Sri Lanka Guardian Essays - Page 2

Industrialisation: Did Sri Lanka Miss the Bus for Ever?

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Even before the independence, most Sri Lankan political leaders believed that industrialisation was the solution to stand up as an advanced nation and create gainful employment for its citizens. To this end, the Industrial Corporation Act was passed by the State Council in 1944. Mr J R Jayawardena had moved a motion in the State Council requesting to prepare a Comprehensive Development Plan to industrialise the Country. These initiatives show that Sri Lankan Political leaders had conceived the idea of industrialisation and realised its importance for economic modernisation much before other developing countries. Most Asian countries, including the Indian Sub-Continent, imported a significant share of industrial goods from the West.  As industrialisation was initiated much before other developing countries, Sri Lanka could have replaced the imported goods in this region with “Made in Ceylon.” At that time, Sri Lanka had potential and comparative advantages, such as a solid foreign exchange reserve to import machinery and technology, locational advantages, including the best international seaport, relatively good physical infrastructure, educated labour force, and professionals etc., to industrialise

The Journey Towards Industrialization

The initiative for industrialisation paralleled the independent movement. British planters probably were not interested in diversifying their investment in Sri Lanka due to the uncertainty created by the independent movement. Most Sri Lankan capitalists had invested heavily in the plantation sector, a lucrative and well-secured investment. Also, the local capitalist class did not have much experience or exposure to industrial ventures. However, most members of the state council and the first parliament were from the capitalist class, favouring private sector ownership of properties and business ventures. The left-wing politicians, who were very active in Sri Lankan Politics, had exposure to the industrial economic environment in Europe. But they supported the idea of state ownership or the communal ownership of industries. Under these circumstances, private capital was not readily available for the industrial sector.  Hence, the first-generation industries, such as the Kankasanturai cement factory (1950) and the Valachchanai paper mill (1955), were started under government ownership during the UNP government, though they advocated for private ownership. Whatever the reason, since the inception of industrialisation, the establishment of large-scale enterprises has become the government’s responsibility.

Though industrialisation was on the national economic and political agenda, D. S. Senanayake, the first prime minister’s vision was to revitalise the glory of the golden era of the ancient Sinhala civilisation in the dry zone, based on agriculture, especially paddy cultivation. Therefore, the industrial sector and industry-related infrastructure did not receive much attention. And a significant share of resources was diverted to the Dry zone-colonization program and consumption subsidies. Dudley Senanayake, and Kothalawala, the successors of DS Senanayake, also did not change the above policy and continued along the same line till 1956.

Paradigm shift

In 1956 S W R D Bandaranaike became the prime minister who advocated for a middle path and a mixed economy. He believed in a planned development with the state ownership of major enterprises. Accordingly, a Ten-year Perspective Plan was formulated with the assistance of local experts and world-renowned economists, such as Garner Myrdal and Joan Robinson. Mr Bandaranaike’s Government’s upper echelon was a mixture of different political ideologists; the majority consisted of a breakaway group from the United National Party, who believed in capitalism, Members of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, who believed in communism, and various other patriotic groups. As such, his party had no consensus on many policy matters. Though Bandaranaike advocated for a socialist economic policy, the left-wing parties in the opposition considered him a traitor for trying to weaken the left-wing political movement. They did not cooperate with the government programs. Trade unions backed by left-wing parties were a pain in the neck for him. Due to his patriotic and racialist policies, minorities were also kept away from him. Against this backdrop, he confronted many issues between the groups of the ruling party and the opposition parties.

 Also, after 1957, the plantation sector could not generate adequate foreign exchange, and the trade deficit increased and started depleting the foreign reserves limiting the import capacity, which hindered the implementation of the ten-year plan.  Ethnic tension was also amplified simultaneously. Under these circumstances,10 Year Development plan was not implemented as envisaged. With the assassination of Bandaranaike in 1959, the development plan found its natural death. However, in line with the state ownership concept, the Colombo seaport, airport, and Passenger transport were nationalised.

If not for the problems created by trade unions, left-wing parties, and ethnic conflicts, implementing the 10-year plan and the industrialisation process could have taken off the ground as the local and world economic environment was conducive for that. This seems a significant loss of opportunity in our industrialisation and economic advancement journey. However, it has not been discussed much by politicians and economists.

In July 1960 general election, Mrs Bandaranaike led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She secured the required majority in the parliament to form a government without the support of the left-wing and other minor parties. But she also faced numerous issues with the trade union actions supported by left-wing political parties, hampering the performance of state-owned enterprises. As a compromise, in the latter part of her tenure, she formed a coalition government with left-wing parties, but it could not survive for long as the right wing of her party broke away from the government. However, during tenure, some of the activities included in the 10-year plan were carried forward, and Mr Bandaranaike’s’ pro-socialist vision and the policy of nationalising important ventures were continued. The nationalisation of the petroleum industry is one of the challenging activities during this period. Several new industries were also established with the assistance of the USSR and Socialist countries. Sugar, Steel, and tire are a few of them. Nationalised ventures, as well as newly established industries, were brought under state ownership. People’s Bank and Insurance Corporation were also found to fill the significant gap in financing facilities in the local economy. While large-scale industries and financial services were state-owned, assistance was extended to privately owned small and medium enterprises in this industrialisation phase. In 1964, a national-level industrial exhibition was held in Colombo to celebrate and demonstrate the achievements of industrialisation targeting the 1965 general election.

Ups and Downs

 However, the 1965 General Election did not give the required majority to Mrs Bandaranaike to form the government. Mr Dudley Senanayake formed the UNP government with the support of seven minor parties. During the period, ventures such as Ceylon Electricity Board and Sapugaskande Oil Refinery were commenced as state-owned enterprises. By this time, state ownership of large-scale commercial ventures had become an accepted norm and no debate on private vs public ownership. Even the UNP, the party that advocates for the capitalist mode of production, complied with this norm. However, Dudley Senanayake’s government’s highest priority was agriculture, especially paddy farming. In addition to the smallholder farming system, he attempted to bring wealthy individuals and the corporate sector into agriculture by alienating large blocks of land and supporting to import of agricultural machinery. This program was greatly influenced by the international movement of the green revolution. However, his government did not make significant structural changes in the economy and continued the industrialisation process with a low profile. 

With the collision of left-wing parties, Mrs Bandaranaike came into power again in 1970 and introduced a significant and far-reaching shift in the overall economic policy. Her government prepared a 5-year development plan focusing on the agriculture and industry sectors. However, before implementing the 5-year plan, the world price hike of petroleum and staple foods created a foreign exchange crisis. It compelled the introduction of import restrictions, much more than the usual tariff protection. Except for most essentials, all other imports were banned or restricted. It aimed to produce almost everything locally to substitute imports and save foreign exchange. This created a void in the market for essential food items and consumer durables such as electronic items, clothes, building materials, agriculture and industrial tools, toys, communication items, and many more. Although the government had followed the industrialisation policy for over a decade by that time, the country did not have the capital, technology, preparedness, and capacity to shift into a rapid industrialisation phase to keep abreast with the vacuum created by import restrictions. Also, it did not have sufficient foreign exchange to import modern machinery and plants to produce quality goods to fill the void.

 In addition to the global economic crisis, ever-increasing youth unrest also reached its climax in 1971 and revolted against the new government without giving a breathing space. In response, the government hurriedly launched several reforms and high-priority programs. One was the “Divisional Development Council” program to employ youths. Capitalising on the scarcity created by import restriction and tariff protection, this program implemented many small and medium-scale enterprises as cooperative ventures to produce consumer goods based on local raw materials endowments. This program did not benefit from modern technology and produced high-cost inferior goods.

This time, the government’s policy did not encourage private sector investments in large and medium-scale industries or foreign private investment. It may be due to the influence of the left-wing parties of the coalition. Running Hotels and restaurants, importing building materials, textile vehicles, tractors, fibre, yarns, and many more commercial activities came under the government monopoly or ownership.  Most of the Sri Lankan capitalist class were land-owned planters. Under the Land Reform Act, the government took over lands exceeding 50 acres. Very little compensation was paid much later, making them a capital-less class. Also, they feared the nationalisation of businesses. Despite the high demand, the local capitalist class have neither the capital nor the interest to invest in industries. As options were limited for luxurious life and lavish expenditure during that period, landowners could have invested in import substitution if; compensation was paid at market value immediately, a private sector-friendly policy was adopted, and the boundaries of nationalisation were explicit. Under this political and economic environment, the country lost the best opportunity for private sector participation in industrialisation.

Under these circumstances, mushrooming enterprises emerged in every nook and corner of the country as self-employment and small and micro enterprises, but many were unviable. These industries became highly inefficient, leading to low quality, high costs, scarcity and finally, misallocation of resources. These massive sacrifices of the producers and consumers could have been a long-lasting success if profit-motivated private sector participation was enlisted, and doors were opened for the technology transfer. Further, the support, including tariff protection, should have been limited to a specific period to selected industries with comparative advantages enabling them to pass through infancy without external competition. However above industrial policy created a greave dissatisfaction among the people, and the government lost the 1978 general election, rejecting the approach by most of the people.   

Out of Gear- The Trade Liberalization  

As discussed, the journey towards industrialisation in Sri Lanka commenced before independence, becoming a high priority from the 1960s to 1977. It got in top gear during 1970/77 but with poor strategies. Without using the lessons learned from that strenuous journey, the trade was liberalised entirely in 1978, making the three-decades journey into a U-turn.  All investments and sacrifices made by the government and people to become an industrial nation became futile. Some of those industries did not have the scale of economies as they were targeting only the local market. Some industries could not meet the local demand as their scale of operation was too small. The technology was archaic, and the raw materials were of low quality. Therefore, most of those local products could not compete with the imported items in terms of price and appearance. Without killing the entire industrial sector, the government should have supported a few more years to some infant industries with the potential for success in a competitive environment. But in the trade liberalization, the government considered only the political interest, neglecting the interest.

After trade liberalisation, import and trading became prominent and popular economic activities in the country. Consumer preference changed from local products to imported, while investors changed their role from producing to importing and trading. Furthermore, the agriculture and industrial workforce shifted to trade and service-related activities. Small and medium entrepreneurs also moved to service sector activities such as transport, petty trading, restaurant management, personnel service etc. The banking system also changed its focus from industry and agriculture to imports, the service sector, and trade activities, which are less risky and more profitable. The industry and agriculture sectors lost policy support and human and financial resources.

Producing locally involves complicated issues such as trade union problems, land problems, technology issues, approvals, permits, paying bribes to authorities, ransoms to hoodlums etc.  Some large-scale manufacturers converted their factory buildings and other assets into stores and showrooms of imported goods. Even the government-owned large-scale industries, such as tire, steel, textile, condensed milk and powdered milk, sugar, cement, paper, petroleum products, etc., also found it challenging to compete with the cheap, nice-looking imported items. Hasty and overnight import liberalisation killed not only the infant industries but also the traditional cottage industries, such as sleeping mats, mattresses, pottery, blacksmith, toys, handlooms, vehicle repairs, lorry bodybuilding, etc., which were there for many centuries. Those disappeared from the economy as cheaper, attractive alternatives/ substitutes were available.

