More stories

  • in

    Texas lawmakers race against the clock to push through new voting restrictions

    Texas lawmakers are racing against the clock this month to ram through legislation that would further restrict voting access, leaning on procedural moves to avoid public testimony and keep 11th-hour negotiations behind closed doors.“No rules are going to contain them. No norms are going to protect us. They’re gonna do whatever they want to, and whatever they can, to get these bills through,” said Emily Eby, staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project.Specious talking points about whether last year’s presidential contest was stolen – propagated and disseminated by Texas’s top Republicans –have created an army of voters who falsely believe that widespread election fraud is a real issue.That, in turn, has ostensibly given politicians a pretext for trumped up reforms at the ballot box, in a state already infamous for being the hardest place to vote nationwide.“There’s not really a big problem with election fraud, right? That’s not actually a huge problem that we need to solve. But the public thinks it is, because they’ve been told that it is,” said Clare Brock, an assistant professor of political science at Texas Woman’s University.Texas legislators have used the lightning rod of “election integrity” this year to introduce at least 49 bills with restrictive voting provisions – the most anywhere in the United States, the Brennan Center for Justice reported.Twenty-nine bills “seek to create new barriers to voting while also creating or enhancing criminal penalties attached to them”, according to data compiled by Progress Texas. Among those, more than three-fourths of the penalties are felonies.When Texas businesses and voters pushed back against the hard-line legislation last month, the state representative Kyle Kacal wouldn’t go so far as to explicitly come out against Senate Bill 7 (SB7), one of the two omnibus bills that have taken center stage this cycle.But he did express skepticism about its provisions, seemingly endorsing practices – like extended voting hours during the pandemic – that his colleagues were actively trying to curb.“I don’t know if the measures that are being talked about are necessary,” Kacal admitted. “I don’t know how much fraud there really is, but people need the opportunity to vote.”Both SB7 and the other high-profile, sweeping proposal, House Bill 6 (HB6), spell a harder and scarier voting process for the state’s most vulnerable residents, while outlawing common sense innovations that Houston’s Harris county tried to implement last year.From broadly silencing public officials who want to proactively solicit or distribute vote-by-mail applications to doing away with drive-thru voting and limiting early voting hours, the suggested changes could disproportionately affect elderly and differently abled Texans, as well as voters of color and city dwellers. The new policies would also embolden partisan poll watchers to police voters, stoking concerns over intimidation tactics after a history of vigilantism.“This is targeted legislation at restricting specific voting practices that occurred in specific places, and a lot of those places are places that leaned Democrat,” Brock said. “Which then makes it feel a lot more like voter suppression and a lot less like voter integrity.”After SB7 advanced through the senate while HB6 dragged, house Republicans used a routine elections committee hearing last week to link the two, circumventing outside input from citizens in the process.Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates excoriated the move, which they noted was unwontedly sneaky for legislators who supposedly had a mandate from their constituents.“This is a massive overhaul of the election system in Texas, affecting almost every area of our election code,” said Charlie Bonner, communications director at civic engagement nonprofit Move Texas.“That is something that should be well-considered, and that is something that should go through the full process, and the public have every opportunity to speak out.”Instead, the committee gutted the senate’s text for SB7 and replaced it with a copy of HB6, effectively turning one bill into the other.But, if the House passes that version, any differences between the two chambers’ priorities will likely be reconciled in a conference committee. There, appointees could splice the proposals together for one behemoth, rife with restrictions.Voting rights proponents are already alarmed by the mystery that would shroud those talks, where, they explain, the Republican-controlled legislature could check off their wishlist with no accountability.“I think it is extremely undemocratic. It completely lacks transparency. This is not how democracy and open government are supposed to work,” said Carisa Lopez, political director of the Texas Freedom Network.Critics of SB7 are still holding out hope for errors that could make it procedurally dead by the end of the legislative session later this month. But they’re outraged that stakeholders – who had anticipated another platform to voice their opposition before the bill became law – will no longer get that opportunity.For weeks, impassioned outcry from state residents and Texas-based corporations has already bogged down the controversial reforms, stalling their passage longer than some voting rights advocates originally expected. The public provided more than 17 hours of divided testimony on HB6 alone, according to the Texas Tribune.Meanwhile, local businesses, chambers of commerce and major national companies – including Etsy, American Airlines, Warby Parker, Microsoft and many others – have called on Texas’s elected leaders to oppose any changes that would make it harder to vote.“This is a state in which these lawmakers run every lever of government,” Bonner said.“The fact that we’ve been able to delay – and the fact that we have seen amendments that have reduced the harm of these pieces of legislation – is a testament to the work and the people speaking out.” More

