be broken quickly, it’s not even legally binding (we covered how space law sucks here) and when it comes to it governments may not trust academics or other nations with the information in the message. This will likely breed mistrust.

When the message does get out, the public reaction will vary largely between (and indeed within) cultures, no doubt some would embrace it, but you only need to look at B.o.B.’s flat earth rant to know that the cynicism will be off the charts. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that vested interests (read: religious groups and politicians) would do their best to play up this cynicism, perhaps under the pretence of preventing alien cultural influences on Earth. Under these circumstances we must be aware that SETI detection facilities may become the focal point of attacks by groups with whom intelligent life elsewhere in the universe runs contrary to their world-view. All this before we’ve even discussed sending a response.

So should we respond? Well, we are already broadcasting our location and culture with radio and television broadcasts. However, these will be difficult to detect unless someone had an antenna the size of Manhattan within 100 light years of us, so direct response would require a much more powerful signal. While speculative messages have been sent, many have urged caution, arguing that we’re the new, stupid kids on the scene and our lust for knowledge may be our undoing. We would be entering a long term, long distance relationship with an unknown entity that could potentially expose us to things beyond our conception. Besides, the time between messages could easily be thousands of years, so we will be submitting future generations to unknown consequences of our actions. Basically, first impressions count and the price of a fuck up will be paid by our descendants, sound familiar?

Given what’s riding on this, the UN is the obvious choice to make a decision over how to proceed because it’s the closest approximation of fair international representation we have. However, I’m inclined to agree with the more realistic assessment from Michael Michaud who said:

“We cannot assume that SETI is immune from the ancient motivations of egoism, power, and greed.”

There is little that can be done to prevent rich and powerful groups from sending their own unrepresentative messages. I’m talking about this guy:

TOM CRUISE

“Hi Xenu! We’re 6-feet tall… all of us” – Tom Cruise (probably)

This may lead to a situation in which multiple contradictory messages are sent, which would only hinder the establishment of meaningful communication.

As always, assuming we’re not already doomed, the fate of humanity may be in the hands of a small unrepresentative elite and a fuck up may throw us out of the frying pan and into one hell of a fire. It’s enough to make you glad we’ve not found anything yet.

JW

The Good, The Ads & The Ugly, Jan 2016 – Nescafé/A Big Start

Do you want things? Generally, yes – but which things? Adverts attempt to make that decision for you but sometimes they go the opposite way and make you hate the corporate world more than you thought imaginable. This is The Good, The Ads & The Ugly.

Remember when the internet first took off in a big way? Not like Netscape and the Space Jam website but the proper internet like YouTube and IMDb and Kim Jong-Il looking at things. The place was full of new ideas and creativity, Kickstarters and flashmobs. And then television got its grubby hands on the ideas and restaged them but with vacant actors playing out duller storylines.

In this advert two guys purport to give an extreme wake-up call to their mate “sleepy Alex”. (Side note – no-one has ever had the nickname sleepy Alex for the simple reason that it is incredibly shit. Sleepy Alex does not get a lot of shagging done. Sleepy Alex does not lose his shit after taking half a gram of coke. Sleepy Alex is so boring he doesn’t ever warrant a nickname, even, paradoxically, “sleepy Alex”.)

So these guys, for a laugh, these guys have brought an orchestra into their mate’s back garden. Not a proper orchestra mind, just enough of an orchestra so that there can be some pick up shots of the various instruments. The stoic tuba man who comes closer to drowning the more it rains, the vaguely posh violin woman who doesn’t really need to read the sheet music. All these people have run through the logistics of setting this up: parking their cars on the front street, rearranging the chairs, tuning their fucking instruments in a cacophony of noise, without waking Alex.

Nescafe 1

Go to bed with your doors wide open like that and you’re likely to wake up to a totally different surprise.

Then, as they proceed to bleach any happy memories of Morecambe and Wise from the association with Bring Me Sunshine, Alex finally rises and greets them at the window, naked enough to imply he’s just got up, but not so naked as to be unbroadcastable. “Oh my gosh,” he says, in a tone suggestive of someone who is attempting to decipher a semaphore message.

He joins his mates downstairs, his mates who have such shit banter that they think essentially providing free entertainment and refreshments is an amazing prank. They drink a cup of Nescafé together, the message presumably being that it will wake you up like an orchestra and the lack of other parallels being subtly ignored. The orchestra doesn’t form into a debilitating addiction, preventing you from functioning on a normal level without a regular hit or use child slavery to produce its products. Child slaves are, notoriously, terrible at the bassoon.

Nescafe 2

Slavery bantz.

All too soon it’s time for Alex to deliver his final killer line. “Un-believable,” he says, sounding every inch the man who can believe it. A man who has spent so long on this shoot he can no longer imagine a garden not being filled by an orchestra. A man whose own garden is now so eerily silent he can’t sleep at night. A man no longer in need of a Nescafé Big Start.

