More stories

  • in

    COVID-19: The Lab Leak Theory Makes a Comeback

    The sudden reemergence of the lab leak theory earlier this year — that COVID-19 was made in and escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — has hit international media and occasioned nervous reactions from the Biden administration, which demanded a conclusive report on the origins of the pandemic within 90 days. That deadline has just expired, with little result. As the head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergencies program, Michael Ryan, stated last week, “The current situation is that all of the hypotheses regarding to the origins of the virus are still on the table.”

    The New American Art of Inconclusive Conclusions

    READ MORE

    The radical right has, in the meantime, become obsessed with the lab leak idea. Those of us who have experienced — and survived — coordinated campaigns of abuse on social media recognize the signs: Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, people you have never heard of begin to spam your email or social media accounts. Someone has pointed the trolls in your direction, and you start to wonder, who and why?

    Someone’s Errands

    In the final days of May, “Mikael” emailed me: “So the most likely truth about Corona is a conspiracy idea that is a threat against democracy? What kind of nut are you that is so wrong? Who’s errands do you run?”

    The background to his kind email, followed up by another a few days later, was an article published a week earlier in the right-leaning Swedish journal Kvartal. Here, journalist Ola Wong suggested that a report — I happen to be its author — published by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) aims to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In a gross simplification of what the report actually stated, Wong alleged that it “cautions against blaming China” and “goes so far as to claim that searching for an answer to the origin of the virus and the responsibility for its spread basically amounts to a desire to find a ‘scapegoat’. MSB says that this is the hallmark of conspiracy theories and a threat to democracy.”

    What I did in my report was provide an overview of how conspiracy theories around COVID-19 are part of what the WHO has branded the “infodemic” — an infected infoscape in which different actors spread disinformation for various purposes, such as to denigrate their political opponents and attack expert knowledge. I distinguish between six areas of conspiratorial imagination in relation to the pandemic: origins, dissemination, morbidity and mortality, countermeasures in politics and public health, vaccination and metatheories.

    Both separately or in various combinations, all these six categories have fueled conspiratorial meaning-making. In some cases, they have driven processes of radicalization toward violent extremism, such as attacks against 5G technology, mass demonstrations leading to political violence or disgusting displays of racist stereotypes.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Moreover, as a historian of ideas, I don’t study the root causes of or treatments for a contagious virus that has killed millions across the globe but rather the conceptions and discourses connected to it. In that sense, I am less interested in what really caused the pandemic and more invested in studying how different concepts — for instance about its origins — are used in (conspiratorial) rhetoric around the subject. It is also not my ambition or task to investigate the likeliness of a lab leak or the possibility that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a microchip. So, first of all, Wong — and, as we will see, others alongside him — has failed to capture the basic premises of the report. Just to make my case, the passage Wong reacted to (the MSB report will soon be available in an English translation), reads:

    “The question about the origin of the virus and the disease is infected because there is an underlying accusation of guilt. Could anyone who might have known about the existence of the virus also have stopped its dissemination? Was the outbreak of the virus covered up? Was the virus created in a lab or by transmission from animal to human? Questions like these are of course reasonable to ask, but already early on they were connected to what is an attribute of conspiracy theories: to place blame on someone and point out scapegoats. … By calling COVID-19 ‘the China-virus’ a narrative was established in which China was made responsible for the pathogen, disease and in extension its dissemination. In the trail of imposing guilt, racist Sino/Asiaphobic stereotypes were expressed against people with Asian appearance across the globe.”

    I then made a parallel to the famous claim made by former President Donald Trump and his followers that climate change is a “Chinese hoax to bring down the American economy” and that, in continuation of this line of thought, COVID-19 now is inserted into the narrative with the twist that it would benefit the Democrats in the 2020 election. I concluded that “in both conspiratorial narratives, scientific expertise is rejected.” Furthermore, I quoted an expert from Yale Medical School (Wong wrongly frames it as my opinion) stating that it is both incorrect and xenophobic to “attach locations or ethnicity to the disease.” I also mentioned that the spread of the virus was blamed on a cabal between the CCP and the Democrats.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Nowhere in the entire report is it ever claimed or even hinted at that it somehow would be wrong or illegitimate to investigate the origins of the virus as a lab leak. It is true that conspiracy theories typically use scapegoating as one of many rhetoric strategies, and that they are, by extension, threatening democracy for multiple reasons. But it is utterly wrong to suggest, as Wong does, that the report somehow alleges that it would be a threat to democracy to investigate the origins of the pandemic as a lab leak or that the report dismissed such claims as a conspiracy theory.

    Wong writes: “But if you mention China, you risk being labeled as a racist or accused of spreading conspiracy theories. Why has the origin of the virus become such a contentious issue?” But anyway, “MSB’s message benefits the CCP” and its narrative “that the pandemic is a global problem” (well, isn’t it?) and “not a problem originating from China to which the world has the right to demand answers.”

    Chinese Propaganda Machine

    Wong identifies such deflection as an outcome of a cunning Chinese propaganda machine, quoting an article that remembers how the US was blamed for the origin of AIDS/HIV in the 1980s in a similar conspiracy mode. Well, had Wong turned a page of the MSB report, he would have found a passage with the heading “The US-virus,” which exactly explains that another conspiratorial narrative about the origin of the virus also exists. Consequently, it would have similarly been completely absurd to state that the report “serves the interests of the US” since it treats the narrative about the “US virus” as a typical conspiracy theory.

    But such inconsistencies are of no interest to Wong. Instead, he now delves into the by now well-established “new evidence” (it was always suggested as a possibility) that he claims to have “disappeared from the global agenda” (did it really?) about the lab leak theory. The reason why the theory was suppressed, he argues, was because “The media’s aversion to Trump created a fear of association,” and “Because of the general derision for Trump, the established media chose to trust virologists such as [Dr. Peter] Daszak rather than investigating the laboratory hypothesis.”

    Divide and Rule: What Drives Anti-Asian Resentment in America?

    READ MORE

    Wong then extensively quotes from science journalist Nicholas Wade pushing for the explanation that “gain-of-function” experiments were carried out in Wuhan and that zoonotic transmission seems unlikely: “What Wade describes is not a conspiracy, but rather an accident for which no one has wanted to assume responsibility.” Wong is obsessed with responsibility and “the day of reckoning” that yet is to come, when China’s guilt finally will be revealed to the global audience. As much as he seems to long for this day when justice will prevail, he implores at the very end of his article to not “let sweeping allegations of conspiracy theories and racism undermine the work to trace the origins of the virus.”

    Wong’s article left me puzzled in many ways, almost unimpressed. I did not state anything in my report that Wong purports I did, so it is difficult to understand why a journalist would find it worthwhile challenging the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency with an argument that has no basis whatsoever.

    Lab Leak Whispers

    Just two days later, Swedish public service radio P1 invited both myself a Wong to come on its morning program to address the question of “What are you allowed to say about the origin of COVID-19?” — stipulating that there is some sort of censorship around the subject. Wong was unable to produce any credible evidence that the CCP ever has called the lab leak theory a conspiracy. There might be, and I am interested to read more about this attribution and its rhetorical function; the Chinese embassy in Washington later used such terminology.

    By then, the fringes of the Swedish radical right had already sniffed out the potential of the story, propelled by the tabloid Expressen, which in bold letters ran the story, “MSB dismisses the lab-leak entirely: follows the line of China.” The article reiterates Wong’s one, but manipulates the content of the MSB report further, alleging that accusations of racism and conspiracy theories stifle the investigation of the origins of COVID-19.