  • in

    Israel Must Accept ICC Jurisdiction Over Palestine

    On February 5, the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled that it has jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Seven years after the 2014 Gaza conflict, in which war crimes were committed by both Israel and armed Palestinian groups according to the United Nations, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda confirmed a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been calling for since 2016. On April 27, HRW released a 213-page report detailing Israel’s “crimes of apartheid and persecution.” An ICC investigation is a crucial step toward regional peace, which cannot be achieved without accountability and transitional justice.

    However, amidst the process of diplomatic normalization with Arab states, Israel is compromising the prospects of peace by refusing to take responsibility for the injustices committed against Palestinian civilians, including children. To achieve peace in the Middle East, and particularly with the Palestinians, Israel must recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction and be held accountable for any war crimes committed.

    The ICC Has Stepped on a Political Minefield in Palestine

    READ MORE

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled the ICC ruling as “pure anti-Semitism” and claimed that the court is a “political” body rather than a judicial one. He said that the ICC should be investigating Syria and Iran instead. This is but one example of the pattern of deflection displayed by the Israeli state when confronted with the reality of the war crimes committed during its occupation of Palestinian territories.

    Netanyahu’s claims that the ICC decision is politicized or anti-Semitic are an unfounded effort at deflection and denial. First, though Syria and Iran have not been prosecuted by the ICC, these regimes are subject to a wide range of US and UN-sponsored sanctions, as well as political isolation, to which Israel is unlikely to be subjected. In a sense, these countries are already being “punished.” Second, holding Syria and Iran accountable for their own crimes and investigating possible Israeli war crimes are not mutually exclusive processes. Finally, the ICC ruling did not exclusively target Israel or its defense force, the IDF; Palestinian Hamas was also named as a potential perpetrator of war crimes and will be investigated as such.

    This deflection strategy is not an unusual response to ICC investigations. It parallels the US attempt to thwart ICC investigations of American military misconduct in Afghanistan, which is similarly delaying the Afghan peace process.

    .custom-post-from {float:right; margin: 0 10px 10px; max-width: 50%; width: 100%; text-align: center; background: #000000; color: #ffffff; padding: 15px 0 30px; }
    .custom-post-from img { max-width: 85% !important; margin: 15px auto; filter: brightness(0) invert(1); }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h4 { font-size: 18px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h5 { font-size: 14px; letter-spacing: 1px; line-height: 22px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from input[type=”email”] { font-size: 14px; color: #000 !important; width: 240px; margin: auto; height: 30px; box-shadow:none; border: none; padding: 0 10px; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-pen-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: center right 14px; background-size:14px;}
    .custom-post-from input[type=”submit”] { font-weight: normal; margin: 15px auto; height: 30px; box-shadow: none; border: none; padding: 0 10px 0 35px; background-color: #1878f3; color: #ffffff; border-radius: 4px; display: inline-block; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-email-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: 14px center; background-size: 14px; }