Despite the trade liberalisation, the government followed the privatisation policy of state-owned enterprises. Furthermore, the government dismantled some ventures, such as the marketing department, paddy marketing board, paper corporation, steel corporation, Lanka-Loha, etc., which had been established to provide essential services and inputs to support local industries. If not for wilful dismantling, some of those ventures could have been sustained without government support, even after the trade liberalisation. If transparently done, privatisation could have been a good opportunity for the government to eliminate some nonessential enterprises established under the closed economy but could not run on a commercial footing under international competition.

But due to the various malpractices, privatisation became a horrendous exercise. It paved the way for some business cronies to loot public assets. Ownership of these assets was not transferred to genuine industrialists but to the hands of government supporters looking for some fortune to become rich overnight. Most of these factories were looted by new tenants/owners and abandoned. Even though a few became successful entrepreneurs, they acquired those assets without capital outlay or much below the market price. Some got running businesses for a nominal fee or rent and had access to free working capital such as stocks of raw materials and finished products ready for sale. Genuine entrepreneurs who were not fortunate enough to enjoy such free or cheap capital found competing with lucky investors challenging and discouraging.

Privatisation was an emerging concept to reduce the burden on the government budget, improve the efficiency and quality of products and introduce the latest technology and management style of the local and foreign private sectors.  At that time, markets were not saturated for most products but were expanding rapidly due to the open economy. Therefore, the government should have encouraged and supported the private sector to establish new industries instead of haphazard privatisation of existing running businesses or importing cheap substitutes.  Privatisation should have been done carefully and transparently without distorting the investment environment. The privatisation was mishandled so the country couldn’t achieve its expected benefits.

 Ranasinghe Premadasa became the president in 1989 and was interested in poverty alleviation and rural housing. He identified the apparel industry as the most appropriate tool for sustainable (employment generation) poverty alleviation. His government launched the 200-garment factory program with an attractive support package to private sector investors to establish garment factories in rural and backward regions. This facilitated the rural women to be employed in their hometowns without migrating to Western Province. Hence real income increased, and their standard of living improved to a considerable extent. However, due to logistic problems, investors’ cost of production increased, and they lost the convenience and the timeliness of delivering finished goods and raw materials. The cheap labour could have compensated for high overhead costs in rural areas. But the labour regulation and the pressure from trade unions did not permit reaping from the cheap labour. Investors were forced to pay the same wages as in the western province. Further, finding suitably qualified managerial staff was also a constraint compromising productivity and quality.

As many developing countries entered the apparel market during this period, the competition was very high. Therefore, quality assurance and compliance with tight delivery schedules and production at competitive prices became a considerable challenge for manufacturers and exporters, losing the global market share. Some factories established in remote areas have now been closedown and concentrated again in the western province.

Countries like Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia used the apparel industry as a springboard to elevate as newly industrialised countries. They did not rely for many decades on the apparel industry. But even after 45 years, apparel remains Sri Lanka’s main export item because we have failed to use the apparel industry as the springboard to be a newly industrialised country. No other prominent industrial activity has emerged, at least to be on par with the appeal industry. Though many condemned it sarcastically, the dream of Mr Premadasa was for Sri Lanka to become a Newly Industrialised country by 2001. If not for the sudden assassination, he could have made a strenuous effort to achieve this goal.

 Since then, except for the privatisation of state-owned enterprises and support packages for foreign investment, there has been no specific policy support or programs targeting industrialisation. From 1994 to 2004, Mrs Kumaratunga’s government concentrated on poverty alleviation through the Samurdhi Program, peace negotiations with Tamil Militants, booting out state-sponsored terrorism, re-democratise the governance, promoting foreign investment in general without targeting any specific sector or sub-sector, or industry etc. Several state-owned enterprises were privatised during this period to reduce the burden on the national budget. In between this period, Ranil Wickremasinghe’s government, from 2002 to 2004, attempted to make far-reaching structural changes in the economy through its policy outlined in Re-Gaining Sri Lanka. Re-gaining Sri Lanka did not focus specifically on industrialisation but the overall restructuring of the economy and governing institutions, thereby reducing the government’s economic role only to regulate. However, people were not ready to face this shock of structural adjustments. The president dissolved the government at the beginning of 2004, and the Wickremasinghe government could not continue the process.

Immediately after the Tsunami catastrophe, Mahinda Rajapakse’ became the president in 2005. Due to the prolonged civil war, economic growth was slow for many years.  The power crisis was at the climax and road infrastructure was in very poor condition hampering industrialization. His immediate priority was finishing the civil war with LTTE and unifying the country. While fighting with the terrorists, he gave priority to resolving the power crisis and road infrastructure. Norochchoplai and upper Kothmale power plants projects commenced immediately and were commissioned to solve the power crisis.  A comprehensive road program, based on a 10-year plan was implemented. Three major expressways, namely the Southern Expressway, Outer Circular Expressway and Katunayake Expressways were commenced and commissioned. Further, Hambantota Sea Port and Airport were completed. In addition to the provision of infrastructure, the Strategic Investment Act was passed in the parliament to encourage foreign investments in a strategic nature. The Board of Investment was involved actively in promoting foreign investments. However, these physical infrastructures, legal provisions and institutional support have not been adequately used by investors. Capacity utilization of some infrastructure is still at a low level. Those are yet to be stimulants for industrialization. This shows that general support like BOI incentives, tax holidays and physical infrastructure alone can’t stimulate investment and industrialization.  There may be various other non-financial and non-physical constraints concerning the investment. Our position in the Ease of Doing Business index also needs to be improved.

  Conclusion and Recommendations

During the 1970/77 period, the economic crisis and scarcity of goods generated a great enthusiasm to produce many things locally. Small and medium-scale industries emerged as self-employment and small and micro enterprises in every nook and corner of the country. In contrast, though the scarcity created by the 2020/22 economic crisis is much more severe than the above, there is not much attempt by the government or the entrepreneurs to commence industries or invest in the production economy. Consumers are interested in maintaining the same lifestyle as before the economic crisis, thinking it is a temporary issue. The business community is anxiously waiting till improves the foreign exchange situation to resume import business instead of diverting the excess liquidity for local industries. The government is also focusing its strategies on improving the foreign reserves through debt restructuring and controlling inflation by contracting the economy, which may give breathing space to continue with the consumption-oriented economy as usual.

The government’s strategy seems guided by the notion that this is a short-term problem of servicing external loans, which can be resolved by artificial and temporary measures to strengthen foreign reserves.  Those immediate solutions are necessary for a breathing space to lay the foundation for structural adjustments. But it seems all stakeholders are pursuing an elusive path without considering the need for structural changes.  Instead of believing in a single answer, we must adopt multi-faceted strategies to come out of the ramified economic, political, and social situation. The country needs strategies to have a positive trade balance and a balance of payment through export-oriented economic growth and higher purchasing power of the people, for which industrialisation, based on comparative advantages, is a must. Suppose the country does not embark on growth-oriented strategies during the breathing space. In that case, the country’s economy may get settled at a low equilibrium level (low production and productivity, low demand, low income, high degree of unemployment /underemployment, low imports, and exports etc.) It would be challenging to re-energise because the economic base, such as professional and qualified human resources, international business linkages, systems, procedures, and institutional arrangements, could become fragile over a long period.

Considering the limited land resources, Sri Lanka will not be able to produce essential food items such as grains, pulses, and lentils for mass consumption on the world market or agricultural/natural raw materials for large-scale worldwide industries. Therefore, exporting agriculture products and raw materials in large volumes has little prospect for exchange earning and employment generation.  Our strategy should be: (a) gaining a higher value in the export market by adding a high degree of value to the limited supply of local raw materials. (b) Knowledge and skill-based industries. (c) high-value products for market niches. (d) tertiary sector activities targeted local and international markets, (e) Import substitution if the market is large enough to have the scale of economies. Otherwise, attempts to replace all imports with import-substituting industries will lead to high costs and low quality. It will deprive local customers of benefitting from the international comparative advantages and, finally, misallocate scarce resources (f) produce human resources of medium and high-level professionals for the global labour market. (g) Produce for the broader international market using imported agriculture and natural raw materials like the 200 hundred garment factory program.  Four or five strategic industries/ thrust areas shall be identified for this program with due consideration to the following aspects: (1) industrial products with a wider local and foreign market (2) Internationally comparative advantages in terms of access to the market, raw material and other inputs, skills, expertise etc.

 The Backward and forward linkages of selected industries must analyse and identify constraints at each point of linkages and design and implement necessary interventions including incentives, legal support, and tariff protection for a definite period. Perhaps, the electronic industry, leather products, jewellery, vehicle components, and cinnamon and coconut-based products would be good candidates.  Sri Lanka has missed many buses from dawn to evening. However, a well-designed program without ups and downs for political gains would catch a late-night bus.

Bangladesh as UNHRC Member

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In the recent past, Human rights are perhaps one of the most talked about issues in Bangladesh, nationally and internationally.  Bangladesh on October 11 achieved its membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council for the term2023–2025 with the highest vote from the Asia-Pacific region. In the election, 160 countries among 189 supported Bangladesh’s membership in the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which is an outstanding achievement for the government. It is mentionable, this would be the fifth term of Bangladesh as a member of the 47-member UNHRC. In the previous UNHRC elections, Bangladesh won in 2006, 2009, 2014, and 2018; effectively for all possible terms as per the rules of business of the Council.

This achievement is a great honour for Bangladesh as a country, and also a warning of responsibility in the midst of criticism from the United Nations, the United States, and other countries regarding the allegations of disappearances and human rights violations. The task of the Human Rights Council is to monitor the human rights situation of member countries around the world and make necessary recommendations. Bangladesh is now one of the countries responsible for taking care of human rights situations in different countries. Truly speaking, this victory will enhance the image of Bangladesh and the current government in the international forum.

Victory at UN

As a responsible member state of the UN, Bangladesh remains committed to making all efforts to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights nationally and globally. This prestigious win is a manifestation of recognition by the international community that Bangladesh’s human rights situation is not alarming, and the government is quite aware of ensuring human rights. This UN council takes care of human rights in all countries of the world. So, if Bangladesh’s human rights state had been terrible, 160 countries would not have voted for it to join the Human Rights Council.

The result of the vote is also a big blow to the active groups that continues to try to embarrass Bangladesh and its government in the international arena by spreading false information about frequent human rights violations in the country. This nullifies the ongoing smear campaign with falsified and fabricated information by some politically motivated vested corners at home and abroad aimed at negatively portraying the human rights situation of Bangladesh a foreign press ministry press release said.