    Radical-right agitator Christian Palme posted Wong’s article on one of Sweden’s Facebook pages for academics, Universitetsläckan, which kicked off a wave of conspiratorial debate. Per Gudmundsson, of the right-wing online news outlet Bulletin, stated in an op-ed that the MSB report made him suspicious. Hailing Hunter S. Thompson’s paranoid style of reporting, Gudmundsson alleges that the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency wants to pacify the people with calming messages. He ridiculed attempts to discuss what is reasonable to do when planning interventions and designing counternarratives to toxic disinformation that can act as drivers of radicalization while at the same time exercating Islamist extremism, without any interest in countering it.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Finally, the gross simplifications of Wong’s article had reached the outer orbits of the alternative radical-right media in Sweden, Fria Tider and Samnytt. Fria Tider referenced the controversial Swedish virologist Fredrik Elgh, stating that it is “senseless” that MSB had dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory (it did not). Samnytt, in turn, amplified the Chinese whispers started in Kvartal to a completely new level. In its own version of reality, the MSB report was allegedly released in order to prevent any investigation of China (not true). Under the heading “Prohibited to ask questions,” Samnytt states: “the message of the report is that it is not allowed to ask questions about the origin of the virus” (also not true).

    Moreover, referring to and quoting Gudmundsson’s article on Bulletin, it goes on to state that “instead of questioning the established truths, the report recommends ‘to be in the present and to plant a tree’” — right quote but wrong context — “or to use other methods to calm your thoughts.” The author of the article is Egor Putilov, a pseudonym of a prolific character in the Swedish radical-right alternative media.

    And now back to Mikael. Curious to drag out trolls from under their stones (they might explode in daylight), I answered the first email he sent to me; he replied. Mikael characterized himself as a disabled pensioner (Asperger’s) living in a Swedish suburb among “ISIS-fans, clans, psychopath-criminals and addicts etc. which you most likely have taken part in to create/import.” He asserted to have insights about what is happening behind the scenes related to COVID-19 and that the recent reemergence of the lab leak theory only demonstrated his superiority in analyzing world matters: “If I think something controversial, the rest of Sweden frequently thinks the same twenty years later.”

    He recommended I look for knowledge outside the small circle of disinformed and obedient yes-people within the “system.” I must admit that Mikael’s email was one of the friendlier online abuses I have experienced. On the same day, I also received a message from “Sten” titled “C*ck” and containing a short yet threatening line, “beware of conspiracy theories and viruses… .”

    What If the Scientists Were Wrong?

    As historian and political analyst Thomas Frank eloquently has pointed out, we should expect a political earthquake if a lab leak is indeed confirmed. Frank claims that what is under attack is science itself. Science, we were told, held the answers on how to combat the pandemic. Experts in public health provided scientific evidence for political countermeasures, despised by those who routinely reject science or feel that their liberties have been infringed upon.

    If it is proven that “science has failed the global population,” either by accident, by gain-of-function research getting out of control or, worse, by deliberately creating a bioweapon, both scientists and those who rely on their expertise will come under attack and their authority will be seriously undermined, with unpredictable consequences. Why would people have reasons to believe that climate change is real, that 5G technology is harmless or that cancer might be cured with rDNA treatment? Frank posits that what is at stake is a liberal “sort of cult” of science that was developed against the “fool Trump.” Should it turn out that scientists and experts were wrong, “we may very well see the expert-worshiping values of modern liberalism go up in a fireball of public anger.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Frank and others, such as Wade and his Swedish apologist Wong, allege that it somehow was the media’s fault to cement the lab leak origin as a crazy conspiracy theory just because it was peddled by a president who made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims while in office. When the “common people of the world” find out that they might “have been forced into a real-life lab experiment,” a moral earthquake will be on its way since they will come to the ultimate realization “that here is no such thing as absolute expertise.”

    In the end, this will imply that populism was right all along about the existence of an existential dualism between “the people” and the well-to-do, well-educated ruling “elite” minority that creates and manages an eternal cycle of disasters affecting the majority. I tend to agree: This dualism is in fact a strong driver of populist mobilization and one that reoccurs in most conspiracy theories: we, the suffering people, the victims, against them, the plotting elite, the perpetrators.

    But I would like to add to Frank’s conclusions, that the (social) media outlets as much as the radical-right propagandists were immediately able to smell out the potential of the lab leak as a typical frame by which “the people” like Mikael, Sten, Martin and Per (more and more of them — all male — have started contacting me directly) could be pitched against “fake science,” government agencies and politicians.

    I would say that this, in fact, is the real purpose. In reality, the radical right does not care one bit about the origins of the virus but has discovered a perfect trope with which public distrust in authority can be deepened further. This is the reason why Wong needed to unleash an unsubstantiated attack against the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. He, as much as Gudmundsson, despises any attempt to provide citizens with tools to decode disinformation and conspiracy theories as to allow informed members of society to judge the accuracy of various claims beyond populist apocalypticism. If media literacy and the ability to detect conspiratorial messages increase, sensationalist media outlets will lose their power.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    One of the three key elements of populism as defined by Benjamin Moffit is a permanent invocation of crisis, breakdown or threat. If this perpetuum mobile is disrupted, the source of populist power is dismantled, which is why Wong and others have to target the firefighters, and why Gudmundsson doesn’t want to hear about how to counter radicalization. The eternal flame of catastrophe is the campfire of populist socialization. Right now, the lab leak theory is a giant burning log providing heat for all these gratifying marshmallows to be grilled and fed to “the people.”

    But there might also be other reasons. By pushing the lab leak hypothesis, the radical right makes the case that “Trump was right” about the “China virus” and, if so, he might also be right about the “stolen” election and all other 29,998 lies uttered during his presidency. Moreover, it was the liberal mainstream media’s fault that the lab leak was “buried” (which it never was) because they are all agents of Chinese disinformation (and communism, as we all know, is the great evil of the 20th century), classical guilt by association. So, in the bigger picture, the lab leak is needed as proof of the infallibility of the great leader in his quest to “drain the swamp.” QAnon will celebrate on the ruins of Capitol Hill.

    However, what worries me most is that the lab leak theory is used by the radical right as an attempt to minimize the danger of anti-Asian racism or any other racist attribution and abuse in case of earlier or later crises and catastrophes. Somehow, not only will science be proven wrong and the great leader right, but racism will be defended as a rational and normal reaction to pandemics. Wait, didn’t the Jews poison our wells at one point?

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    From Merkel to Baerbock: Female Politicians Still Face Sexism in Germany

    Angela Merkel has become a symbol of women’s success and self-assertion in a political arena still dominated by men, both in Germany and globally. Until a few months ago, the prospect of a female successor seemed very likely. But the initial euphoria, shortly after the Green Party named Annalena Baerbock as its candidate for the chancellorship, has died down.

    Germany’s Greens Are Within Earshot of Power

    READ MORE

    In May, polls showed that 43% of the German population perceived Baerbock as a suitable successor for Merkel, leading over her two main contenders; at the end of August, this figure was down to 22%. Targeted online campaigns have been busy exploiting Baerbock’s missteps and stoking fears of political change among voters. These attacks have laid bare how modern political campaigns in the age of social media flush sexist attitudes that persist in both politics and the wider society to the surface. 

    Belittled and Patronized

    Before Merkel rose to become one of the world’s most powerful female politicians, she was underestimated and belittled throughout the 1990s as a woman from East Germany by a male-dominated West German political class. Despite prevailing in intra-party struggles by often adapting to male behavior, she still had to face gender-based headwinds during her first general election campaign in 2005 as the front runner of her party.

    The Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) began the campaign polling at 48%, only to plummet to a sobering 35.2% on election day, securing a knife-edge victory over the incumbent, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Even back then, when social media was still a negligible factor, Merkel had to face partly overt, partly subliminal gender-discriminatory reporting. German media dissected Merkel’s outward appearance, starting with the corners of her mouth and her hairstyle and ending with her now-famous pantsuits.

    According to Rita Süssmuth, president of the German Bundestag from 1988 to 1998, at times, “there was more discussion about hairstyle, outer appearance, facial expression, hands, etc. than there was debate about the content. And how often did the question come up: Can the girl do it?”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Her competence was called into doubt, as stereotypical headlines from the time show: “Angela Merkel — an angel of understanding kindness,” “A power woman … corpses pave her way.” In 2004, the Austrian newspaper Die Presse came to the following conclusion to the question of why Merkel had to face such inappropriate media scrutiny: “Because she is a woman and comes from the East. And that is not the stuff of political fantasies that make West German men’s clubs ecstatic.”