TF

Stalking Stellan Skarsgård: On Sweden, Data Protection and the Roma

In mid December, the Swedish police once again found themselves in hot water. Just two years after scandalous revelations surrounding the existence of a police registry of Roma people (whose inclusion was seemingly based primarily on their ethnicity) made international headlines, the national radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio revealed that police have been keeping a registry of the Roma beggars on Sweden’s streets for over a year. Given that the police’s disciplinary board has been grappling with the last case as late as this Monday, you’d think they’d have trod a bit more lightly around gathering personal information of ethnic minorities for secret centralised databases. But how important is it for the police to have impunity in the collection of information in order to tackle crime? And how much do we care about the protection of our personal data, anyway?

The 2013 Skåne registry scandal saw a widespread outcry from people who were understandably pissed off that their toddlers and dead relatives were apparently being tracked by police for no reason other than that they were Roma. There were even some coy attempts to deny that the name of the registry, “Kringresande” or Travellers, had anything at all to do with the ethnicity of the people in it.

lists

Centralised registries of Roma people in Europe have, historically, not had the best outcomes [x]

People whose names were on the Skåne registry were awarded 5,000SEK each in damages after it was found to be unlawful. But that registry was primarily branded as super dodgy due to the fact that a) nobody kept logs of who had accessed the database, or why, and b) it didn’t really seem to serve much of an overall purpose other than being, as the Swedes say, “bra-att-ha” (good to have). The police have been careful to point out that the new registry is allegedly serving the greater purpose of tackling human trafficking among immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, and doesn’t exist simply because they really like having lists of names lying around… just in case.

Roma commentator and public figure Hans Caldaras claims there are sinister intentions at work in the registry’s creation and the photographing and interviewing of beggars by police, namely the expulsion of Roma immigrants from Sweden. Given the minority’s history in both Sweden and Europe in general, you can see why he’d be concerned. But while there are possibly less intrusive ways of investigating human trafficking than taking a Humans Of New York approach to gathering evidence, it should be noted that Sweden as a whole has a startlingly open approach to personal data and its availability.

3ef51ebe03ac23dfe71145db1e137ac4

This attitude towards not hiding anything tends to translate to real life, too [x]

Fun fact: unless they’ve gone to considerable effort to have their identity protected, everyone who’s registered in Sweden has their full name, birthday and address posted online, information that is helpfully provided by the Swedish Tax Agency. Sites such as hitta.se collect all this data together in an easily accessible website, so that if – for example – you felt like tracking down the whereabouts of renowned Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, you could do so with breathtaking speed and accuracy.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.58.42 AM

That’s an actual photo of his front door up there.

The site also tells you what kind of car he owns, and suggests you send him flowers on his birthday as though he’s your long-neglected great-uncle. Sites like ratsit.se go one further and will tell you he’s married, that he has two corporate engagements, and for the very reasonable price of 10SEK (about 82p) they will let you know whether he’s ever had a mark on his credit rating. For 29SEK (£2.37) they’ll even let you take a look at his tax history. This information is available about every single person registered in Sweden. It took me some time to realise this meant me as well, a lowly student immigrant who doesn’t have a multiple-film contract with Marvel (but may or may not be hiding from a shady past in a French emu-smuggling cartel).

18qncj2aqlrqdjpg

We’ve all got something we’re running from [x]

Seeing my own front door on that website was a shock – I don’t actually remember explicitly consenting to all this information being made available to all and sundry, but it seems to come with the territory of living in one of the least corrupt nations in the world. Of course, neither I nor my good friend Stellan has our ethnicity or even nationality recorded on those websites, nor do we have hundreds of years of systematic persecution to act as a cautionary tale. And being included on a nation-wide and slightly stalkerish website is not the same as being included in police records so soon after a scandal on the scale of the Skåne registry.

On the same day the news of the new registry broke, the Guardian reported that an agreement had been reached on a draft of new EU-wide data protection rules. The proposed legislation will make it easier for law enforcement agencies within the EU to coordinate and exchange information, while simultaneously promising greater protection for individuals’ right to privacy. It’s clear that in the wake of the Paris attacks last November that there will be a greater demand for intra-EU law enforcement cooperation in future, but we should be cognizant of how such integrated systems might affect the way in which our data is accessed and used. Moreover, we should be mindful of how it might affect groups who have been persecuted rather than protected by such systems in the past. It’s a complicated topic, and one that only tends to produce headlines when they’re about scandals such as Skåne or the possibility of teens being booted off Facebook. But if worrisome registries can arise in a country with a system as scrupulous as Sweden’s, it might be worth taking at least a cursory look at who’s gathering our information – and why.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 8.09.19 PM

Unless it involves reading all this, because seriously. Besides, what could go wrong?

 

CB

Drones

Drones are increasingly a part of our lives: videoing our landscapes, walking our dogs and slicing bits off our favourite latin/pop crossover stars.

And the near future will see this trend continue with the “world’s safest” (though sadly not indestructible) drone being shown off at CES recently and Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service vision perpetually threatening to be realised.

amazon-prime-air

Enrique Iglesias’ index finger – same day delivery.

