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Grenfell – All Fall Down

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There are moments in the life of a nation when a sudden event illuminates with stunning clarity an essential part of its character. The effect is most powerful when the trait exposed is at variance with the long established image. Such a moment has arrived in Britain with the Grenfell affair.

None can now avert their gaze from what post-Thatcher society has degenerated into.  It is a “so, this what we have become” moment. Less dramatic than the installing of Donald Trump in the White House, Grenfell has torn away the veil from an unbecoming national visage.

The revealing truth is portrayed in graphic pictures and shameful words.  A tower block going up in flames like a papier-mache construction; close to a hundred killed – and still counting; no assistance whatsoever from the responsible Kensington & Chelsea Council; an insulting absence of concern or commitment to redress failings by the same authorities; a curtain of secrecy on initial plans to scatter the survivors across the length and breadth of England;  offers  of supposed long-term relocation in basement apartments on heavily trafficked roads or other towers slated for demolition; many families split up and/or shuffled from one temporary accommodation to another; a self-absorbed Prime Minister refusing to meet them; revelations that the flammable cladding material installed in a refit just three years ago comes with warnings not to use in high-rise buildings, that the Council out-sourced management company and the outfit doing the work knowingly went ahead in order to save a few thousand pounds (K. & C. is the wealthiest council in the U.K. – with a cash reserve fund close to half a billion dollars).

 That there had been serial warnings from the London Fire Brigade authorities and parliamentary committees as well as the residents association about the imminent, high risk of existing practices in thousands of similar public-build blocks around the country (hundreds with the same cladding material have now failed belated inspections). They also lack sprinkler systems, alarms or fire doors, and a mandatory secondary route of egress. (By contrast, all these systems have been legally required in NYC since 1967 – and were de facto norms for decades previous, e.g. the ubiquitous external fire escapes).The Tory government buried them all. That negligent behavior conformed to their boastful commitment to removing burdensome regulations from an unduly constrained economy and society.    

Survivors were shut out of a special Council meeting scheduled to plot a strategy for handling the crisis – so, too, the press. When a judge ordered the Council to rescind the ban, it summarily cancelled the meeting. Victims’ relatives and Grenfell residents who escaped the fire also were denied an opportunity to ask questions in person at a coroner’s hearing.  Council member and official spokesperson Catherine Faulks told a BBC interviewer that the press demand was just a “stunt,” and that the residents clamoring to attend were professional agitators rather than Grenfell victims.

 This past Wednesday, the Council’s abject incompetence was officially confirmed when the Westminster government announced that key services will be taken over by a specialist “taskforce” made up of outside experts. Phased in gradually, this privitization of public services will not be charged to the K. & C.’s burgeoning account.  It is not known whether the specialist consultants will include a public relations adviser – perhaps  someone recommended by David Cameron from his old firm, Carlton Communications, where he honed his skills.

The deeper, self-evident truth is that the (relative) poor are viewed as a nuisance in the tony precincts of K. & C. Race has added to the distasteful mix. Many residents are of South Asian, Caribbean or African origin – although a large fraction from that background are British born. Those origins were played up in initial coverage. In fact, it seems that about a third are white – most of those Brits. Very few are on ‘welfare;’ many residents have purchased or pay quite high rents for their apartments (up to 2,000 pounds a month). They are ordinary working people. They do stand out in a posh district.

The statements of public officials etch these realities

There is Sir Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government Secretary under David Cameron, who received the parliamentary group’s urgent appeal in in March 2014: “Surely… when you already have credible evidence to justify updating… the guidance … which will lead to the saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?” He did nothing. Interviewed after the Grenfell tragedy, he unashamedly blustered that the government judged it a sounder policy to encourage manufacturers of safe cladding to promote the product more actively rather than go down the dangerous path of imposing state regulation. (No exaggeration).[1]

There is Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams, who was a government minister at the time (a result of Nicholas Clegg leading his party into the fateful Coalition with the Tories), received a warning that “without automatic sprinkler protection, we cannot ….afford to wait for another tragedy to occur to amend this weakness” (referencing a tragic 2015 fire in another tower block). He replied: “I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward.”

There is the failure to make any acknowledgement of the Tories’ 40% cuts to local authorities since 2010.