The human rights situation in Bangladesh is not satisfactory according to the United Nations. They urged Bangladesh to improve its human rights situation. Last year, the US imposed sanctions on RAB and six of its former and current officials.  They are ignoring the requests to withdraw it despite the situation’s improvement. Against this backdrop, electing Bangladesh as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council is proof of the international community’s deep confidence in Bangladesh’s contribution to the UN human rights system and ability to carry out the duties of the Council under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Undoubtedly, such a position of Bangladesh in the United Nations will take Bangladesh a step forward in making its human rights more integrated.

International Community’s Deep Confidence

At the invitation of the Government of Bangladesh, Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Commissioner visited the country in August this year and held a series of consultations with the relevant stakeholders in Bangladesh. However, Bachelet did not mention anything alarming about the human rights situation in the country in the written statement she handed over to journalists before leaving Bangladesh at the end of her scheduled visit. As she called on the government to discuss with various parties to update the Digital Security Act, she also praised the steps taken by the Bangladesh government in various fields, including the Rohingya issue.

Cases of human rights abuses in various countries including Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Myanmar have come up in the latest report of the UN. But Bangladesh is not among these countries. On the contrary, the incident of sheltering the Rohingya minority fleeing from the massacre and persecution of the military forces in Myanmar has also been highlighted. Through this, the humanity that Bangladesh has shown by sheltering the Rohingyas in danger has been highlighted as a unique example in the international arena including the United Nations.

This observation of Michelle Bachelet about the human rights situation in Bangladesh proved that Bangladesh is respectful to the international human rights mechanisms and there is nothing to worry about the human rights situation in Bangladesh.

This paper however does not suggest that Bangladesh does not have any case of human rights violation. In fact, human rights challenges are faced just like any other country in the world does. Unfortunately, rule of law, democracy, and human rights are subjected to the enormous challenge of manipulation of the superpowers which want to impose imperial designs on the world in the name of peace. However, some isolated incidents have occurred in Bangladesh in which the rights of any individual or institution have been violated by some overenthusiastic members of the government or law enforcement that have embarrassed the government. But no such incident is happening regularly in Bangladesh that may be considered a human rights violation. As a result, it is not right to promote those incidents as human rights violations.

The Challenges Are Ahead

The issue of human rights is explicitly written in the constitution of Bangladesh. Article 11 of the Constitution states that “the Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed.” As a result, the state or the government does not have the power to take away the rights of any person or organization because the government runs the state within the guidelines of the constitution. Moreover, Bangladesh has an independent judiciary and a Human Rights Commission. These institutions should be strengthened so that any allegation of violence, extra-judicial killing, or unlawful detention against law enforcement agencies can be addressed immediately and effectively. Additionally, the law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh should be provided with intensive training to ensure that they do not violate human rights while combating terrorism and crimes unless in a given situation application of force is mandatory to save their own lives.

The responsibility of looking after the human rights situation of various countries is entrusted to the council. Bangladesh should respect the trust that the member states have shown in Bangladesh and the current government in the vote of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Finally, everyone expects that as a member of the Human Rights Council, Bangladesh will be able to make a significant contribution to the implementation of UN principles in the field of human rights, especially in the context of emerging global challenges.

When Will the Stars Shine Again in Burkina Faso?

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On 30 September 2022, Captain Ibrahim Traoré led a section of the Burkina Faso military to depose Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who had seized power in a coup d’état in January. The second coup was swift, with brief clashes in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ouagadougou at the president’s residence, Kosyam Palace, and at Camp Baba Sy, the military administration’s headquarters. Captain Kiswendsida Farouk Azaria Sorgho declared on Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB), the national broadcast, that his fellow captain, Traoré, was now the head of state and the armed forces. ‘Things are gradually returning to order’, he said as Damiba went into exile in Togo.

This coup is not a coup against the ruling order, a military platform called the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration (Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration or MPSR); instead, it stems from young captains within the MPSR. During Damiba’s brief tenure in power, armed violence increased by 23%, and he failed to fulfil any of the promises that the military made when it overthrew former President Roch Kaboré, an ex-banker who had ruled the country since 2015. L’Unité d’Action Syndicale (UAS), a platform of six trade unions in Burkina Faso, is warning about the ‘decay of the national army’, its ideological disarray manifested by the high salaries drawn by the coup leaders.

Kaboré was the beneficiary of a mass insurrection that began in October 2014 against Blaise Compaoré, who had been in power since the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 1987. It is worth noting that in April, while exiled in Côte d’Ivoire, Compaoré was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia for his role in that murder. Many of the social forces in the mass uprisings arrived on the streets bearing pictures of Sankara, holding fast to his socialist dream. The promise of that mass movement was suffocated by Kaboré’s limited agenda, stifled by the International Monetary Fund and hindered by the seven-year jihadist insurgency in northern Burkina Faso that has displaced close to two million people. While the MPSR coup has a muddled outlook, it responds to the deep social crisis afflicting the fourth-largest producer of gold on the African continent.

In August 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Algeria. As Macron walked through the streets of Oran, he experienced the anger of the Algerian public, with people yelling insults – va te faire foutre! (‘go f**k yourself’) – forcing him to hurriedly depart. France’s decision to reduce the number of visas provided to Moroccans and Tunisians fuelled a protest by human rights organisations in Rabat (Morocco), and France was forced to dismiss its ambassador to Morocco.

Anti-French feeling is deepening across North Africa and the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara Desert. It was this sentiment that provoked the coups in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and then in Burkina Faso (January 2022 and September 2022). In February 2022, Mali’s government ejected the French military, accusing French forces of committing atrocities against civilians and colluding with jihadi insurgents.

Over the past decade, North Africa and the Sahel have been grappling with the detritus produced by NATO’s war on Libya, driven by France and the United States. NATO emboldened the jihadi forces, who were disoriented by their defeat in the Algerian Civil War (1991–2002) and by the anti-Islamist policies of Muammar Qaddafi’s administration in Libya. Indeed, the US brought hardened jihadi fighters, including Libyan Islamic Fighting Group veterans, from the Syria-Turkey border to bolster the anti-Qaddafi war. This so-called ‘rat line’ moved in both directions, as jihadis and weapons went from post-Qaddafi Libya back into Syria.

Groups such as al-Qaeda (in the Islamic Maghreb) as well as al-Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and Katibat Macina – which merged into Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (‘Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims’) in 2017 – swept from southern Algeria to Côte d’Ivoire, from western Mali to eastern Niger. These jihadis, many of them Afghanistan War veterans, are joined by common cause with local bandits and smugglers. This ‘banditisation of jihad’, as it is called, is one explanation for how these forces have become so deeply rooted in the region. Another is that the jihadis used older social tensions between the Fulani (a largely Muslim ethnic group) and other communities, now massed into militia groups called the Koglweogo (‘bush guardians’). Drawing various contradictions into the jihadi-military conflict has effectively militarised political life in large parts of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. France’s involvement through Operation Barkhane, a military intervention into Mali in 2014, and its establishment of military bases has not only failed to contain or root out the insurgencies and conflicts; it has exacerbated them.
The Union d’Action Syndicale has released a ten-point plan that includes immediate relief for the areas facing starvation (such as Djibo), an independent commission to study violence in specific areas (such as Gaskindé), the creation of a plan to deal with the cost of living crisis, and an end to the alliance with France, which would include the ‘departure of foreign bases and troops, especially French ones, from national territory’.
A recent United Nations report shows that 18 million people in the Sahel are on ‘the brink of starvation’. The World Bank notes that 40% of Burkinabé live below the poverty line. Neither civilian nor military governments in Burkina Faso, nor those in other Sahel countries, have articulated a project to transcend this crisis. Burkina Faso, for instance, is not a poor country. With a minimum of $2 billion per year in gold sales, it is extraordinary that this country of 22 million people remains mired in such poverty. If this revenue were divided equally amongst the population, each Burkinabé citizen would receive $90 million per year.

Instead, the bulk of the revenue is siphoned off by mining firms from Canada and Australia – Barrick Gold, Goldrush Resources, Semafo, and Gryphon Minerals – as well as their counterparts in Europe. These firms transfer the profits into their own bank accounts and some, such as Randgold Resources, into the tax haven of the Channel Islands. Local control over gold has not been established, nor has the country been able to exert any sovereignty over its currency. Both Burkina Faso and Mali use the West African CFA franc, a colonial currency whose reserves are held in the Bank of France, which also manages their monetary policy.

The coups in the Sahel are coups against the conditions of life afflicting most people in the region, conditions created by the theft of sovereignty by multinational corporations and the old colonial ruler. Rather than acknowledge this as the central problem, Western governments deflect and insist that the real cause of political unrest is the intervention of Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group, fighting against the jihadi insurgency (Macron, for instance, described their presence in the region as ‘predatory’). Yevgeny Prigozhin, a founder of the Wagner Group, said that Traoré ‘did what was necessary… for the good of their people’. Meanwhile, the US State Department warned the new Burkina Faso government not to make alliances with the Wagner Group. However, it appears that Traoré is seeking any means to defeat the insurgency, which has absorbed 40% of Burkina Faso’s territory. Despite an agreement with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) made by Damiba and continued by Traoré that Burkina Faso will return to civilian rule by July 2024, the necessary conditions for this transfer seem to be the defeat of the insurgency.

In 1984, President Thomas Sankara went to the UN. When he took power in his country the previous year, its colonial name was Upper Volta, solely defined by its geographical status as the land north of the Volta River. Sankara and his political movement changed that name to Burkina Faso, which means the ‘Land of Upright People’. No longer would the Burkinabé hunch their shoulders and look at the ground as they walked. With national liberation, the ‘stars first began to shine in the heavens of our homeland’, Sankara said at the UN, as they realised the need for ‘revolution, the eternal struggle against all domination’. ‘We want to democratise our society’, he continued, ‘to open up our minds to a universe of collective responsibility, so that we may be bold enough to invent the future’. Sankara was killed in October 1987. His dreams have held fast in the hearts of many, but they have not yet influenced a sufficiently powerful political project.

In the spirit of Sankara, the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré released a wonderful song, Kêlê Magni (‘War Is a Plague’), in February 2022, which speaks for the entire Sahel:

War is a plague! My country might disappear!
I tell you: war is not a solution!
War has no friends nor allies, and there are no real enemies.
All people suffer from this war: Burkina, Côte d’Ivoire… everyone!

Other instruments are needed: new stars in the sky, new revolutions that build on hopes and not on hatred.