    Even Merkel’s nickname, “Mutti” (mommy), used affectionately by most Germans now, was originally a derisive epithet. The slow reinterpretation of this nickname is emblematic of how difficult it is for women in politics to break away from antiquated role models.

    Since then, Merkel has emerged victorious in four consecutive elections, at the moment the country’s second-longest serving chancellor after Helmut Kohl. She is one of the countless global role models who have proven women to be apt leaders. In light of this overwhelming evidence of women’s political prowess, the levels of sexism and disinformation launched against Baerbock are astonishing. 

    Targeted From Day One

    When the Green Party chose Baerbock as its front runner in April, it did so with confidence that after 16 years of Angela Merkel, voters had shed their misgivings about aspiring female politicians. If anything, the Greens expected a young, energetic woman to embody political change and provide an appealing contrast to the stodgy, veteran, male candidates like Armin Laschet of the CDU and Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But soon after the announcement of her candidacy, voices emerged online questioning whether a mother of two would be suitable for the chancellorship. However, it’s not just her status as a mother that made Baerbock an ideal target, especially for conservatives and far-right populists on the internet: Unlike Merkel, she is young, politically more inexperienced, liberal and green.

    Adding to that, Baerbock exposed herself to criticism by making unforced mistakes. False statements in her CV, delayed declarations of supplementary income and alleged plagiarism in her book published in June provided further ammunition to her adversaries. Her book’s title, “Now. How We Renew Our Country,” and the criticism she faces mirror the Greens’ current dilemma. Before Baerbock could even communicate a new, innovative policy approach with climate protection at its center to the voters, public attention had already diverted to her shortcomings.

    While part of the blame rests with Baerbock herself, a lack of proportionality of criticisms toward her as opposed to other contestants in this election is apparent. For more than a year now, accusations loom around her contender for the post of chancellor, Olaf Scholz. As finance minister and chairman of the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority, he is accused of failing to prevent the biggest accounting scandal in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany surrounding Wirecard AG, a payment processor and financial services provider. Luckily for Scholz, still-unanswered questions concerning the scandal receive scarce media attention, partly due to the complexity of the issue at hand making it harder to distill into bite-size news. 

    Embed from Getty Images

    Armin Laschet, the CDU‘s candidate for chancellorship and minister president of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, had to navigate rough waters during the COVID-19 crisis. The state government used opaque procedures to award a contract for protective gowns worth €38.5 million ($45.6 million) to the luxury fashion manufacturer van Laack, a company linked to Laschet’s son. Laschet also received criticism for a good-humored appearance during a visit to areas affected by floods that killed at least 189 in July. In addition, he too was accused of plagiarism due to suspicious passages in a book published in 2009.

    Even though Scholz’s, and especially Laschet’s missteps have not gone unnoticed by the media, the public and political opponents, Lothar Probst, a researcher at the University of Bremen, recognizes a systematic character in the criticism faced by Baerbock. In an interview with the German Press Agency, he surmised: “Her credibility, respectability, and authority are undermined, she is portrayed as sloppy. … A young, urban smart woman [is] once again tackled harder than her competitors.”

    Even before Baerbock’s gaffes were in the spotlight, she found herself in the firing line. Conspiracy theories surfaced, suggesting that Baerbock was a puppet of George Soros and an advocate of the “great reset” conspiracy. Disinformation about Baerbock was also gender-based. Collages of sexualized images quickly circulated, including deepfake photographs disseminated via the messenger Telegram.

    Such disinformation originated significantly from far-right circles. In 2019, according to the federal criminal police office, 77% of registered hate posts were attributable to the center-right and far-right political spectrum. According to political scientist Uwe Jun, from Trier University, female politicians from green parties are primary targets for right-wing attacks and disinformation because topics such as climate protection and emancipation inflame passions and mobilize the political right.

    Worldwide Concern

    Baerbock’s political opponents and critics deny disproportionate criticism, insisting that she should have known what she had signed up for; after all, election campaigns are not for the faint-hearted, especially when entering the race as the front-runner. Yet statistics prove that in Germany, hatred toward female politicians is an everyday occurrence. A survey by Report München showed that 87% of the female politicians interviewed encountered hate and threats on an almost daily basis; 57% of these were sexist attacks.

    These results are in line with international studies. In a 2019 report “#ShePersisted. Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World,” conducted by Lucina di Meco and Kristina Wilfore, 88 global female leaders were interviewed, most of whom were “concerned about the pervasiveness of gender-based abuse.” The study concluded that “A new wave of authoritarian leaders and illiberal actors around the world use gendered disinformation and online abuse to push back against the progress made on women’s and minority rights.”

    A recent study from January, “Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponized Against Women Online,” by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, also shows that 12 of the 13 surveyed female politicians suffered gendered abuse online. Nine of them were at the receiving end of gendered disinformation, containing racist, transphobic and sexual narratives, with the latter being the most common.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Sixteen years have passed between Angela Merkel‘s and Annalena Baerbock’s first campaigns for the chancellorship. Today, women striving for power still have to deal with mistrust and gender-discriminatory prejudice. Merkel had to hold her own in a male-dominated environment where she was underestimated and often treated disparagingly. But compared to Merkel, the campaign against Baerbock has reached a new, unprecedented dimension. Merkel, who is childless, outwardly inconspicuous and politically more conservative, offered less of a target to conservative, male adversaries than the young, modern and progressive Baerbock.

    Besides, Baerbock’s opponents in 2021 have more effective tools for spreading gendered disinformation on social media. While disinformation targets both male and female politicians, women are more affected. It aims to undermine women’s credibility and their chances of electoral success and discourage future generations of women from pursuing political careers. Germany’s female politicians must keep in mind that such disinformation is spread by distorted, unrepresentative groups that don’t reflect the social progress made over the years.

    At this particular moment, it appears unlikely that Baerbock will move into the chancellor’s office as Merkel did in 2005 by the narrowest of margins. Yet the race is far from over, with nearly a month until election day. Baerbock’s recent performance in the first of three TV debates proves that she is not ready to abandon the field to (online) campaigners spreading gender-based prejudice and disinformation. Despite polls declaring Scholz as the debate’s winner, narrowly ahead of Baerbock, she presented herself as a modern and socioecological alternative to both her contenders and reverted attention to policy away from her persona and gender.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    Stopping at Diego Garcia Raises Questions for Germany

    The frigate Bayernset sail for the Indo-Pacific at the beginning of August, as a German contribution to upholding the “rules-based international order.” Germany increasingly views the rules-based international order as under threat, not least through China’s vast territorial claims, including its artificial islands, in the South China Sea.

    The German government has repeatedly drawn attention to China’s disregard for international law, especially in the context of its refusal to abide by a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which declared its territorial claims in the South China Sea illegal under international law in 2016. Yet the German warship’s chosen route takes it to a US base whose status under international law is — to say the least — contested, thus torpedoing the implicit criticism of China.

    US Media Amplifies Afghan Chaos

    READ MORE

    Diego Garcia is the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago, which formerly belonged to the British Indian Ocean colony of Mauritius. In 1965, the British illegally retained the Chagos Islands in order to construct a military base there. The United Kingdom declared the archipelago a restricted military area and deported its entire population to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Since then, the base on Diego Garcia has largely been used by the United States. The Brits have leased the island to the Americans until 2036.

    Violation of the Right to Self-Determination

    Mauritius has been seeking to reclaim its sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago since the 1980s. In 2019, an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that the UK’s claim to the archipelago contradicted the right to self-determination and called on UN member states to “co-operate with the United Nations to complete the decolonization of Mauritius.” A resolution adopted by a large majority of the UN General Assembly called for the United Kingdom to “withdraw its colonial administration.” Most European states abstained, including Germany.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    While the advisory opinion and resolution are not legally binding, they certainly possess normative power. In 2021, a ruling by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg concurred with the ICJ’s interpretation. A separate issue of fundamental human rights is also involved: The US base housed a detention facility where terror suspects are known to have been tortured. Unlike Guantanamo Bay, the Diego Garcia facility remained completely secret until it was revealed by investigative journalists in 2003.