    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox { width: 90%; margin: auto; position: relative; display: flex; flex-wrap: wrap;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label { text-align: left; display: block; padding-left: 32px; margin-bottom: 0; cursor: pointer; font-size: 11px; line-height: 18px;
    -webkit-user-select: none;
    -moz-user-select: none;
    -ms-user-select: none;
    user-select: none;
    order: 1;
    color: #ffffff;
    font-weight: normal;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label a { color: #ffffff; text-decoration: underline; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input { position: absolute; opacity: 0; cursor: pointer; height: 100%; width: 24%; left: 0;
    right: 0; margin: 0; z-index: 3; order: 2;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:before { content: “f0c8”; font-family: Font Awesome 5 Free; color: #eee; font-size: 24px; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; line-height: 28px; color: #ffffff; width: 20px; height: 20px; margin-top: 5px; z-index: 2; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:before { content: “f14a”; font-weight: 600; color: #2196F3; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:after { content: “”; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:after { position: absolute; left: 2px; width: 18px; height: 18px; margin-top: 10px; background: #ffffff; top: 10px; margin: auto; z-index: 1; }
    .custom-post-from .error{ display: block; color: #ff6461; order: 3 !important;}

    Accountability matters, not only for Palestinians who have been denied their human rights during the conflict but also for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and for cooperation in the region more broadly. The climate of impunity enjoyed by Israel only fuels the frustration of Palestinians and, worse, makes the rhetoric of groups such as Hamas more compelling. Peacebuilding experts have also long argued that accountability is central to a successful peace process. For example, the indictments of Charles Taylor of Liberia and Radovan Karadzic of Bosnia strongly contributed to peaceful outcomes in both countries.

    Before Israel can be held accountable, it must first recognize ICC jurisdiction. However, given the Israeli government’s continued push for annexation and the US sanctions against the ICC, this scenario is unlikely. Nonetheless, any form of accountability would be a positive start and an important step toward peace. Accountability can take many forms, ranging from state recognition of injustice to judicial punishment of individual perpetrators.

    Any accountability process should also include Palestinians at the table. It is time for the Israeli leadership to spearhead the peace process — not through other Arab states, but through an honest accountability process with Palestinians. The best starting point would be for Israel to recognize ICC jurisdiction.

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.]

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

  • in

    Corruption, an Unnecessary Evil

    Since the United Nations Convention Against Corruption was adopted in October 2003, International Anti-Corruption Day is observed annually on December 9. In the context of the ongoing pandemic, António Guterres, the UN secretary general, had a clear message: “Corruption is criminal, immoral and the ultimate betrayal of public trust. It is even more damaging in times of crisis — as the world is experiencing now with the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to the virus is creating new opportunities to exploit weak oversight and inadequate transparency, diverting funds away from people in their hour of greatest need.”

    Corruption impacts every aspect of society and involves all kinds of companies, large and small, in an array of industries. Certain sectors are seen as carrying a higher risk of corruption — oil and gas, armament, construction, among others — but no industry is spared. The World Bank estimates that more than $1 trillion in bribes is paid each year. In the health sector alone, an estimated $450 billion, or around 6% of total expenditure, is lost to fraud annually. Some argue that bribery is part of doing business, but such practices increase costs and put companies at risk of severe financial, legal and reputational damage.

    Tackling Corruption: The Solution Is?

    READ MORE

    For society at large, the effects of corruption are far-reaching and have severe economic repercussions, create unfair competitive advantages and result in the loss or decreased quality of public services. The consequences of this can be devasting. Martin Manuhwa, head of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations, notes that when public contracts are not awarded based on honest and fair bidding, “Infrastructure collapses. Roads develop potholes, and people die. Basically, corruption kills.”

    Looking for Accountability

    Historically, citizens have expected governments to hold companies accountable for corrupt behavior, but their track record of doing so is spotty. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the United States began enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act more vigorously. Since then, the US has been a world leader in prosecutions and investigations of foreign bribery, but countries such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Israel, France and Spain have recently increased efforts as well.

    However, a recent report from the European Commission found that only 30% of Europeans believe their governments’ anti-fraud efforts are effective. Indeed, Transparency International’s Exporting Corruption 2020 project finds that although high-profile settlements make headlines, the enforcement of foreign bribery laws is very low amongst most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries; in 2020, only four out of the 47 OECD members actively pursued prosecutions.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Over the past two decades, there has been a proliferation of company-wide anti-corruption compliance systems and industry-level regulations designed to discourage bribery. Governments are often “quite happy” to pass the cost and responsibility of enforcement off to someone else, but self-regulations are often inadequately administered and lack audits performed by independent, disinterested parties. Tools such as the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises provide companies with recommendations for implementing compliance programs. It is then up to the companies to conduct internal audits and ensure employees and contractors are following their anti-corruption policies. Companies are motivated by a variety of factors: legal requirements, the risk of fines and prosecution, reputational damage and, for some, a genuine desire to act more ethically. But while there are self-reported cases of foreign bribery, the temptation to cover up infractions is compelling. 