Newsletter issued by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Click here to read the original

Power Hunger and the Hypocrisy Bankrupted a Nation

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11 mins read

Over the last several months, intellectuals, politicians, and international development agencies have discussed the Sri Lankan economy and fiscal policy more than ever for its mismanagement. The words “foreign Reserves” and ‘’foreign Exchange” have become a common topic even among ordinary people who have never used those words. They talk more about the dollar than the rupee earnings and think the dollar is the panacea for all the economy’s ills. At the time of independence, the world community thought Sri Lanka would be a model economy for most developing countries. Sri Lanka was the second most prosperous country next to Japan in the Asian region. The country had fulfilled most preconditions to take off on the growth tract. However, it struggled to reach the status of a lower middle-income country for 50 years till 1997, while many other developing countries surpassed Sri Lanka. Eventually, in terms of World Bank classifications, Sri Lanka was elevated to a lower middle-income country in 1997. Since then, it has struggled in the lower middle-income trap and reached the status of an upper middle-income country in 2019, after 21 years. But, within a brief period, in 2020, under the World Bank classification, Sri Lanka was downgraded again to a lower middle-income country due to the sharpening economic crisis.

Since the transfer of ruling power from colonial masters to local elites, the fiscal policy adopted by Sri Lanka is short-sighted, irrational, arbitrary and not growth-oriented or sustainable. Those are aimed at winning the heart of constituents to win the next election and remain in power forever. The budgetary policy is nurtured as a bribe to the constituents to grab or stay in power.   Throughout history, with changes in government or leadership, policies have oscillated between growth and welfare orientation without policy consistency. Therefore, frequent ups and downs are observed in the path of economic growth. This policy inconsistency has caused catastrophic long-term and short-term economic ramifications. In the 1970s, in the journey to industrialisation, the country faced a scarcity of all imported consumer and intermediate goods due to strict import controls. Rations, coupons, and permits became part and parcel of daily life. Two prices, the control price and the black-market price, became the normal market situation for goods. People had to spend their time in queues to purchase goods for a controlled price. The policy priority was the protection and encouragement of the producer. This was done at the cost of consumer rights and preference.

 In 1978, the policy was reversed and removed all import restrictions. The market was flooded with inferior, superior, cheap, expensive, wanted, and unwanted imported goods, prioritising the consumer and consumption. The producer has been deserted without policy support. Following the open economic policy for 24 years till 2017, the year of the highest per capita GDP, the growth rate was maintained above 4%, except in 2001, when a 1.55 % negative growth was reported. In 2002, followed by a negative growth rate, the country faced near bankruptcy, with the government’s debt reaching 105.5% of the GDP. In 2002, the government made several changes in the overall economic policy, including the fiscal policy. The approach was more focused on growth than welfare. Though many opposed pruning welfare programs and privatising public enterprises, the government exerted considerable fiscal control. It trended the debt ratio downward to 90.6 % by 2005, controlled inflation and commenced the gradual economic recovery. From 2005 to 2012, the country maintained a GDP growth rate above 5%, and from 2010 to 2012, it was above 7% for three consecutive years, and the per capita GDP rose above US$ 4077 in 2017. The main contributor to this rapid GDP growth was the construction boom in the public sector infrastructure, funded under local and foreign commercial borrowings. However, there were no adequate investments in goods and service production to sustain the growth momentum generated by the construction boom. As such, the economy could not substantially reap the potential of new infrastructure. In other words, the volume of investment made in the infrastructure within a brief period was beyond the economy’s absorption capacity. The government was forced to service loans before bearing the fruits of costly investments.

As a combined effect of many inappropriate economic and fiscal management decisions and political crises, the growth rate became negligible or has fallen negative since 2018. The GDP per capita income fell from US$4077 in 2017 to US$ 3815 in 2021. An 8.4% negative growth rate has been recorded for the first half of 2022.  The government’s debt ratio exceeded 100% again in 2020 and 107% in 2021. The credit rating of Sri Lanka has been downgraded to very low by rating agencies, disabling any further borrowings. Foreign reserves depleted to near zero, compelling for rigorous import control. The government was forced to print money relentlessly to meet its essential domestic expenditure leading to hyperinflation. It eventually defaulted on the repayment of foreign loans and relegated the country to bankruptcy. Days and miles-long queues for essentials became familiar scenes everywhere in the country. Now, the destiny of the proud and conservative Island nation is in the hands of its friends and enemies.

Is it a Premediated Bankruptcy?

At the time of Sri Lanka’s independence, her macro economy was very healthy. Balance of payment, foreign reserves and balancing the national budget were not significant issues. However, after 1957, Sri Lanka’s trade balance was always negative. As a ratio to the GDP, the trade balance was above minus 6% from 1990 to 2021. Consequent to a continuous and extensive negative trade balance, balance of payment and budget deficit, the government has been highly dependent on foreign borrowing for more than six decades.  During the 1970s and 1980s government’s revenue ratio to the GDP was above 20%. But since 1991, it has declined rapidly, reaching 8.6 % of the GDP in 2021

During the 1970s, the government debt ratio to GDP was around 60 % and reached 84% in 1980. From 1990 to 2000, the debt ratio increased above 96% and went to 105.5% in 2002. After that, a declining trend was visible, dropping to 77.7% in 1915 and remaining below 79% for three years till 2017. Again, the increasing trend was accelerated, jumping the ratio from 84.2% in 2018 to 107.1% in 2021. In the early stages, the borrowing was from multi-lateral and bilateral agencies on concessionary terms. Sri Lanka denied concessionary credits for many sectors after it became a lower-middle-income country. Then the government opted for borrowing from bilateral agencies at relatively higher interest rates and medium-term repayment periods. Since 2007, Sri Lanka has issued several international sovereign bonds with maturity periods of 5 to 10 years. By the end of 2021, the total outstanding external debt of the government reached US$ 50.7 billion, of which 47% is market borrowings, which are short-term and high costs. These market borrowings were mainly used to repay previous loans. Later, the government was compelled to do market borrowing to settle previous market borrowings, entangling the country into a debt trap.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, government expenditure was around 30% of the GDP. During this period, the government revenue ratio to the GDP was also high, about 20% or above. Till 2015, the overall budget deficit was high, above 7%.  Due to the policy changes in 2015, the budget deficit decreased to 5.5% in 2017 and 5.3% in 2018.  However, with the policy reversal in the latter part of 2019, it increased again, reaching 12.2% in 2021. In addition to the policy changes, the corvid-19 pandemic also contributed to the budget deficit and demanded more government expenditure than expected. Since 2020, these deficits have been chiefly financed from local borrowings and money printings, an inflationary tool.

While struggling to find additional revenue to meet increasing public sector expenditure, the new government made a highly irrational ad-hoc decision to reduce taxes in December 2019. The maximum personal income tax rate was reduced from 24.5% to 18%, and the thresh hold of taxable income was increased from Rs.500,000 to Rs. 3,000,000. Consequently, the total number of income taxpayers decreased from 1,705,233 in 2019 to 133,445 in 2020, reflecting a 92% reduction.  The VAT rate was reduced from 15% to 08 %, and the thresh hold for VAT registration was increased from Rs.12,000 to 3,000,000, resulting in a reduction of VAT registries from 28,914 in 2019 to 8,152 in 2020, reflecting an 83 % decline.  Also, the standard corporate income tax rate was reduced from 28% to 24%.

The Economic Service Charge, Nation Building Tax, withholding tax and Debt Repayment Levy was also abolished. After replacing the PAYE system with the APIT scheme, the total number of contributors dropped to 664 828 in 2020 and lost the mechanism for regular inflow of income, which used to receive without much cost and effort.  All these changes were made effective from the beginning of 2020, pending formal parliamentary approval. According to the Central Banks Annual Report 2020, the government tax revenue in 2020 has declined by Rs 518.4 billion compared to the previous year. Considering the high price level of 2022, which is affected by hyperinflation, the revenue loss may exceed Rs. 1,100 billion. The income tax reduction increased the purchasing power of the upper middle class and the rich, which created an additional demand to import non-essential or luxury goods, exerting pressure on already sicked foreign reserves.

Even before the said tax alienation, the government had faced a heavy budget deficit, a negative balance of payment and depleting foreign reserves for many years. The government was pressured to do more local and foreign borrowings to service previous loans and continue with the welfare and development-oriented budget. This is a significant fiscal challenge faced by all governments after depleting the avenues for foreign grants and concessionary credits. The IMF and World Bank kept advising Sri Lanka to take appropriate action to improve government revenue, rationalise expenditure, and minimise corruption instead of costly commercial borrowings.

While all these ailments are in the backdrop, the government has decided to reduce taxes significantly for unknown reasons without any cost-benefit analysis. One obvious thing is that the decision is not based on economic, social, or broader political interests. According to the Central Bank Annual Report -2020, “the government implemented measures to lower the tax burden of business and individuals, thereby supporting the rebuilding of economic activities and enhancing incomes of the people”. The isolated ad-hoc policy instrument did not work, while all other harmful factors for investment remained unchanged. Instead, it negatively affected the overall economy and government budget, creating multiplier effects.

Is it a result of Ignorance or a Political Gimmick?

As explained above, a persistent budget deficit due to declining government revenue, increasing expenditure, and unfavourable trade balance became a chronic issue. After opening the economy, the fiscal policy was more weighted toward a consumption-oriented economy than a production-oriented economy.  The constituents also got accustomed to using voting power to bargain for more and more government handouts. Political parties are also accustomed to pledging more and more subsidies and free goodies in their election campaigns(bribes) instead of telling the truth to the people and facing reality.

Since 1965, Sri Lanka has sought the assistance of the International Monetary Fund on 16 occasions for bailout packages to heal economic wounds, especially the negative balance of payment. The IMF assistance is always conditional that Sri Lanka will undertake structural adjustments for the long-term sustainability of the economy. Among them, fiscal and economic reforms such as the devaluation of the rupee, controlling the government expenditure, strengthening the government revenue, reducing the budget deficit, correcting the price distortion in the market, privatising the loss-making state-own enterprises, minimising/alleviating corruption, targeting the subsidies only to the poor, supporting an export-oriented economy are the prominent recommendations/conditions.  On every occasion, the same conditions have been enforced with some modifications. However, a new requirement has been proposed for the 17th occasion in 2022, requiring negotiating with lenders for credit restructuring. On every occasion, the government has agreed to IMF conditions. But, once the bailout package is disbursed, agreed requirements are disregarded and back to loosen fiscal policy for political advantage. No political party have learned a lesson from past mistakes and keeps repeating the same. They expect camouflaging fundamental issues to mislead the donors, and the people can continue forever.  Suppose we had fully complied with the agreed requirements and continued with a growth-oriented fiscal policy and economic restructuring for several years. In that case, we could have cured the wound permanently without recurring it. But the government’s behaviour is like enabling the patient to move from the sick bed; the patient escapes from the hospital without facing the surgery.