    A so-called bunker call at Diego Garcia is the obvious option for keeping the German warship’s replenishment as simple as possible on the long leg from Karachi in Pakistan to Perth in Australia. Calling at a NATO ally’s port is easy to arrange, with simplified procedures for procuring food and fuel. Resupplying in Sri Lanka or Indonesia, for example, would be much more complex.

    Alternative Route Possible

    The obvious operational benefits are outweighed by the cost to the mission’s normative objectives: Calling at Diego Garcia will inevitably invite accusations of double standards. The UK’s open defiance of the ICJ opinion and UN resolution means that visits to the Chagos Islands implicitly accept — if not openly support — a status quo that is at the very least problematic under international law.

    The bunker call would run counter to both the ICJ opinion and the ITLOS ruling, as well as boosting Beijing’s narrative that the West is selective in its application of the rules of an already Western-dominated international order. At a juncture where international norms and rules are increasingly contested in the context of Sino-American rivalry, none of this is in Germany’s strategic interest.

    Embed from Getty Images

    There are alternatives to replenishing at Diego Garcia. Changing the route would involve costs, but it would also underline Germany’s interest in upholding the rules-based international order. One possible outcome of a reevaluation of the current route planning would be to omit the call at Diego Garcia but, at the same time, to take the vessel closer than currently planned to the contested Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.

    In connection with a detour avoiding Diego Garcia, that would represent a gesture boosting international law, rather than a demonstration of military might toward China. Germany could show that it is willing to comply with international law, even where doing so contradicts its own immediate operational interests and its partners’ expectations.

    *[This article was originally published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions related to foreign and security policy.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    The Delta Variant of Global Stupidity

    You’d think that the whole world could unite against a deadly virus. COVID-19 has already sickened over 200 million people around the world and killed over 4 million. It has now mutated into more contagious forms that threaten to plunge the globe into another spin cycle of lockdown.

    The Politics of American Protest: A North Korean Twist

    READ MORE

    Avoiding global catastrophe from the more infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 doesn’t require a huge commitment from people and governments. Richer countries just have to ensure more widespread availability of vaccines, and individuals have to get vaccinated. COVID-19 is not an asteroid on a collision course with the planet. It’s not an imminent nuclear war. It’s an invisible enemy that humanity has demonstrated it can beat. It just requires a bit of cooperation. So, what’s the problem?

    Three Problems

    Actually, there are three problems. The first has to do with supply, since the richest nations have cornered the vaccine market and have been criminally slow to get doses to poorer countries. On the entire continent of Africa, for instance, less than 2% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

    The second problem, on the demand side, is the commonplace resistance to the newfangled, in this case a vaccine that was developed very quickly, hasn’t yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and has some side effects that are harmful for a very small number of people. Hesitation is understandable. But not when placed against the obvious lethality of COVID-19 and the clear benefits of herd immunity.

    The third problem is political. The far right has jumped on the anti-vaccination bandwagon, seized control of the wheel and is driving the vehicle, al-Qaeda-style, straight into oncoming traffic.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Both in the United States and globally, the far right has long been infected by various harmful delusions — the superiority of white people, the fiction of climate change, the evils of government. As the far right has spread, thanks to vectors like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán and Narendra Modi, those delusions have mutated.

    Now, with its anti-vaccine opportunism, the far right is circulating a new Delta variant of global stupidity: virally through social media, in a shower of spit and invective on the street and through top-down lunacy from politicians and political parties. COVID-19 and all of its variants will eventually burn themselves out, though at who knows what cost. The latest versions of global stupidity promoted by the far right, however, are proving far more resistant to science, reason and just plain common sense.

    Hijacking the Anti-Vax Movement

    The Brothers of Italy is a neo-fascist formation that is now polling the highest of any political party in the country today. With 21% support, this pro-Mussolini throwback is just ahead of the far-right Lega party. Throw in Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy party at 7% and the hard right looks as if it could form the next government in Italy whenever the next elections are held.

    How did the Brothers of Italy grow in several months from a few percent to the leading party in the polls? Led by Giorgia Meloni, a woman who predictably decries Islam and immigrants, the Brothers of Italy started out as a booster of vaccines, which seemed like a pretty safe position in a country that has suffered so much at the hands of COVID-19.

    Embed from Getty Images

    But Meloni abruptly shifted the party’s stance when the Italian government, currently led by technocrat Mario Draghi, introduced a “green pass” that allows the vaccinated to eat in restaurants, go to bars and enter various public places like museums. Meloni called the pass “the final step on the road to the creation of an Orwellian society,” which “limits the freedom of citizens, further devastates the economy and de facto introduces a vaccine mandate.”

    Limits the freedom of citizens? The freedom to infect other people with a deadly virus? Effectively, Meloni wants to grant all citizens the same right that James Bond famously possessed: the license to kill. Unfortunately, such nonsense has support outside Italy as well.

    Batting for a Pathogen

    In France, the government of Emmanuel Macron has instituted a similar health pass as well as mandating that all medical professionals get vaccinated. The response has been ferocious, with several demonstrations of over 100,000 people mobilizing around the country.

    It might seem at first glance that the French protestors are just ordinary folks who are sick and tired of government intrusions in their lives, similar to the yellow vests protestors from 2018. But the organizers of these anti-vax protests are the usual suspects from the far right like Florian Philippot, a former top aide of the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen. National Rally and the equally rabid Stand Up France have come out against Macron’s policies. Unfortunately, some leading members of the left-wing France Unbowed party have also endorsed the rallies. As in the United States, French anti-vaxxers are resorting to anti-system conspiracy theories up to and including QAnon.

    Despite the size of these rallies whipped up by the far right, a majority of French support the health pass and nearly 70% of the population has gotten at least one shot, compared to only 58% in the United States. But the far right sees the anti-vaccine movement as an opportunity to worm its way into the mainstream in France and elsewhere, such as the Querdenken movement in Germany, the anti-Semitic far right in Poland and evangelical Christian organizations in the Philippines.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Toward this end, the far right has eagerly employed the services of such “useful idiots” as Robert Kennedy, Jr., perhaps the most famous face of the anti-vaccine movement. The Polish far-right party Confederation invited Kennedy to speak on-ine to a Polish parliamentary group on vaccines. Kennedy also put his social media power behind a global day against vaccines that took place last October in 15 countries from Europe to Latin America, which a number of far-right parties helped to organize.

    Originally in the United States, vaccine skepticism circulated mainly on the left, where suspicions of chemicals and corporations created a resistance to having just any substance injected into one’s arm. But then along came Donald Trump, the dark conspiracy theories of the alt-right and ultimately QAnon, which focused latent anti-government sentiments against the medical establishment and its COVID-19 vaccines. Suddenly, videos like “Plandemic” were zipping around cyberspace, and prominent anti-vaxxers like “healthy lifestyle advocate” Larry D. Cook fell under the sway of QAnon.

    Today, in a tired repeat of 2020, US anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are again protesting in front of governors’ mansions, bringing their message to Disneyland and shutting down school board meetings. If COVID-19 were a wealthy corporation that underwrote such disruptions, these actions would make at least some economic sense. If COVID-19 were a wildly popular musical group or a subversively attractive religious cult that governments were trying to suppress, the frenzy of crowds would be somewhat understandable. But COVID-19 is a deadly virus. Why on earth would anyone go to bat for a pathogen?

    The Far Right Has Its Reasons

    Conservatives have traditionally supported the powerful pillars of society: the police, the army, the state. Today’s far right is not conservative. It detests the state. It prefers vigilante justice — everyone standing their ground with gun in hand — to the police and the army, since these latter are representatives of the state.

    Effectively, the far right embraces the old Hobbesian concept of a “war of all against all,” which was the status quo before the emergence of the state. To achieve this “golden age” of general mayhem, the far right pursues any means necessary. It supports homeschooling to destroy public education, privatization of state assets to weaken the government, and deregulation to tilt the playing field in favor of corporations.