There is David Cameron who pronounced just last week that those accusing the government of misplaced austerity budgets are “selfish” – unlike the rich and the corporate interests who at the same time have received substantial tax reductions and the financial wheeler-dealers who are welcomed to Britain’s ‘off-shore’ accommodating environment.

There is Sir Martin Moore-Bick,[2] the former High Court Judge, who has been appointed by May to head a board of inquiry. Fears of a protracted inquiry producing an anodyne report were aroused when Moore-Bick went out of his way to declare that the scope of the investigation would be severely limited to determining the immediate cause of the fire and why it spread so rapidly. Answers to both questions already are known. The point of origination was a Hotpoint refrigerator that apparently shorted; the rapid spread was due to the combustible cladding facilitated by the lack of sprinklers, fire doors, etc.

So a narrowly drawn inquiry should last less than a week. Even a glacial board of inquiry should be able to figure out in a few days time who in the apartment left the door of the fridge open overnight.  The many months foreseen are simply time to allow the public outrage to die down and plans made as to how far the cover-up should extend. Moore-Bick seems well suited to the task. He was the magistrate in a controversial case wherein he determined that is was entirely fair and proper that a displaced recipient of social assistance (handicapped) should be housed 60 miles from her previous residence, family, doctors and friends. She was black.  His ruling was overturned by an appeals court judge who found his reasoning without merit.

The Sir Inquisitor-to-be has given the game away in adding that “I do not expect everyone to be pleased by the conclusion of the inquiry” – yet to begin. Moore-Bick’s unprompted utterance shows just how pervasive is the Americanization of British political culture. Unnecessary, embarrassing ejaculations like this have become impulsive – defying the dictates of prudent restraint.

No one is confused as to who the “everyone” he has in mind refers to.  An impression reinforced by the denial of the residents’ right to ask questions in person as to the scope and form of the inquiry. The only open question is the exact tint that the whitewash will take (stitch-up in British dialect).

The first testimony will not be heard until mid-September when panel members, as yet unnamed, get back from their holidays.

Then, there is the K. & C. Tory Council – about which there is nothing at all to say in the way of excuse or amelioration. Two weeks after the immolation, the Council was still withdrawing rental checks from the residents’ bank accounts – living or dead. Ms Faulks told an interviewer that this was a “tiny” matter undeserving of attention. All the aggrieved party had to do was file an appeal either in person or on the Internet. Evidently, she is a devout believer in the afterlife.

This is an ugly picture. Why focus a sharp light on it – especially by a foreigner.  There are two reasons. First, this phenomena of unspeakable social callousness, undergirded by doctrines aggressively and successfully promoted across the Western world, is becoming pervasive. In addition, the Grenfell affair demonstrates that the United States is not alone in its tolerance for actions that should be a national disgrace but are slighted by a political class incapable of feeling shame.

The callous, off-hand treatment given the Grenfell victims is reminiscent of how colonial administrators dealt with expendable natives. If a proper criminal process were undertaken, a reasonable verdict would be Involuntary Manslaughter. Criminal negligence could be another charge both for the calculated failure to act on warnings of mortal risk – and for any harm as might be caused survivors of the fire who have been denied appropriate care. 

[1] This is an exact replica of the attitude taken by the yahoos who rule the state of Texas in the wake of the catastrophic explosion of a fertilizer plant in 2013 (killing 35 and destroying an entire section of the town of West). The company’s practices had violated already weak rules and no inspection had taken place for years. The Republican governor and legislature rejected calls for a tightening of regulation in arguing that the far greater danger to public welfare (Freedom and liberty) was setting a precedent that could favor a more active government role in regulation generally.

[2]Hyphenated names are fairly common in England. They formerly were limited to aristocratic families. They conveyed nobility of lineage and character. These days, quite common, one-syllable names are hyphenated. Example: Moore-Bick. Doubtless, we soon will be reading references to a Cecil Smith-Jones or a Neville Black-White. This plebian turn began with Mandy Rice-Davies, the partner in cabinetmaking of the famous Christine Keeler who was implicated in the notorious Profumo affair half a century ago.  Coincidentally, rumors were circulating in Whitehall just last year that Keeler’s posthumous autobiography was about to be published bearing the title My Three Years Under the Tories. That has proven apocryphal.

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War

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Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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