On all previous occasions, the government approached the IMF before bankrupting the economy and benefited from bail-out packages. Since the beginning of 2020, the symptoms of the economic crisis have been visible. However, the government was reluctant to seek IMF assistance due to the possible challenging fiscal discipline that may enforce on the eve of the general election. Even after the general election, the government wanted to maintain a loose budgetary policy to accommodate popular election pledges. Towards the middle of 2021, it was clear that the economy would collapse without severe remedial actions and policy reversal. Even at this stage, the authorities did not realise the gravity of the situation and thought the same loosened policy could be continued with temporary homegrown solutions. An attempt was made to relieve the foreign exchange crisis by controlling the imports while keeping the value of the rupee artificially high. Also, the authorities believed the government could service all external borrowings without defaulting through the savings generated from import restrictions and printing money to finance the domestic expenditure, guided by the “new monetary theory”.  Available foreign reserves were used to service the external borrowings and maintain the rupee’s value artificially high. But they did not understand that this solution would deprive the people’s basic needs and collapse the domestic economy, which depends heavily on imported inputs.

At the beginning of 2022, it had proved that all homegrown solutions have miserably failed, and the country is running into a catastrophe. Towards the end of the first quarter of the year2022, the economy virtually collapsed, without foreign exchange to import petroleum, coal, gas, medicine, essential food items and many more. Eventually, the rupee was floated and allowed to depreciate. The immediate impact was the devaluation of the rupee by more than a hundred per cent pushing the cost-of-living sky high and days-long queues for all essentials, including fuel, food, and medicine. Meanwhile, the government was compelled to default on repayment of foreign loans to save the meagre foreign exchange for importing bear minimums. Due to the speculation of further devaluation of the rupee, foreign exchange earners stopped sending their earnings to the country through official channels. The country came to a standstill without inputs and mobility for industries, agriculture, and day-to-day operations for living. This resulted in multiplier effects such as constraints on industries resulting in low export income, high demand for imports, unemployment, low tax income to the government etc., creating a vicious cycle. It came to total anarchy, creating a political nightmare. Social unrest escalated to an unmanageable level, and eventually, the democratically elected president and prime minister were forced to resign.

Eventually, after failing all home-grown solutions, the government sought IMF assistance to bail out the crisis in April 2022. Then it was too late, and people and the economy suffered severely. Consequently, the recovery period will be much longer than the average IMF support program. Perhaps, it may take another five to six years to reach the per capita GDP to the 2017 level. If this decision had been taken at least in mid-2021, the recovery period could have been shorter, with less damage to the people and the economy. Relevant authorities could have bungled the episode from December 2019 to June 2002. But it isn’t easy to believe, as the president and finance minister were backed by many senior economists and experienced development administrators. Perhaps it may be the ego and deformed ideologies of the relevant authorities who are unwilling to listen to others’ views and productive criticisms. Another possibility is that some forces could have conspired by assigning bunglers to critical positions to mismanage the economy and thereby oust the non-political carrier president and capture power. This inference seems more pertinent, having observed entire political episodes from December 2019. Whatever the cause behind it, it has created long-lasting adverse socio-economic effects. Some of them are irreparable, such as child malnutrition and health hazards. Perhaps those who have abandoned farming may not be into agriculture again.

Conclusions

The limping economic legacy of over half a century has been further aggravated due to the nonsensical tax reduction in December 2019 and several other senseless decisions taken by the new government.  Accelerated unproductive government expenditure, such as recruiting 50,000 unemployed graduates and 100,000 unskilled less educated youths to the public sector, Weda Lakshayak (hundred thousand projects) and the 100,000 Km Road program, put more burden on the already unwieldy budget. Banning chemical fertilisers paralysed agricultural production. Alienating a considerable volume of government revenue, overnight switching to organic agriculture, and blindly trusting homegrown solutions for structural economic issues are the most preposterous decisions ever taken by a government. All these could have resulted from ill advice by bunglers guided by personnel agendas and deformed ideologies.

Since its independence, the power-greedy politicians competitively made Sri Lanka a nation lacking self-confidence and depending on subsidies and lives beyond its means. As a nation, Sri Lanka consumes more than it produces. To overcome this situation, we must learn to live within our means. There is no free lunch. Everything has a price. People must be ready to enter an era of new economic and political order. People must be prepared to produce more than they consume. Politicians in power should allow newcomers to take the reins and change the whole system to match the modern world instead of reinforcing the century-old corroded systems. The bureaucrats should be ready to switch on par with the contemporary world, proactive and able to drive the political masters on the right track instead of carrying forward the residua of feudal administration practices of their predecessors. All stakeholders in the governance system should be thoroughly determined to avoid financial and power corruption. We need a charismatic patriotic leader who can transform the whole society into a forward-looking, dynamic one.

Deadliest Situation of Humanity

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5 mins read

Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock has measured the likelihood of a human-made catastrophe, namely to warn the world against the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who attend to this clock, originally set the device at seven minutes to midnight, with midnight being, essentially, the end of the world. The farthest that the clock has been from midnight was in 1991, when it was set at 17 minutes from midnight. The closest to midnight that the clock has been is now. Since 2020, the clock has sat at ‘doom’s doorstep’ – 100 seconds from midnight. The motivation for this alarming setting was the unilateral withdrawal by the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. This is the ‘most dangerous situation that humanity has faced’, said former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

To contribute to the dialogue about this ‘most dangerous situation’, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research has launched a new series of texts called Studies on Contemporary Dilemmas. These dilemmas include the pressing questions of the climate and environmental catastrophe, the wastefulness of military spending and the perils of warfare, and the deepening sensibility of despair and individualism. The solutions to these dilemmas are not beyond our capacity to resolve; our planet contains the resources needed to address them. We do not lack in ideas or resources; the problem is that we lack in political power. Elements of the policies needed in the world have been sitting in amber inside the United Nations Charter for decades, ignored by those who hoard power, privilege, and property. Our Studies on Contemporary Dilemmas are intended to stimulate debates around the broad issues of our times with the hope that these debates will galvanise social forces to prevent the impending doomsday.

The first study in this series, produced in collaboration with Monthly Review and No Cold War, is called The United States Is Waging a New Cold War: A Socialist Perspective. The essays in this text provide a close assessment of the policy of the United States, which aims to maintain its control over the international system, including through its pursuit of nuclear primacy and willingness to launch even a ‘limited nuclear war’ to attain its ends. A simulation of nuclear war conducted by Princeton University in 2020 showed that if even one tactical strike is made by any nuclear power, it could result in the immediate death of 91.5 million people; ‘deaths from nuclear fallout and other long-term effects would significantly increase this estimate’, wrote the researchers.

In our study, John Bellamy Foster, editor of Monthly Review, writes: ‘just as the full destructive implications of climate change threatening the very existence of humanity are in large part denied by the powers that be, so are the full planetary effects of nuclear war, which scientific research about nuclear winter tells us will effectively annihilate the population of every continent on Earth’. Our calls for peace, therefore, must be as powerful as our calls to save the planet from the climate catastrophe.

In the aftermath of the US nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the World Peace Council issued the Stockholm Appeal:

We demand the outlawing of atomic weapons as instruments of intimidation and mass murder of peoples. We demand strict international control to enforce this measure.

We believe that any government which first uses atomic weapons against any other country whatsoever will be committing a crime against humanity and should be dealt with as a war criminal.
We call on all men and women of good will throughout the world to sign this appeal.
Within two weeks, 1.5 million people had signed the appeal.

In 1947, the hibakusha (the survivors of the nuclear attack) and Hiroshima’s then mayor Shinzo Hamai initiated Hiroshima Day, which has since become an annual ceremony on 6 August. The Peace Bell at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum and Park rings at 8:15 am, the exact moment when the bomb exploded, and paper cranes and paper lanterns float on the water near Genbaku Dome, the only building left standing from the carnage. The importance and vitality of Hiroshima Day has now withered. It is imperative to revive such a day as part of the process of rescuing the collective life.

Our second study in this series began to take shape a month into the war in Ukraine, when Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research began a conversation with Jeremy Corbyn, a member of the UK Parliament and former leader of the UK Labour Party, and his team at the Peace and Justice Project. We felt that there was an urgent need to stimulate the peace movement with a discussion about the various catastrophes that had begun to ripple outward from Ukraine, including galloping inflation that is out of control. We invited a range of writers from Brazil to the United Kingdom, from South Africa to India, to reflect on the immediate crisis through the vital concept of nonalignment, which was born in the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century and institutionalised in the Nonaligned Movement (1961). These essays – produced in collaboration with Morning Star, Globetrotter, and the Peace and Justice Project – have now been published as Looking Over the Horizon at Nonalignment and Peace, Studies on Contemporary Dilemmas no. 2.

In his contribution to the booklet, Corbyn reflects on the idea of peace for our times:

Some say to discuss peace at a time of war is a sign of some kind of weakness; the opposite is true. It is the bravery of peace protesters around the world that stopped some governments from being involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, or any of the dozens of other conflicts going on.

Peace is not just the absence of war; it is real security. The security of knowing you will be able to eat, your children will be educated and cared for, and a health service will be there when you need it. For millions, that is not a reality now; the aftereffects of the war in Ukraine will take that away from millions more.

Meanwhile, many countries are now increasing arms spending and investing resources in more and more dangerous weapons. The United States has just approved its biggest-ever defence budget. These resources used for weapons are all resources not used for health, education, housing, or environmental protection.

This is a perilous and dangerous time. Watching the horror play out and then preparing for more conflicts in the future will not ensure that the climate crisis, poverty crisis, or food supply is addressed. It’s up to all of us to build and support movements that can chart another course for peace, security, and justice for all.

Such a clear statement for a world of peace is the antidote we need to address what Mary Robinson has warned us is the ‘most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced’.

At the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly, 19 member states of the Group of Friends in Defence of the Charter of the United Nations met to discuss the need to strengthen multilateralism to ‘forge collective, inclusive, and effective solutions to the common challenges and threats of the 21st century’. Collective and common: these need to be our keywords. Less division, more collectivity; less building for war and more building for peace.

The language of the Group of Friends is in the lineage of the Nonaligned Movement and the African-Asian Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. As the leaders of the new post-colonial states met in Bandung to talk about nonalignment and peace, the Malaysian socialist poet Usman Awang (1929–2001) wrote Bunga Popi (‘Poppies’), a poem about the ugliness of war:

From blood, from pus that rots in the soil,
from skeletons that have lost their lives,
snatched by weapons,
the result of war maniacs who kill love,
the red flowers bloom beautifully,
requesting to be adored.

Newsletter issued by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Click here to read the original

Whither Colombia’s fragile struggle

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6 mins read

Each year, in the last weeks of September, the world’s leaders gather in New York City to speak at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly. The speeches can usually be forecasted well in advance, either tired articulations of values that do not get acted upon or belligerent voices that threaten war in an institution built to prevent war.

However, every once in a while, a speech shines through, a voice emanates from the chamber and echoes around the world for its clarity and sincerity. This year, that voice belongs to Colombia’s recently inaugurated president, Gustavo Petro, whose brief remarks distilled with poetic precision the problems in our world and the cascading crises of social distress, the addiction to money and power, the climate catastrophe and environmental destruction. ‘It is time for peace’, President Petro said. ‘We are also at war with the planet. Without peace with the planet, there will be no peace among nations. Without social justice, there is no social peace’.