    And now, in the age of COVID-19, the far right is even willing to support germ warfare. For that’s what the anti-mask and anti-vaccine ideology amounts to: siding with the novel coronavirus against the sensible policies of the state. One wonders: If the state issued a mandate that required people not to jump off cliffs, would the far right suddenly launch a Lemming Crusade simply to spite the state?

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    I can well imagine the segment on Newsmax.

    Reporter: I’m here with patriot James Q. Public. He and his family are standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Tell me, James, why are you about to take a big step into the unknown?

    James Q. Public: The government can’t tell me what to do. I believe in choice. And this is my choice.

    Reporter: Do you think of yourself as a pioneer?

    James Q. Public: Absolutely. This socialist government with its Five Year Plans sickens me. I take it one day at a time. One minute at a time.

    Reporter: Your youngest child doesn’t look happy about your choice.

    James Q. Public: Oh, he’s just a crybaby. He’ll get used to it.

    Reporter: Get used to falling off a cliff?

    James Q. Public: What makes you think we’ll fall?

    Reporter: Well, uh, gravity —

    James Q. Public: Come on, man, you believe in all that nonsense those scientists are trying to force down our throats? Vaccines? Climate change? Gravity? Okay, everyone, let’s go. One small step for the Public family, one large step for arrgghhh….!

    It would all be grimly amusing, like some pandemic version of the Darwin Awards, if the far right’s Lemming Crusade wasn’t threatening to drag the rest of us off the cliff with it.

    *[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    The Musical Is Political: Black Metal and the Extreme Right

    There has been an association between the occult, paganism and the extreme right ever since the evolution of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party from the Thule Society. In the last few years, however, commentators are noting the return to prominence of racist occultism and heathenry among the far right and have called for some of these groupuscles, such as the Order of Nine Angles, to be banned. The majority of mainstream liberal heathen groups are similarly concerned about the manner in which their contemporary religion is being appropriated by the extreme right and are organizing to resist.

    The Far Right’s Alternative History

    LISTEN

    What is particularly disturbing is the recognition that many recent violent crimes perpetrated by the extreme right seem to be connected or influenced by such worldviews. Anders Breivik, responsible for bombings and the shooting of 77 people in Norway in 2011, identifies as an Odinist. James Alex Field, arrested for the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, marched alongside a flag depicting the black sun, a Nazi symbol drawing directly on Germanic heathen Ariosophic imagery, which in turn had inspired the formation of the Thule Society.

    This same black sun emblem appeared on the front and last pages of the manifesto of the Christchurch mass murderer in March 2019. The manifesto ended with the clarion call: “see you in Valhalla.” In the UK, Thomas Mair, who murdered West Yorkshire MP Jo Cox, was reported as being influenced by racist Ariosophic literature too.

    Gospel of Hate

    The internet, the dark web, online gaming forums and encrypted messaging services are frequently accused of helping to spread this gospel of hate. Thus, some academics, such as Steven Woodbridge, have cautioned of the need to watch the uses of “historical themes, imagery and language” that are used in these forums to promote their particular brand of violent political discourse. One of these potential memes is black metal music and its offshoot, national socialist black metal (NSBM). Indeed, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, in “Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity,” states that black metal and its “fascination with the occult, evil, Nazism and Hitler” were a possible motivation behind the 1999 massacre, on Hitler’s birthday, of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado.

    Black metal is also associated with a series of church burnings across Norway in the 1990s by Varg Vikernes, a racist heathen and black metal musician. More recently, it was reported that Holden Matthew, the 21-year-old charged with burning down three black churches in Louisiana, was also influenced by black metal and held racist heathen beliefs. Some of black metal’s aesthetics even appear to have influenced the violent imaginary of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division. Plato may have been correct when he warned “about the interconnectivity of politics and music.”

    Black metal is an extreme genre of heavy metal that first emerged in the UK with the band Venom. The subgenre took its name from the title of Venom’s second album, “Black Metal,” released in 1982. It was intended as a rejection of the commercialization of heavy metal as well as a critique of modern secular society. A second wave of the movement, which was more ideological in orientation and often emphasized Satanism or paganism, became infamous for promoting a series of church burnings. It emerged primarily in Norway in the 1990s and is exemplified by such bands as Burzum.

    Embed from Getty Images

    This Norwegian second wave helped to popularize the genre even further and led to the creation of other black metal bands across Europe and the globe. So influential has this genre now become that one commentator said that “black metal has arguably become Norway’s greatest cultural export.”

    Karl Spracklin defines black metal as “a form of extreme metal typified by evil sounds and elitist ideologies,” with a number of bands drawing on “nationalist and fascist images and themes.” Its sound is generally characterized by shrieking and growling vocals, disjointed guitar riffs, a frenetic pace and an emphasis on atmosphere, often deliberately created through the implementation of a raw, lo-fi quality of the recording. Many black metal performers tend to adopt pseudonyms and dress in a kind of Kiss-inspired corpse paint. Upside-down crucifixes and medieval weaponry, alongside Satanic and pagan imagery, additionally appear with relative frequency on black metal websites, CD covers and tattoos.

    Other common musical and visual leitmotifs include war, death, fantasy, the apocalyptic and the mythological. Norwegian Satanic black metal band Gorgoroth, for example, took the inspiration for its name from a fictional setting in Tolkien’s land of Mordor. Although such motifs might be viewed as deliberately transgressive in order to attract devotees, some have suggested that black metal practitioners also intend the genre to function “as a springboard from which violent actions could logically emerge” with the specific intent of “reclaiming … a pagan heritage.”

    National Socialist Black Metal

    Defenders of the genre, however, argue that it “is not a unified, monolithic culture” and that accusations of violence are too frequently “fabricated by conservative groups seeking to impose their own moral agendas.” Indeed, bands such as the Rolling Stones and Eagles have been linked erroneously with a Satanic agenda as early as the late 1960s. Cronos of Venom also denies outright any religious affiliations, stating: “We are entertainers first and foremost — if I wanted to be a murderer or a Satanist, I’d do that full time instead of playing songs for a living.”

    The genre is notoriously difficult to define, with a litany of subgenre offshoots, including unblack/Christian, depressive suicidal and ambient black metal, to name but a few extreme variants. Black metal followers also argue, in their defense, that the music is primarily mystical, celebrating a romantic and idealized view of the past which is heavy on ritual and critical of secularism. Aron Weaver, of the US black metal and heathen-inspired band Wolves in the Throne Room, describes it “as an artistic movement that is critiquing modernity on a fundamental level, saying that the modern world view is missing something.”

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Some contemporary UK black metal bands, such as Winterfylleth, while admitting that their “musical influence … unashamedly borrows from Burzum” and other black metal bands of an extremist predisposition, say that they do “not necessarily” believe the message behind those bands. A number of black metal followers would agree, as Spracklin points out, with many fans making “a distinction between the sound and the ideologies.” There are also heathen black metal bands, such as Norway’s Enslaved, that are avowedly anti-Satanic and anti-fascist.

    Some black metal musicians are openly Satanist but reject Nazism. King ov Hell, who played in Gorgoroth, states that “I am totally against every form of flock ideology. Nazism is an ideology of the flock.” There is even a countermovement against Nazism within the black metal music scene, evidenced by the US-based band Neckbeard Deathcamp and its 2018 album, “White Nationalism is for Basement Dwelling Losers.” The latter is a satirical critique the NSBM subgenre, which is avowedly pro-Nazi.

    Black Metal Against Racism

    While it is important to point out that national socialist black metal remains a minority element within black metal, signs of far-right extremism similarly contaminate related musical genres such as goth, industrial and neofolk. The latter incorporates elements of traditional European folk and reconstructed medieval instruments, exemplified by such bands as Fire, Sol Invictus and Death in June. The latter take their name from the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler arranged the murder of his rivals in the Sturmabteilung critical of his policies. Nazi imagery, including the death head worn by the SS, is a consistent theme on their album covers, as are such Germanic runes like Algiz and Odal that were appropriated by neo-Nazis into their blood-and-soil ideology.