    Various efforts by industries to self-regulate have also emerged. Non-binding, industry-led initiatives or “soft laws” attempt to set anti-corruption norms by asking companies to adhere to a set of principles. For example, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative “invites” multinational companies to disclose money they pay states to extract natural resources.

    In industry-level self-regulating organizations (SROs), member companies develop policies for a particular industry and they, as opposed to an independent agency or government regulator, monitor and enforce member compliance. One example is the Banknote Ethics Initiative (BnEI). The organization was created by some banknote producers to “provide ethical business practice.” Members agree to abide by BnEI’s Code of Ethical Business Practice and to undergo an audit “carried out by a third-party auditor” in order to become accredited. According to their website, audits are conducted by two entities: GoodCorporation and KPMG. But if there are only two options for auditing members of an SRO, are auditors actually independent?

    While SROs can help set standards for industries in the absence of effective government regulation, there is also an inherent conflict of interest. As the NGO Truth in Advertising argues, “Self-regulators are, by definition, funded by the companies they claim to regulate. Don’t for a second believe that any self-regulator wants — or even would be permitted by its constituent members — to do all that it can to prevent harmful or deceptive business practices that are proving lucrative for the industry.” The OECD and the UN Environment Programme add that self-regulatory processes are often burdened by a lack of enforcement and inadequate sanctions of member companies, lower incentives to voluntarily report bad practices and are dominated by a small number of companies that prioritize what is in their best interests.

    An International Anti-Bribery Standard

    A new development offers hope for addressing the global corruption problem. In 2016, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) introduced the ISO 37001 Anti-Bribery Management Systems. Created using input from existing recommendations and from countries, non-profits and esteemed multilateral institutions, the standard provides an auditable, independent benchmark of international compliance principles and enables organizations of all sizes, public or private, to prevent, detect and address bribery.

    To become certified, an anti-bribery management system meeting the standard’s requirements must be implemented, an individual overseeing compliance needs to be appointed, and financial controls, monitoring and reporting processes need to be in place. Audits are done over a three-year period (to ensure policies are not simply on paper) and are performed by independent certifying bodies.

    Numerous companies and governments have since pursued certification as ISO 37001 has increasingly become recognized as the reference for anti-bribery. Anti-corruption lawyer Jean-Pierre Mean says the advantage of certification is benchmarking and reassuring organizations that they have implemented effective measures. Moreover, “It also demonstrates that you have a system that works to stakeholders, personnel, shareholders, and the community at large.”

    As a sign of confidence in the standard, prosecutors in Brazil, the US, Denmark, Switzerland and Singapore have required companies to pursue ISO 37001 certification as conditions of settlements in many lawsuits. While certification cannot guarantee bribery will not take place, it is universally recognized proof of a company’s willingness to prevent it. Companies and governments should require ISO 37001 certification from potential partners as a prerequisite to doing business, discarding superfluous and therefore suspicious self-regulation.

    Increased efforts to curb bribery have had varying levels of success. Government enforcement of existing laws needs to be strengthened as evidence has shown that self-regulation is flawed. The introduction of ISO 37001 as an independent standard for anti-bribery holds the most promise, but more companies and governments need to pursue certification for change to happen. Corruption may be as old as it widespread, but it can also be avoided.