Colombia has been gripped by violence since it won its independence from Spain in 1810. This violence emanated from Colombia’s elites, whose insatiable desire for wealth has meant the absolute impoverishment of the people and the failure of the country to develop anything that resembles liberalism. Decades of political action to build the confidence of the masses in Colombia culminated in a cycle of protests beginning in 2019 that led to Petro’s electoral victory. The new centre-left government has pledged to build social democratic institutions in Colombia and to banish the country’s culture of violence. Though the Colombian army, like armed forces around the world, prepares for war, President Petro told them in August 2022 that they must now ‘prepare for peace’ and must become ‘an army of peace’.

When thinking about violence in a country like Colombia, there is a temptation to focus on drugs, cocaine in particular. The violence, it is often suggested, is an outgrowth of the illicit cocaine trade. But this is an ahistorical assessment. Colombia experienced terrible bloodshed long before highly processed cocaine became increasingly popular from the 1960s onwards. The country’s elite has used murderous force to prevent any dilution of its power, including the 1948 assassination of Jorge Gaitán, the former mayor of Colombia’s capital of Bogotá, that led to a period known as La Violencia (‘The Violence’). Liberal politicians and communist militants faced the steel of the Colombian army and police on behalf of this granite block of power backed by the United States, which has used Colombia to extend its power into South America. Fig leaves of various types were used to cover over the ambitions of the Colombian elite and their benefactors in Washington. In the 1990s, one such cover was the War on Drugs.

By all accounts – whether of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – the largest consumers of illegal narcotics (cannabis, opioids, and cocaine) are in North America and Western Europe. A recent UN study shows that ‘cocaine use in the United States has been fluctuating and increasing after 2013 with a more stable trend observed in 2019’. The War on Drugs strategy, initiated by the United States and Western countries, has had a two-pronged approach to the drug crisis: first, to criminalise retailers in Western countries and, second, to go to war against the peasants who produce the raw material in these drugs in countries such as Colombia.

In the United States, for instance, almost two million people – disproportionately Black and Latino – are caught in the prison industrial complex, with 400,000 of them imprisoned or on probation for nonviolent drug offences (mostly as petty dealers in a vastly profitable drug empire). The collapse of employment opportunities for young people in working-class areas and the allure of wages from the drug economy continue to attract low-level employees of the global drug commodity chain, despite the dangers of this profession. The War on Drugs has made a negligible impact on this pipeline, which is why many countries have now begun to decriminalise drug possession and drug use (particularly cannabis).

The obduracy of the Colombian elite – backed by the US government – to allow any democratic space to open in the country led the left to take up armed struggle in 1964 and then return to the gun when the elite shut down the promise of the democratic path in the 1990s. In the name of the war against the armed left as well as the War on Drugs, the Colombian military and police have crushed any dissent in the country. Despite evidence of the financial and political ties between the Colombian elite, narco-paramilitaries, and drug cartels, the United States government initiated Plan Colombia in 1999 to funnel $12 billion to the Colombian military to deepen this war (in 2006, when he was a senator, Petro revealed the nexus between these diabolical forces, for which his family was threatened with violence).

As part of this war, the Colombian armed forces dropped the terrible chemical weapon glyphosate on the peasantry (in 2015, the World Health Organisation said that this chemical is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ and, in 2017, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that its use must be restricted). In 2020, the following assessment was offered in the Harvard International Review: ‘Instead of reducing cocaine production, Plan Colombia has actually caused cocaine production and transport to shift into other areas. Additionally, militarisation in the war on drugs has caused violence in the country to increase’. This is precisely what President Petro told the world at the United Nations.

The most recent DEA report notes that cocaine use in the United States remains steady and that ‘deaths from drug poisoning involving cocaine have increased every year since 2013’. US drug policy is focused on law enforcement, aiming merely to reduce the domestic availability of cocaine. Washington will spend 45% of its drug budget on law enforcement, 49% on treatment for drug addicts, and a mere 6% on prevention. The lack of emphasis on prevention is revealing. Rather than tackle the drug crisis as a demand-side problem, the US and other Western governments pretend that it is a supply-side problem that can be dealt with by using military force against petty drug dealers and peasants who grow the coca plant. Petro’s cry from the heart at the United Nations attempted to call attention to the root causes of the drug crisis:

According to the irrational power of the world, the market that razes existence is not to blame; it is the jungle and those who live in it that are to blame. Bank accounts have become unlimited; the money saved by the most powerful people on Earth could not even be spent over the course of centuries. The empty existence produced by the artificiality of competition is filled with noise and drugs. The addiction to money and to possessions has another face: the drug addiction of people who lose the competition in the artificial race that humanity has become. The sickness of loneliness is not cured by [dousing] the forests with glyphosate; the forest is not to blame. To blame is your society educated by endless consumption, by the stupid confusion between consumption and happiness that allows the pockets of the powerful to fill with money.

The War on Drugs, Petro said, is a war on the Colombian peasantry and a war on the precarious poor in Western countries. We do not need this war, he said; instead, we need to struggle to build a peaceful society that does not sap meaning from the hearts of people who are treated as a surplus to society’s logic.

As a young man, Petro was part of the M-19 guerrilla movement, one of the organisations that attempted to break the chokehold that Colombia’s elites held over the country’s democracy. One of his comrades was the poet María Mercedes Carranza (1945–2003), who wrote searingly about the violence thrust upon her country in her book Hola, Soledad (‘Hello, Solitude’) (1987), capturing the desolation in her poem ‘La Patria’ (‘The Homeland’):

In this house, everything is in ruins,

in ruins are hugs and music,

each morning, destiny, laughter are in ruins,

tears, silence, dreams.

The windows show destroyed landscapes,

flesh and ash on people’s faces,

words combine with fear in their mouths.

In this house, we are all buried alive.

Carranza took her life when the fires of hell swept through Colombia.

A peace agreement in 2016, a cycle of protests from 2019, and now the election of Petro and Francia Márquez in 2022 have wiped the ash off the faces of the Colombian people and provided them with an opportunity to try and rebuild their house. The end of the War on Drugs, that is, the war on the Colombian peasantry, will only advance Colombia’s fragile struggle towards peace and democracy.

Source: Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Click here to read the original

Exclusive: Reaffirming our Unswervingly Stand with Sri Lanka

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Following excerpts adapted from the speech by the author as the President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC) at the event celebrates the 73rd Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China Hosted by five major friendship organizations work for enhancing Sri Lanka – China friendship.

It is my great honour to be invited to attend the reception hosted by five Sri Lanka friendship organizations with China celebrating the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On this occasion, I would like to extend, on behalf of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), my cordial greetings and best wishes to the brotherly people of Sri Lanka, and express my heartfelt thanks and high respect to friends from all walks of life who have been long committed to China Sri Lanka friendship.

This year is an important year for both China and Sri Lanka to commemorate.70 years ago, China and Sri Lanka, two newly born countries, overcame difficulties and obstacles and signed the Rubber-Rice Pact, opening the door for friendly exchanges. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations 65 years ago, the governments of China and Sri Lanka have always abided by the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, treating each other with equality, mutual trust and sincerity. The two sides understand, respect and help each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns and firmly safeguard our respective and common interests.

Last year marked the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. President Xi Jinping solemnly declared that through the concerted efforts of the Chinese government and people, China has won the fight against poverty on schedule, achieved the first centenary goal on schedule, and built a moderately prosperous society in all respects on schedule. The 1.4 billion people have been lifted from absolute poverty and embarked on the socialist modernization path of common prosperity for all.

Under the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China, China has created two miracles, namely rapid economic development and long-term social stability, which have not only benefited the Chinese people, who account for nearly 20% of the world’s total population, but also provided new options and more cooperation opportunities for developing countries including Sri Lanka. China has become an important force in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development.

For building a better world, President Xi Jinping has put forward the important concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind, as well as new ideas and measures such as the “Belt and Road” Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and the Global Security Initiative. With the vision of new development, China is committed to win-win cooperation for common development with all countries.

We are pleased to see that important progress has been made in the cooperation of the Belt and Road Initiative under the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.  China has become Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner and a major source of investment and tourism.  Our friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation has brought tangible benefits to the two peoples. Colombo Port City, Hambantota Port comprehensive development project has become a flagship of jointly building the Belt and Road. The project has created more than 100,000 local jobs and trained thousands of technical and management talents and laid an important foundation for Sri Lanka to further realize its independent and sustainable development.

We have noted that “natural disasters” such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical “man-made disasters” such as the Ukraine crisis are coming one after another.  The security and stability of the global production lines, supply chains and capital chains have been severely undermined. The global energy, food and financial crisis have triggered crises in terms of production, life and survival, especially for the people in underdeveloped countries. Sri Lanka is one of the victims.  In this difficult time, please be assured that the Chinese government and people unswervingly stand with the government and people of Sri Lanka to overcome the difficulties. 

Facts have repeatedly proved that maintaining and developing friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Sri Lanka is conducive to the development of our two countries, conforms to the fundamental interests of the two peoples, and embodies the painstaking efforts of successive leaders of the two countries and the common aspiration of the two peoples.

In more than 10 days’ time, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will be convened. The congress will comprehensively and systematically summarize the historical achievements of the past 5 years, and scientifically plan the development goals, tasks, major policies and policies for the next five years and beyond. It will definitely have great and far-reaching significance for China and the world in the future.

The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries will never forget those old friends and good friends who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion of China Sri Lanka friendship over the past decades.  We are very sympathetic to the temporary difficulties faced by Sri Lankan friends. However, we are confident that Sri Lanka will achieve development and revitalization by giving full play to your regional advantages, natural resources and human resources. We are willing to share with Sri Lanka unreservedly China’s experience in reform and opening up and poverty reduction development, provide help to Sri Lankan friends to overcome difficulties, and support Sri Lanka to achieve independent and sustainable development and completely get rid of poverty.

The CPAFFC is willing to work with friends from all walks of life in Sri Lanka, uphold the spirit of the Rubber-Rice Pact, and actively promote friendly exchanges between local governments, friendly organizations, friendly personages, think tanks, media, youth and other non-governmental areas of the two countries, promote mutually beneficial cooperation in trade, science and technology, culture, education, capacity building and other fields, and contribute wisdom and strength in pushing forward the China-Sri Lanka strategic cooperative partnership featuring sincere mutual assistance and everlasting friendship to a new level.

I look forward to leading a delegation to visit Sri Lanka at an early date. At the same to time, we warmly welcome all our friends in Sri Lanka to visit China at an appropriate time. Let us work together to create a better future for China-Sri Lanka relations!

May the friendship between China and Sri Lanka last forever! May Sri Lanka enjoy prosperity and its people happy lives!