    According to one Death in June fan on Nordic Elite in a post now removed, “European Civilisation … is going down the drain with the jewish/American mulicultural invasion.” But in the neofolk scene, too, there are recently established bands that are explicitly anti-racist and who reach a much larger, liberal audience. The band Heilung, for instance, recently issued a statement on the alleged harassment of a black woman at a performance in New York: “Apparently some people attended our ritual with the idea that Heilung is only for white people … This is not the case. Heilung is for ALL people, regardless of the color of the skin. And we are sorry that this happened at our show. We do not tolerate hate speech and racism.”

    The neofolk band Wardruna, the authors of the soundtrack to the History Channel series “Vikings,” has made prominent anti-racist statements. In a blog promoting “antifascist neofolk bands from around the world,” the band’s lead singer, Einar Selvik, states: “It is a very positive effect, that increased interest does not allow the subculture on the extreme right wing to use our history in peace. We have somehow taken our own story back.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    Whilst outright extremism in the neofolk, black metal and related music scenes is not the norm, it is important to address this problem as well as to draw attention to instances in which such prejudice is less explicit. The Manchester-based Winterfylleth may denounce Nazism by labeling it “the first attempt at some kind of tyrannical EU,” but their critique of extremist politics is reserved. Note that they were “not necessarily” believers in national socialism — this is far from outright rejection.

    Winterfylleth are overtly nationalistic and “unashamedly Anglo-Saxon in their approach” to their music, expressing a particular concern about a loss of national English identity. Hence their recent turn from black metal to a more lyrical folk black metal style, evidenced by their 2018 song “The Hallowing of Heirdom” with its melancholic refrain, “So who are we now?” Fandom comments on the latter signify an ambiguous range of responses to their politics and new musical direction, from the negative (“its like countryfile meets the druids”), to the more enthusiastic (“Celebrate that you are English… hail Woden”).

    Another English pagan metal or folk metal band, Forefather, like Winterfylleth also celebrates its Anglo-Saxon roots. Intriguingly, with these UK bands, a broadly Germanic influence has become explicitly rooted more in specific English heathen blood-and-soil themes, exemplified in songs such as “When Our England Died.” Fan comments tend to praise the greatness of Anglo-Saxon culture and critique other foreign elements.

    Beyond the Footnote

    Given that not all black metal fans are fascists or Satanists, that many are simply intrigued by the genre’s ability to shock and entertain, and that some are genuinely attracted to the genre for its interest in ancient heathen religion, an even more specific blood-and-soil subgenre emerged from within black metal, the NSBM. National socialist black metal aimed to specifically distinguish its politics and religiosity much more clearly than black metal. It mixes extreme-right racism with paganism, is explicit in its rejection of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and was very much influenced in its development by the actions of Varg Vikernes. It is also violent, exemplified by the German NSBM band Absurd and their killing of a 15-year-old boy, which they also then referenced on the cover of their 1995 album, “Thuringian Pagan Madness.”

    According to Benjamin Hedge Olson, NSBM “reskins the classical fascist ideological elements and combines them with racist and ethnic Paganism.” Critics state that NSMB is deliberately being utilized “as a vehicle to spread hate and radicalize nominally apolitical metal fans.” While many of these NSBM bands appear to be primarily Ukrainian and Scandinavian, the subgenre has become global. According to Celan Brill-Voelkle, “When the keywords ‘national socialism’ are searched in ‘the metal archives’, there are an astounding 774 results of active bands worldwide.”

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Ian Stuart Donaldson, former lead singer of the English Nazi rock band Skrewdriver, once stated that “A pamphlet is read only once, but a song is learnt by heart and repeated a thousand times.” Given their global reach and violent messaging, NSBM and other extremist elements within black metal can be seen to promote “paganism and Nordic folk myths … far more effectively than any number of meetings and marches could.” While others have commented on the way in which Christian nationalists are trying to infiltrate and influence mainstream Christian groups “in order to pull Christians to the far right,” there is an urgent need to monitor more closely a similar development within heathenry.

    The black metal genre, alongside the existence of extremist racist heathen groups such as the O9A, is interesting for another theoretical reason too. It reinforces the conclusion made by Graham Macklin more than 15 years ago that if scholars of the far right in the UK look beyond a traditional narrow political lens, they will see that a study of fascism in Britain, given its wide cultural influence, deserves more than a mere epilogue or footnote in the history books.

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    Is Dissolution a Solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

    The latest crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina was provoked by the outgoing high representative, the Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, and his July move to enact the amendment to the country’s criminal code. Among other things, Article 1 (Amendment to Article 145a of the Criminal Code) specifies that whoever denies the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity or a war crime as established by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) or a court in Bosnia and Herzegovina may face up to five years in prison.

    The article also states that “whoever gives a recognition, award, memorial, any kind of memento, or any privilege or similar” to a person sentenced for genocide, crimes against humanity or a war crime will be punished by imprisonment for a term “not less than three years.” Decisions made by the high representative have the power of state laws.

    In Republika Srpska, one of the constitutive parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, this move is perceived as a direct attack on the leadership in Banja Luka. The reason is the disputed qualification of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, where, according to some estimates, more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men were killed by the Bosnian Serb forces. In a number of rulings, the ICTY qualified the massacre as a genocide. While Republika Srpska does not deny the existence of the crime, it contests the genocide designation.  

    25 Years On, The Dayton Peace Agreement Is a Ticking Time Bomb

    READ MORE

    Many scholars have questioned the validity of such a categorization in view of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the way this term has been used in legal practice prior to the ICTY ruling. The 2020 concluding report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Suffering of All People in the Srebrenica Region Between 1992 and 1995, produced by a group of 10 international scholars from countries like Israel, US, Nigeria, Germany and Japan, among others, was the latest to raise concerns around the use of this terminology.

    In response to the decision of the high representative, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, called for a meeting of the parliament of Republika Srpska in order to come up with a legal response to Inzko’s decision, which would render this, as well as any future decisions by the high representative, ineffective in its territory. Dodik also threatened, not for the first time, to proclaim the independence of Republika Srpska if the pressures and attacks from the office of the high representative, together with those coming from the federation, continue.

    An Impossible Situation

    Bosnia and Herzegovina, once a constitutive part of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, was established as an independent state by the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the Dayton Peace Agreement, concluded in Dayton, Ohio, on November 21, 1995, and signed in Paris on December 14 that year.

    The Dayton Accords put an end to the armed conflict that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in which about 100,000 people lost their lives. It created a complicated and highly inefficient state consisting of two entities, each with its own government: Republika Srpska, with Serbs as the ethnic and majority, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Muslims/Bosniaks — since the 1990s, many (former) Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina identify ethnically as Bosniaks — as the majority and Bosnian Croats as a constitutive ethnic group, yet in reality an ethnic minority.

    Later on, the federation was further split into 10 cantons, each with its own government. In addition to the two parliaments, there is a parliamentary assembly at the level of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which consists of the House of Peoples and the House of Representatives. In theory, the country’s highest executive body is the collective presidency that consists of three members from each of the major ethnic groups and decides by consensus, which, in practice, means that its work is often blocked. However, the real sovereign in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not its people, the parliament or the presidency, but the high representative.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Annex 10 of the Dayton Accords instituted the Office of the High Representative. Initially envisioned as an international chair with the mandate to oversee the implementation of the agreement, the office was radically transformed in 1997 with the so-called Bonn Authority, when the Peace Implementation Council gave the Office of the High Representative almost limitless powers in Bosnia and Herzegovina without any democratic legitimacy. Using the power granted to them by the Bonn agreement, many representatives have behaved as colonial governors, vetoing and overruling decisions made by local authorities at all levels of government, removing democratically elected officials, and arbitrarily changing state legislation.

    Bosnia and Herzegovina found itself in an impossible situation. Its highly dysfunctional political system is often criticized in the West for the lack of democracy, transparency and accountability, and yet the Western powers fully support the Office of the High Representative that, itself undemocratic, only prevents the development of democratic institutions in the country.