But much like the car, the aeroplane and the internet; once humans have found a way to do sex stuff with it, new technology usually gets co-opted by the other big universal industry – war. Drones even seem to have skipped the sex part (unless there’s a weird sort of hovering fleshlight out there on the market – we daren’t Google it to find out) and have been in the hands of the military for years.

The RAF took delivery of its first Reaper drone in October 2007. Just months later, they had branched out from surveillance operations and armed the drones with Hellfire missiles. This being the British military, one of the two drones the RAF possessed crashed in 2008 and special forces had to be sent in to destroy sensitive material.

Since then, and with an expanded fleet, the UK has supposedly only carried out drone strikes in active combat areas (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq) but there are claims that British personnel have been flying controversial drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen whilst embedded with American units.

More recently drones have been used in the fight against ISIS. Drone strikes were initially carried out in Iraq and, despite military intervention in Syria only being given the go-ahead in December 2015, it seems that a number of those drones have been straying into the country for as much as a year before that.

reaper-ops-sep14-sep15b

Freedom of Information responses from MoD, via dronewars.net

As of November 2015, the Ministry of Defence was claiming that a total of 305 jihadis had been killed in drone strikes – with no civilian casualties. At first glance an impressive feat, extolling the virtues of this modern, precision weapons system. But when you dig further, it may not be all it seems. The CIA has previously been accused (as in the video below) of defining “combatants” essentially as “adult men” which is terrifyingly broad and may account for that civilian casualty clean-sheet.

It all feeds into a general air of “guilty until proven innocent” which tends to pervade the discussion about suspected ISIS recruits, especially those who have come from Britain. In fact, such a move was openly proposed by part-time London Mayor and full-time Worzel Gummidge sex doll Boris Johnson in 2014. He referred to the reversal of centuries of judicial safeguarding as a “minor change” – something that a man with an education as good as the one he so readily flaunts should know to be complete and utter bollocks.

This presumed guilt reached its nadir in August 2015 when two suspected jihadis, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed in drone strikes. The missile which killed Khan was launched from an RAF drone. A significant moment in the story of this fight, and one which passed by with too little comment at the time. To state the facts plainly the British state killed one of its own citizens without trial, simply based on the presumption of guilt. To muddy the waters further, the strikes took place in Syria, where the British military was supposed not to be operating. No burden of proof could have warranted a clinical assassination, which is what the drone strike was. Regardless of the evidence against these men, if they had been in the UK at the time, arrests would have been attempted. Even in active terrorist situations, an arrest is the prime objective. When two men attempted to bomb Glasgow International Airport in 2007 by ramming their propane-laden car into it, both were taken into custody, albeit with the help of a timely kick from an off-duty baggage handler. And when Lee Rigby was beheaded near Woolwich Barracks in 2013, both perpetrators were apprehended and are currently serving life sentences. In view of these actions, it seems the only reason drones were used is because the targets were in an already war-torn country and those in charge guessed that no-one would care.

Reaper drops first precision-guided bomb, protects ground forces

Drone or handcuffs? Drone or handcuffs?

It sets a very dangerous precedent for how we deal with suspected jihadis. And let us not forget the errors which have been made previously. Shaker Aamer was released from Guantanamo last year, having been picked up 14 years previously in Afghanistan where he says he was a charity worker. After being held since 2001 without charge and allegedly tortured, his eventual release can only be taken as an admission of fault on the part of the intelligence agencies involved.

The Prime Minister’s attitude towards drones hasn’t always been so easygoing. Lord Ashcroft’s unofficial biography contained a passage in which an ambassador described Cameron watching drones in action during a trip to Afghanistan when he was leader of the opposition.

“I remember we watched a great, fat, gross American [woman] sitting in an armchair, flying a drone and conducting a strike and pressing a button. There were these Taliban – you could see it on the camera – going across the desert, black and white, and then a puff!

“The missile went down. These two wounded people struggled out of the truck, and then the woman pressed the button again, and another missile went down and these people were vaporised.

“Cameron said: ‘Isn’t that a war crime?’ He immediately got it – obviously it was a war crime, it showed the whole pointlessness of the campaign.”

Sadly the revelation was overshadowed by more salacious, pig-related accusations, but it is almost certainly more important. In conventional warfare it’s not easy to apportion blame and establish a definitive narrative of events, but it is possible and people who commit crimes are punished. But when death drops silently and invisibly from the sky, how can witnesses apportion blame? And the security services aren’t likely to give up their records willingly. Even researching this article was tough because of how little information there is out there.

The Prime Minister understood then that the usual rules of war weren’t being applied to drone strikes, but rather than determining to do something about it once in office, he seems to have instead taken it as a lesson in how to behave.

Drone strikes perfectly encapsulate the detachment from the RAF’s current operations. People controlling aircraft which are far away, in far-off countries drop missiles from so far up they can’t be seen and sometimes the targets are far from the right ones, with the strikes far from the rules of war.

As a final thought, we’ll leave you with testimony given to the US Congress by drone strike survivors, one of whom says he now fears clear blue skies, because that is when the drones fly.

For more information on the UK’s drone operations, follow dronewars.net.

TF