Without Culture, Freedom Is Impossible

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In 2002, Cuba’s President Fidel Castro Ruz visited the country’s National Ballet School to inaugurate the 18th Havana International Ballet Festival. Founded in 1948 by the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso (1920–2019), the school struggled financially until the Cuban Revolution decided that ballet – like other art forms – must be available to everyone and so must be socially financed. At the school in 2002, Castro remembered that the first festival, held in 1960, ‘asserted Cuba’s cultural vocation, identity, and nationality, even under the most adverse circumstances, when major dangers and threats loomed over the country’.

Ballet, like so many cultural forms, had been stolen from popular participation and enjoyment. The Cuban Revolution wanted to return this artistic practice to the people as part of its determination to advance human dignity. To build a revolution in a country assaulted by colonial barbarism, the new revolutionary process had to both establish the country’s sovereignty and build the dignity of each of its people. This dual task is the work of national liberation. ‘Without culture’, Castro said, ‘freedom is not possible’. 

In many languages, the word ‘culture’ has at least two meanings. In bourgeois society, culture has come to mean both refinement and the high arts. A property of the dominant classes, this culture is inherited through the transmission of manners and higher education. The second meaning of culture is the way of life, including beliefs and practices, of a people who are part of a community (from a tribe to a nation). The Cuban Revolution’s democratisation of ballet and classical music, for instance, was part of its attempt to socialise all forms of human life, from the economic to the cultural. Furthermore, the revolutionary processes attempted to protect the cultural heritage of the Cuban people from the pernicious influence of the culture of colonialism. To be precise, to ‘protect’ did not mean to reject the entirety of the coloniser’s culture, since that would enforce a parochial life on a people who must have access to all forms of culture. Cuba’s Revolution adopted baseball, for instance, despite its roots in the United States, the very country that has sought to suffocate Cuba for six decades.

A socialist approach to culture, therefore, requires four aspects: the democratisation of forms of high culture, the protection of the cultural heritage of formerly colonised peoples, the advancement of the basic elements of cultural literacy, and the domestication of cultural forms that come from the colonising power. 

In July 2022, I delivered a lecture at Cuba’s Casa de las Américas, a major institution in Havana’s cultural life and a heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico, that centred on ten theses on Marxism and decolonisation. A few days later, Casa’s director, Abel Prieto, also a former minister of culture, convened a seminar there to discuss some of these themes, principally how Cuban society had to both defend itself from the onrush of imperialist cultural forms and from the pernicious inheritance of racism and patriarchy. This discussion provoked a series of reflections on the process of the National Programme Against Racism and Racial Discrimination announced by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in November 2019 and on the process that led to the 2022 Family Code referendum (which will come to a popular vote on 25 September) – two dynamics that have the capacity to transform Cuban society in an anti-colonial direction.

Dossier no. 56 (September 2022) from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Casa de las Américas, Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation, contains an expanded version of that lecture with a foreword by Abel Prieto. To give you a taste of it, here is thesis nine on the Battle of Emotions: 

Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions. Fidel Castro provoked a debate in the 1990s around the concept of the Battle of Ideas, the class struggle in thought against the banalities of neoliberal conceptions of human life. A key part of Fidel’s speeches from this period was not just what he said but how he said it, each word suffused with the great compassion of a man committed to the liberation of humanity from the tentacles of property, privilege, and power. In fact, the Battle of Ideas was not merely about the ideas themselves, but also about a ‘battle of emotions’, an attempt to shift the palate of emotions from a fixation on greed to considerations of empathy and hope.

One of the true challenges of our time is the bourgeoisie’s use of the culture industries and the institutions of education and faith to divert attention away from any substantial discussion about real problems – and about finding common solutions to social dilemmas – and towards an obsession with fantasy problems. In 1935, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the ‘swindle of fulfilment’, the seeding of a range of fantasies to mask their impossible realisation. The benefit of social production, Bloch wrote, ‘is reaped by the big capitalist upper stratum, which employs gothic dreams against proletarian realities’. The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be fulfilled under the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to weaken any working-class project.

A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure. These are ugly emotions that are shaped and promoted by the culture industries (‘you can have it too!’), educational establishments (‘greed is the prime mover’), and neo-fascists (‘hate immigrants, sexual minorities, and anyone else who denies you your dreams’). The grip of these emotions on society is almost absolute, and the rise of neo-fascists is premised upon this fact. Meaning feels emptied, perhaps the result of a society of spectacles that has now run its course.

From a Marxist perspective, culture is not seen as an isolated and timeless aspect of human reality, nor are emotions seen as a world of their own or as being outside of the developments of history. Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced. Cultures are contradictory, bringing together a range of elements in uneven ways out of the social fabric of an unequal society that oscillates between reproducing class hierarchy and resisting elements of social hierarchy. Dominant ideologies suffuse culture through the tentacles of ideological apparatuses like a tidal wave, overwhelming the actual experiences of the working class and the peasantry. It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.

It is important to recall that, in the early years of each of the revolutionary processes – from Russia in 1917 to Cuba in 1959 – cultural efflorescence was saturated with the emotions of joy and possibility, of intense creativity and experimentation. It is this sensibility that offers a window into something other than the ghoulish emotions of greed and hatred.

In the early years after 1959, Cuba convulsed with such surges of creativity and experimentation. Nicolás Guillén (1902–1969), a great revolutionary poet who had been imprisoned during Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, captured the harshness of life and the great desire for the revolutionary process to emancipate the Cuban people from the wretchedness of hunger and social hierarchies. His poem ‘Tengo’ (‘I Have’) from 1964 tells us that the new culture of the revolution was elemental – the feeling that one did not have to bow one’s shoulders before a superior, to say to workers in offices that they too are comrades and not ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, to walk as a Black man into a hotel without being told to stop at the door. His great anti-colonial poem alerts us to culture’s material foundations:

I have, let’s see,
I’ve learned to read,
to count.
I’ve learned to write,
and to think,
and to laugh.
I have, yes, I have
a place to work
and earn
what I have to eat.
I have, let’s see,
I have what I have to have.

At the close of his foreword to the dossier, Abel Prieto writes, ‘we must turn the meaning of anti-colonial into an instinct’. Reflect on that for a moment: anti-colonialism is not just the ending of formal colonial rule, but a deeper process, one that must become ingrained at the instinctual level so that we can build the capacity to solve our basic needs (such as transcending hunger and illiteracy, for instance) and build our alertness to the need for cultures that emancipate us and do not bind us to the flashy world of unaffordable commodities.

Source: The Tri Continental.Org

The CIA is not your friend

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“Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.” ― Baruch Spinoza

It hasn’t been a month since President Biden mounted the steps of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, declaring it his duty to ensure each of us understands the central faction of his political opposition are extremists that “threaten the very foundations of our Republic.” Flanked by the uniformed icons of his military and standing atop a Leni Riefenstahl stage, the leader clenched his fists to illustrate seizing the future from the forces of “fear, division, and darkness.” The words falling from the teleprompter ran rich with the language of violence, a “dagger at the throat” emerging from the “shadow of lies.”

“What’s happening in our country,” the President said, “is not normal.”

Is he wrong to think that? The question the speech intended to raise—the one lost in the unintentionally villainous pageantry—is whether and how we are to continue as a democracy and a nation of laws. For all the Twitter arguments over Biden’s propositions, there has been little consideration of his premises.

Democracy and the rule of law have been so frequently invoked as a part of the American political brand that we simply take it for granted that we enjoy both.

Are we right to think that?

Our glittering nation of laws observes this year two birthdays: the 70th anniversary of the National Security Agency, on which my thoughts have been recorded, and the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA was founded in the wake of the 1947 National Security Act. The Act foresaw no need for the Courts and Congress to oversee a simple information-aggregation facility, and therefore subordinated it exclusively to the President, through the National Security Council he controls.

Within a year, the young agency had already slipped the leash of its intended role of intelligence collection and analysis to establish a covert operations division. Within a decade, the CIA was directing the coverage of American news organizations, overthrowing democratically elected governments (at times merely to benefit a favored corporation), establishing propaganda outfits to manipulate public sentiment, launching a long-running series of mind-control experiments on unwitting human subjects (purportedly contributing to the creation of the Unabomber), and—gaspinterfering with foreign elections. From there, it was a short hop to wiretapping journalists and compiling files on Americans who opposed its wars.

In 1963, no less than former President Harry Truman confessed that the very agency he personally signed into law had transformed into something altogether different than he intended, writing:

“For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble…”

Many today comfort themselves by imagining that the Agency has been reformed, and that such abuses are relics of the distant past, but what few reforms our democracy has won have been watered-down or compromised. The limited “Intelligence Oversight” role that was eventually conceded to Congress in order to placate the public has never been taken seriously by either the committee’s majority—which prefers cheerleading over investigating—or by the Agency itself, which continues to conceal politically-sensitive operations from the very group most likely to defend them.

“Congress should have been told,” said [Senator] Dianne Feinstein. “We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program. Director Panetta… was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to Congress.”

How can we judge the ultimate effectiveness of oversight and reforms? Well, the CIA plotted to assassinate my friend, American whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, in 1972, yet nearly fifty years of “reforms” did little to inhibit them from recently sketching out another political murder targeting Julian Assange. Putting that in perspective, you probably own shoes older than the CIA’s most recent plot to murder a dissident… or rather the most recent plot that we know of.

If you believe the Assange case to be a historical anomaly, some aberration unique to Trump White House, recall that the CIA’s killings have continued in series across administrations. Obama ordered the killing of an American far from any battlefield, and killed his 16 year-old American son a few weeks later, but the man’s American daughter was still alive by the time Obama left.

Within a month of entering the White House, Trump killed her.

She was 8 years old.

It goes beyond assassinations. Within recent memory, the CIA captured Gul Rahman, who we know was not Al-Qaeda, but it seems did save the life of Afghanistan’s future (pro-US) President. Rahman was placed in what the Agency described as a “dungeon” and tortured until he died.

They stripped him naked, save a diaper he couldn’t change, in a cold so wicked that his guards, in their warm clothes, ran heaters for themselves. In absolute darkness, they bolted his hands and feet to a single point on the floor with a very short chain so that it was impossible to stand or lie down – a practice called “short shackling” – and after he died, claimed that it was for his own safety. They admit to beating him, even describing the “forceful punches.” They describe the blood that ran from his nose and mouth as he died.

Just pages later, in their formal conclusion, declare that there was no evidence of beating. There was no evidence torture. The CIA ascribes responsibility for his death to hypothermia, which they blamed on him for the crime of refusing, on his final night, a meal from the men that killed him.

In the aftermath, the Agency concealed the death of Gul Rahman from his family. To this day, they refuse to reveal what happened to his remains, denying those who survive him a burial, or even some locus of mourning.