    Conflicting Visions

    In addition to this already complicated institutional setup, it is clear that visions for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina sharply differ between its two constitutive entities. In Bosnia and Herzegovina — especially among the Muslim/Bosniak majority — there is strong support for a unitary state, the prerequisite of which would be the disintegration of the two entities mandated by the Dayton Accords.

    On the other hand, the leaders of Republika Srpska, enjoying strong popular support, see its existence, with all of the competencies initially bestowed upon it, as the prerequisite for the existence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as established in Dayton. Every attempt to diminish Republika Srpska can only lead to the disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If done violently, it can lead to a new war.

    In this highly charged atmosphere, the question of how to describe the Srebrenica massacre is extremely important. Republika Srpska has often been called a “creature of genocide” by many local Bosniak politicians and journalists. In Banja Luka, this is perceived as a way of delegitimizing Republika Srpska. For this reason, there is a fear that popularizing the term “genocide” as a way of describing the massacre — and now outlawing any questioning of this qualification — may be used as a political instrument against Republika Srpska with the intent to create a unified Bosnian state in which the Serbs would be marginalized and oppressed.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Bosnia and Herzegovina, no doubt, represents an epic failure of Western policies toward the region. It is a dysfunctional state, in which local nationalist elites on all sides don’t need a political program to be reelected; the mere existence of nationalist elites in one entity has been sufficient to keep them in the position of power in the other. A significant number of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens do not perceive this state as their country. With two fundamentally conflicting visions for the future, the only way to keep a pretense of a functioning state is through the existence of the undemocratically appointed foreign governor.

    In such a situation, one cannot but wonder why Western powers consistently obstruct any discussion of alternative options for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Is it because opening that question would expose decades of their ineffective and highly destructive policies toward both the country and the region? Or is this instability in the interest of both those Western centers of political and economic power as well as local political elites?

    Given the deadlock and the level of tension generated and perpetuated by the mainstream media, it seems that a peaceful dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina along the lines of its constitutive entities would be a much better long-term solution. It may even be the only viable solution that could prevent further suffering of the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its rapid depopulation, which has been unfolding as a result of economic depression and the lack of faith that the situation will improve in the foreseeable future. A peaceful dissolution could lead to more stability in the region and to better functioning of democratic institutions without (neo)colonial governors. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    Thought Suppression Flourishes in France and Washington

    In August, the Daily Devil’s Dictionary appears in a single weekly edition containing multiple items taken from a variety of contexts. 

    This week, we jump from French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal of a new law intended to produce electoral momentum in the run-up to the presidential election to Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s campaign to avoid dishonoring the great tradition of white supremacy. We then move on to congressional Democrats’ greater sense of loyalty to the military-industrial complex than to their elected president and also the military threat that China’s peaceful overtures in Africa appear to represent for the US. Finally, we look at the Financial Times’ realistic, but unorthodox reading of the global debt crisis. 

    Macron’s Revised Motto: Liberté (diminished), Egalité (Two-tiered) and Neutralité

    It used to be that countries like Switzerland could claim the privilege of neutrality. The notion applied to political entities. President Macron of France has extended it to people in the name of combating “separatism,” the latest and deadliest sin against what he imagines to be republican integrity. Parliament is now deliberating on a bill designed literally to neuter the French by imposing neutrality as a behavioral norm. Macron sees the effort to inculcate and enforce “republican values” as the key to winning reelection in 2022.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    “Introduced by hardline French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the bill contains a slew of measures on the neutrality of the civil service, the fight against online hatred, and the protection of civil servants such as teachers,” France 24 informs us. The New York Times explains that this “law also extends strict religious neutrality obligations beyond civil servants to anyone who is a private contractor of a public service, like bus drivers.”

    Neutralité:

    A legal concept that provides a pretext for targeting the Muslim community in France for failing to live up to republican standards, a requirement that not only judges people on their aptitude to adhere to a modern faith known as “republican principles” (which supersedes any other creed or philosophy a person may identify with), but also proclaims that those principles are universal and should be shared by any rational person anywhere in the world

    The Context

    The law voted by parliament on July 23 seeks to eliminate “separatism” by removing a few of the traditional liberties the French formerly enjoyed. It also seeks to foment a climate of suspicion against anyone who resists signing on to a behavioral code designed to protect members of the current secular order.

    To ensure that some of Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant voters may be tempted to drift across to vote for Macron in next year’s election, the president has proposed a law clearly intended to demonstrate his personal pleasure in intimidating Muslims.

    Radical Ideology According to Senator Josh Hawley

    Republicans in the United States believe in freedom of expression so long as thought itself is controlled. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley understands that white exceptionalism is the unimpeachable foundation of the American way of life. “Over the past year, Americans have watched stunned as a radical ideology spread through our country’s elite institutions—one that teaches America is an irredeemably racist nation founded by white supremacists,” Hawley said. “We cannot afford for our children to lose faith in the noble ideals this country was founded on.”

    Radical ideology:

    The citing of any facts of history that might contradict the self-proclaimed normal and noble ideology of those who believe that the power structure they are a part of is predestined not only to rule the world, but also to restrict useful, objective knowledge of the world

    The Context

    When Hawley claims that we “have to make sure that our children understand what makes this country great, the ideals of hope and promise our Founding Fathers fought for, and the love of country that unites us all,” the key concept is “make sure.” This is the language not of education but of indoctrination, a characteristic traditionally associated with totalitarian regimes that mobilize whatever resources are required to “make sure” people toe the line.

    Embed from Getty Images

    The idea of “making sure” that children “understand” should be seen as an aporia, a simple contradiction, since true understanding means appreciating what one cannot be sure of — in other words, of putting things in perspective. Hawley clearly wants to remove what he calls the “ideals” from their context. This is more about undermining than understanding.

    There are similarities between Macron’s and Hawley’s approach to normalizing understanding and testing for loyalty.

    The Democrats’ Competing Priorities 

    US President Joe Biden has claimed that transformative FDR-style reforms are his priority and opposed Donald Trump’s race to further bloat the defense budget. Biden’s party in Congress is implementing its own priorities, similar to Trump’s.

    “One has to wonder what is even the point of a Senate Democratic majority if they’re going to not only continue Trump policies but work with Senate Republicans to undermine [Biden’s] priorities. Utterly pathetic,” tweeted Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War.

    Priority:

    Something political leaders want the public to believe is the first thing they wish to accomplish, even when they have no intention of implementing the stated policy and also expect it will not be implemented

    The Context

    During last year’s presidential campaign, Defense News reported that Biden said that “if elected president, he doesn’t foresee major reductions in the U.S. defense budget as the military refocuses its attention to potential threats from ‘near-peer’ powers such as China and Russia.” The website nevertheless suspected that “internal pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, combined with pandemic-related economic pressures, may ultimately add up to budget cuts at a Biden Pentagon.”

    In a comic historical twist, Biden did not propose a reduction in the defense budget, but instead a modest increase despite drawing down the US commitment in the Middle East. The Senate Armed Services Committee, with a majority of Democrats, applied its pressure not to reduce the budget, but to spend even more than Biden demanded. The only “internal pressure” came from one isolated progressive, outvoted by 25 Democrats and Republicans.

    The moral of the story is clear. The president cannot run the country because even the policies he prefers (sincerely or insincerely) will be overturned by the all-powerful military-industrial complex that controls Congress. Defense is no longer about defending the nation, which is already extremely well defended. It’s about supporting the defense industries that are at the core of the economy and the focus of politicians’ attention. Spending freely on defense is the norm even in a nation that hates any spending other than consumer spending. The taxpayers will never complain, because they have been taught that producing arsenals that will never be needed is consistent with the belief in the “ideals of hope and promise our Founding Fathers fought for,” to quote Hawley again.

    Embed from Getty Images

    As the wealth gap continues to grow and the effects of both the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing climate crisis have spread more misery across the nation, the Republicans and Democrats on the Armed Services Committee appear to blissfully ignore the observation of a former Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

    The US Counters a Global Overture Threat

    It goes without saying that, given the multiplicity of threats to “national security,” the US is supposed to be everywhere in the world as a military presence. For two decades, terrorism was the main pretext, but its attraction has faded, allowing other missions to emerge, especially in Africa.

    “Now, in addition to fighting violent extremist groups, they have to counter Chinese and Russian overtures in a region where great powers are increasingly competing for access, influence, and resources,” writes Stavros Atlamazoglou in Business Insider

    Overture:

    Any initiative taken by a rival power in territories currently dominated by Western colonial and neocolonial powers, especially in regions where US troops are already present as a reminder that these are the West’s private hunting grounds

    The Context

    America’s hard power, its famed military might, appears to have a new challenge. This time it isn’t a foreign army, insurgents or terrorist cells. It is, as Atlamazoglou explains, something far more frightening: “Chinese aid, in the form of loans or infrastructure development,” part of “Beijing’s quest for natural resources and global legitimacy.” How dare the most populous nation on earth seek “natural resources and global legitimacy?” No one has called them off the bench to play the same game Western powers have excelled at for the past 500 years.

    Then there is the Russian variant, which is more respectful of the well-established American model. “Russia sells arms and provides political advisors in addition to hunting for lucrative contracts for natural resources and other geopolitical benefits,” Atlamazoglou writes. The two former rivals have remained faithful to the methods developed in that golden age politicians remember as the Cold War.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Atlamazoglou relies heavily on the testimony of John Black, a retired Special Forces warrant officer, who observes that American ambassadors need “to look at the country as a whole and take more risks, use [the US] military arm to effect real change within a country.” The stirring examples of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya demonstrate how “real change” can take place when you accept to “take more risks.”

    Black understands the risk, apparently viscerally: “China or Russia might not hesitate to work with a dictator with an abdominal [sic] human-rights record to further their geopolitical goals.” Could he have possibly meant “abominable?” Or does this describe a brutal regime that weaponizes diarrhea? Citing the US commitment to the rule of law, Black implies that the US would never cavort with a dictator possessed of an abominable human-rights record.

    How did the usually serious Business Insider allow such an “abdominal” article to appear?  

    The Great Reset: The Effect of Coordination or Chaos?

    The magnates of Davos recently agreed to mobilize their forces to implement what they call the “Great Reset,” ushering in a new golden age of socially responsible capitalism. All it requires is some concerted action under their leadership.  

    Gillian Tett, writing for the Financial Times, seems to envision a different scenario: “The total global debt is now more than three times the size of the global economy, since debt — and money — has expanded inexorably since 1971. It seems most unlikely this can ever be repaid just by growth; sooner or later — and it may be much later — this will probably cause a direct or indirect restructuring or a social or financial implosion.”

    Restructuring:

    The process by which the laws of inertia teach human beings with political and economic power, who believe they possess the intelligence capable of problem-solving, that such a belief can only be an illusion

    The Context

    Humanity finds itself struggling with a straightforward situation: multiple crises related to health, climate and an economy functioning on increasingly absurd principles. Theoretically, they can all be addressed through a harmonious global focus on rational resource management followed by intelligent decision-making. But history demonstrates on a daily basis that society has delegated decision-making to: first, individuals within nations (consumers and voters); second, nations (each competing one another); and third, those who govern the nations (theoretically, politicians whose sole aim is to hold onto power once they have acquired it and who are beholden to anyone who assists them in achieving that goal).

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    In other words, the more universal the problem, the less likely it will be that it may be solved. Local and national crises continue to exist, but they have now become dominated by universal crises. The consumer economy and the quasi-democratic nation-states are structured, in terms of decision-making, in a way that makes any voluntary effort at restructuring impossible.

    Not only do our economies and political systems need restructuring. Our thinking about who we are and how we function as a society needs some serious revision.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

  • in

    Does Italy’s Center-Right Coalition Have a Political Future?

    According to polling from July, the Italian far right — or the destra sovranista (sovereign right), as it prefers to be labeled — would account for at least 40% of electoral preferences. The broader center-right coalition would attract around 48%, with Matteo Salvini’s League taking 20,5%, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) 20,1 % and Forza Italia 7,6%.

    A scenario where two far-right parties with similar levels of popular support, many overlapping features and comparable political programs are contending to win most votes represents a unique case in Europe and, perhaps, at the global level. In addition, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the League supports the current government led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi while the Brothers of Italy is the only opposition party. In light of the center-right coalition’s leadership contest and the general election that is scheduled to take place in early 2023, which factors may ultimately give either party the upper hand?

    The Italian Far Right’s Long-Term Investment

    READ MORE

    When it comes to the neck-and-neck race for the center-right leadership between Meloni and Salvini, four factors will influence the dynamics of the competition. Former prime minister and founder of Forza Italia Silvio Berlusconi has recently floated the idea of a “partito unico,” a single party that would unite all the members of the center-right coalition. However, the proposal has left Giorgia Meloni indifferent, while Matteo Salvini seems more cautious, leaving a door open for the possibility of a “federation” of the Italian center right.

    The possibility of a federation between the League and Forza Italia could help Salvini retain the de facto leadership of the coalition and eventually contest the premiership from its platform. The Brothers of Italy may also benefit from an exodus of frustrated politicians and MPs from Forza Italia willing to join Meloni’s party.

    A second element that could heavily influence the leadership race and the 2023 election is the possible dissolution of the Five Star Movement (M5S). M5S is currently undergoing a deep leadership crisis as a result of disagreements between the movement’s founder Beppe Grillo and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. It is plausible that in case of splintering of the Five Star Movement and the creation of Conte’s own party, at least a part of M5S supports may opt to move to factions belonging to the center-right coalition.

    Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

    Another important factor comes in the guise of CasaPound, one of the Italian extreme right’s most active movements. The group did not miss the chance to portray the much discussed taking the knee by the Italian team at the recent European Football Championships as a disgrace, vandalizing street art murals inviting Italian players to join the Black Lives Matter movement into a fascist “Resta in piedi Italia!” — “Stay up, Italy!” — with the image of an Italian football player from the 1930s doing in the Roman salute.

    In fact, the League and the Brothers of Italy, which are both mainstream parties supported by millions of Italian citizens, attract a complex galaxy of political and social movements belonging to the extreme right and espousing clear neo-fascist ideology. These actors aren’t represented in the Italian parliament and mostly function in the dark, Forza Nuova and CasaPound among them. The “sovereign right,” while undoubtedly interested in the more moderate votes, is at the same time trying to affirm its strong sympathies for extreme-right movements in order to keep, or eventually gain, the votes of members of these fascist and neo-fascist organizations.

    Lastly, a key factor will be the success of the national recovery strategy. In fact, with the decision to support Draghi’s executive last February, Salvini has undoubtedly opted to tie the League’s electoral support to the success of Italy’s Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR). The PNRR is set at €222 billion ($263 billion) and is based mostly on the NextGenerationEU (a joint recovery plan worth €750 billion) with the addition of an extra budget deficit — €30 billion from a budgetary fiscal deviation defined by Draghi as “good debt.”

    Embed from Getty Images

    On the contrary, the Brothers of Italy, by refusing to support the current government, is betting against the success of the PNRR and on the inability of the Draghi cabinet to efficiently handle both the continuing COVID-19 crisis and post-pandemic recovery. If the PNRR fails, FdI will inevitably deploy its arsenal of political rhetoric and narratives against the Draghi executive and the parties supporting it, including the League.  

    The competition for what used to be a moderate center-right coalition under Silvio Berlusconi’s leadership but now increasingly resembles a fully-fledged radical-right faction will have a crucial impact on Italian politics tout court for years to come. The League and the Brothers of Italy will undoubtedly keep moving on the same far-right platform and within the same coalition, aware that breaking it up will not be a smart decision.

    Within those boundaries, however, strong competition is already taking place. On one side is the chameleon-like opportunism of Matteo Salvini, with his League party strongly rooted in the north and the northeast of Italy. On the other, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers is collecting dividends from the years in opposition and the refusal of any political compromise.  

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More