Ten years after the torture program investigated, exposed, and ended, no one was charged for their role in these crimes. The man responsible for Rahman’s death was recommended for a $2,500 card award — for “consistently superior work”.

A different torturer was elevated to the Director’s seat.

This summer, in a speech marking the occasion of the CIA’s 75th birthday, President Biden struck a quite different note than he did in Philadelphia, reciting what the CIA instructs all presidents: that the soul of the institution really lies in speaking truth to power.

“We turn to you with the big questions,” Biden said, “the hardest questions. And we count on you to give your best, unvarnished assessment of where we are.  And I emphasize “‘unvarnished.’”

But this itself is a variety of varnishing — a whitewash.

For what reason do we aspire to maintain — or achieve — a nation of laws, if not to establish justice?

Let us say we have a democracy, shining and pure. The people, or in our case some subset of people, institute reasonable laws to which government and citizen alike must answer. The sense of justice that arises within such a society is not produced as a result of the mere presence of law, which can be tyrannical and capricious, or even elections, which face their own troubles, but is rather derived from the reason and fairness of the system that results.

What would happen if we were to insert into this beautiful nation of laws an extralegal entity that is not directed by the people, but a person: the President? Have we protected the nation’s security, or have we placed it at risk?

This is the unvarnished truth: the establishment of an institution charged with breaking the law within a nation of laws has mortally wounded its founding precept. 

From the year it was established, Presidents and their cadres have regularly directed the CIA to go beyond the law for reasons that cannot be justified, and therefore must be concealed — classified. The primary result of the classification system is not an increase in national security, but a decrease in transparency. Without meaningful transparency, there is no accountability, and without accountability, there is no learning.

The consequences have been deadly, for both Americans and our victims. When the CIA armed the Mujaheddin to wage war on Soviet Afghanistan, we created al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, the CIA is arming, according to then-Vice President Joe Biden, “al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” After the CIA runs a disinformation operation to make life hard for the Soviet Union by fueling a little proxy war, the war rages for twenty-six years — far beyond the Union’s collapse.

Do you believe that the CIA today — a CIA free from all consequence and accountability — is uninvolved in similar activities? Can you find no presence of their fingerprints in the events of the world, as described in the headlines, that provide cause for concern? Yet it is those who question the wisdom of placing a paramilitary organization beyond the reach of our courts that are dismissed as “naive.”

For 75 years, the American people have been unable to bend the CIA to fit the law, and so the law has been bent to fit the CIA. As Biden stood on the crimson stage, at the site where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were debated and adopted, his words rang out like the cry of a cracked-to-hell Liberty Bell: “What’s happening in our country is not normal.”

If only that were true. 

Mendaciousness of Monarchy

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No institution helps obscure the crimes of empire and buttress class rule and white supremacy as effectively as the British monarchy.

The fawning adulation of Queen Elizabeth in the United States, which fought a revolution to get rid of the monarchy, and in Great Britain, is in direct proportion to the fear gripping a discredited, incompetent and corrupt global ruling elite.

The global oligarchs are not sure the next generation of royal sock puppets – mediocrities that include a pedophile prince and his brother, a cranky and eccentric king who accepted suitcases and bags stuffed with $3.2 million in cash from the former prime minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, and who has millions stashed in offshore accounts – are up to the job. Let’s hope they are right.

“Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories,” Patrick Freyne wrote last year in The Irish Times. “More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”

Monarchy obscures the crimes of empire and wraps them in nostalgia. It exalts white supremacy and racial hierarchy. It justifies class rule. It buttresses an economic and social system that callously discards and often consigns to death those considered the lesser breeds, most of whom are people of color. The queen’s husband Prince Phillip, who died in 2021, was notorious for making racist and sexist remarks, politely explained away in the British press as “gaffes.” He described Beijing, for example, as “ghastly” during a 1986 visit and told British students: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.

Tip of Iceberg of Crimes Records

The cries of the millions of victims of empire; the thousands killedtortured, raped and imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya; the 13 Irish civilians gunned down in “Bloody Sunday;” the more than 4,100 First Nations children who died or went missing in Canada’s residential schools, government-sponsored institutions established to “assimilate” indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, and the hundreds of thousands killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are drowned out by cheers for royal processions and the sacral aura an obsequious press weaves around the aristocracy. The coverage of the queen’s death is so mind-numbingly vapid — the BBC sent out a news alert on Saturday when Prince Harry and Prince William, accompanied by their wives, surveyed the floral tributes to their grandmother displayed outside Windsor Castle — that the press might as well turn over the coverage to the mythmakers and publicists employed by the royal family.

The royals are oligarchs. They are guardians of their class. The world’s largest landowners include King Mohammed VI of Morocco with 176 million acres, the HolyRoman Catholic Church with 177 million acres, the heirs of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with 531 million acres and now, King Charles III with 6.6 billion acres of land. British monarchs are worth almost $28 billion. The British public will provide a $33 million subsidy to the Royal Family over the next two years, although the average household in the U.K. saw its income fall for the longest period since records began in 1955 and 227,000 households experience homelessness in Britain. 

Royals, to the ruling class, are worth the expense. They are effective tools of subjugation. British postal and rail workers canceled planned strikes over pay and working conditions after the queen’s death. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) postponed its congress. Labour Party members poured out heartfelt tributes. Even Extinction Rebellion, which should know better, indefinitely canceled its planned “Festival of Resistance.” The BBC’s Clive Myrie dismissed Britain’s energy crisis — caused by the war in Ukraine — that has thrown millions of people into severe financial distress as “insignificant” compared with concerns over the queen’s health. The climate emergency, pandemic, the deadly folly of the U.S. and NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine, soaring inflation, the rise of neo-fascist movements and deepening social inequality will be ignored as the press spews florid encomiums to class rule. There will be 10 days of official mourning.

In 1953, Her Majesty’s Government sent three warships, along with 700 troops, to its colony British Guiana, suspended the constitution and overthrew the democratically elected government of Cheddi Jagan. Her Majesty’s Government helped to build and long supported the apartheid government in South Africa. Her Majesty’s Government savagely crushed the Mau Mau independence movement in Kenya from 1952 to 1960, herding 1.5 million Kenyans into concentration camps where many were tortured. British soldiers castrated suspected rebels and sympathizers, often with pliers, and raped girls and women. By the time India won independence in 1947 after two centuries of British colonialism, Her Majesty’s Government had looted $45 trillion from the country and violently crushed a series of uprisings, including the First War of Independence in 1857. Her Majesty’s Government carried out a dirty war to break the Greek Cypriot War of Independence from 1955 to 1959 and later in Yemen from 1962 to 1969. Torture, extrajudicial assassinations, public hangings and mass executions by the British were routine. Following a protracted lawsuit, the British government agreed to pay nearly £20 million in damages to over 5,000 victims of British abuse during war in Kenya, and in 2019 another payout was made to survivors of torture from the conflict in Cyprus. The British state attempts to obstruct lawsuits stemming from its colonial history. Its settlements are a tiny fraction of the compensation paid to British slave owners in 1835, once it — at least formally — abolished slavery. 

During her 70-year reign, the queen never offered an apology or called for reparations.

The point of social hierarchy and aristocracy is to sustain a class system that makes the rest of us feel inferior. Those at the top of the social hierarchy hand out tokens for loyal service, including the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The monarchy is the bedrock of hereditary rule and inherited wealth. This caste system filters down from the Nazi-loving House of Windsor to the organs of state security and the military. It regiments society and keeps people, especially the poor and the working class, in their “proper” place.

A Balance Sheet of 70-year Reign

The British ruling class clings to the mystique of royalty and fading cultural icons as James Bond, the Beatles and the BBC, along with television shows such as “Downton Abbey” — where in one episode the aristocrats and servants are convulsed in fevered anticipation when King George V and Queen Mary schedule a visit — to project a global presence. Winston Churchill’s bust remains on loan to the White House. These myth machines sustain Great Britain’s “special” relationship with the United States. Watch the satirical film In the Loop to get a sense of what this “special” relationship looks like on the inside. 

It was not until the 1960s that “coloured immigrants or foreigners” were permitted to work in clerical roles in the royal household, although they had been hired as domestic servants. The royal household and its heads are legally exempt from laws that prevent race and sex discrimination, what Jonathan Cook calls “an apartheid system benefitting the Royal Family alone.” Meghan Markle, who is of mixed race and who contemplated suicide during her time as a working royal, said that an unnamed royal expressed concern about the skin color of her unborn son.

I got a taste of this suffocating snobbery in 2014 when I participated in an Oxford Union debate asking whether Edward Snowden was a hero or a traitor. I went a day early to be prepped for the debate by Julian Assange, then seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy and currently in His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. At a lugubrious black-tie dinner preceding the event, I sat next to a former MP who asked me two questions I had never been asked before in succession. “When did your family come to America?” he said, followed by “What schools did you attend?” My ancestors, on both sides of my family, arrived from England in the 1630s. My graduate degree is from Harvard. If I had failed to meet his litmus test, he would have acted as if I did not exist. 

Those who took part in the debate – my side arguing that Snowdon was a hero narrowly won – signed a leather-bound guest book. Taking the pen, I scrawled in large letters that filled an entire page: “Never Forget that your greatest political philosopher, Thomas Paine, never went to Oxford or Cambridge.”

Paine, the author of the most widely read political essays of the 18th century, Rights of ManThe Age of Reason and Common Sense, blasted the monarchy as a con. “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself as King of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original…The plain truth is that the antiquity of the English monarchy will not bear looking into,” he wrote of William the Conqueror. He ridiculed hereditary rule. “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” He went on: “One of the strangest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that nature disproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving  mankind an ass for a lion.” He called the monarch “the royal brute of England.”

Royalists Rallied Against Thomas Piane

When the British ruling class tried to arrest Paine, he fled to France where he was one of two foreigners elected to serve as a delegate in the National Convention set up after the French Revolution. He denounced the calls to execute Louis XVI. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression,” Paine said. “For if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Unchecked legislatures, he warned, could be as despotic as unchecked monarchs. When he returned to America from France, he condemned slavery and the wealth and privilege accumulated by the new ruling class, including George Washington, who had become the richest man in the country. Even though Paine had done more than any single figure to rouse the country to overthrow the British monarchy, he was turned into a pariah, especially by the press, and forgotten. He had served his usefulness. Six mourners attended his funeral, two of whom were Black.

You can watch my talk with Cornel West and Richard Wolff on Thomas Paine here.

There is a pathetic yearning among many in the U.S. and Britain to be linked in some tangential way to royalty. White British friends often have stories about ancestors that tie them to some obscure aristocrat. Donald Trump, who fashioned his own heraldic coat of arms, was obsessed with obtaining a state visit with the queen. This desire to be part of the club, or validated by the club, is a potent force the ruling class has no intention of giving up, even if hapless King Charles III, who along with his family treated his first wife Diana with contempt, makes a mess of it.

Views expressed are personal