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

  • in

    Ruby Bridges: the six-year-old who defied a mob and desegregated her school

    This year, Ruby Bridges saw some newly discovered video footage of her six-year-old self and was terrified for her. The footage was from 14 November 1960, a day that shaped the course of Bridges’ life and – it is no exaggeration to say – American history. Not that she was aware of it at the time. On that day she became the first Black child to attend an all-white primary school in Louisiana.Looking at images of Bridges’ first day at William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans, she is a study in vulnerability: a tiny girl in her smart new uniform, with white socks and white ribbons in her hair, flanked by four huge federal agents in suits. Awaiting her at the school gates was a phalanx of rabidly hostile protesters, mostly white parents and children, plus photographers and reporters. They yelled names and racial slurs, chanted, and waved placards. One sign read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” One woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. It has become one of the defining images of the civil rights movement, popularised even further by Norman Rockwell’s recreation of it in his 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With.The confrontation was expected. Three months before Bridges was born, the US supreme court had issued its landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling, outlawing segregation in schools nationwide. Six years later, though, states in the south were stubbornly refusing to act upon it. When nine African American children enrolled at the Little Rock school in Arkansas in 1957, it had caused an uproar. President Eisenhower had to call in federal troops to escort the children through a national guard blockade ordered by the governor. Three years later it was Louisiana’s turn. Bridges was one of six Black children to pass a test to gain access to formerly all-white schools. But two of the children dropped out and three went, on the same day, to a different school. So Bridges was all on her own.Many have read resolve or defiance into Bridges’ demeanour that day, but the explanation is far simpler. “I was really not aware that I was going into a white school,” she says. “My parents never explained it to me. I stumbled into crowds of people, and living here in New Orleans, being accustomed to Mardi Gras, the huge celebration that takes place in the city every year, I really thought that’s what it was that day. There was no need for me to be afraid of that.”Watching the footage of that day 60 years later, Bridges’ reaction was very different. “It was just mind-blowing, horrifying,” she says. “I had feelings that I’d never had before … And I thought to myself: ‘I cannot even fathom me now, today, as a parent and grandparent, sending my child into an environment like that.’”Bridges, 66, can understand her own parents’ actions, though. They grew up as sharecroppers (poor tenant farmers) in rural Mississippi in the pre-civil rights era before moving to New Orleans in 1958. “They were not allowed to go to school every day,” she says. “Neither one of them had a formal education. If it was time for them to get the crops in, or to work, school was a luxury; that was something they couldn’t do. So they really wanted opportunities for their children that they were not allowed to have.”Bridges’ parents paid a high price for their decision. Her mother, who had been the chief advocate for her attending the white school, lost her job as a domestic worker. Her father, a Korean war veteran who worked as a service-station attendant, also lost his job on account of the Bridges’ newfound notoriety. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had played a big part in Bridges’ case, advised him not to go out and look for work, for his own safety. “That in itself caused a lot of tension,” she says, “because I’m the oldest of eight, and at that point he was no longer able to provide for his family. So they were solely dependent on donations and people that would help them.” The local corner store refused to serve them. Even her sharecropper grandparents were made to move from their farm in Mississippi. Her parents eventually separated. “I remember writing a letter to Santa Claus and asking him to give my father’s job back, and that he didn’t have a job because I was going to the school. So I guess somehow I did feel some blame for it.”Life at her new school was no easier for Bridges. For the first year, she needed federal protection every day since protesters were always at the school gates, including the woman with the doll in a coffin. “That I used to have nightmares about,” she says. “I would dream that the coffin was flying around my bedroom at night.” Bridges had to bring her own lunch every day for fear of being poisoned. The white parents all withdrew their children from the school, and the staff refused to teach Bridges, except for one teacher: Barbara Henry, who had come from Boston. For the first year, Henry taught Bridges alone, just the two of them in the classroom. “We knew we had to be there for each other,” says Bridges.Bridges had another ally outside the school: Robert Coles, a white child psychiatrist who had witnessed the scenes outside the school, and volunteered to support her and her family, visiting the home on a weekly basis. Coles went on to establish a career studying the effects of desegregation on schoolchildren. It later emerged that it was one of his relatives who had sent Bridges her smart school clothes, which her family could never have afforded.Things changed gradually. Over the course of that first year, a few white parents let their children back into the school. At first they were kept separate from Bridges. “The principal, who was part of the opposition, would take the kids and she would hide them, so that they would never come in contact with me.” Towards the end of the first year, however, on Henry’s insistence, Bridges was finally allowed to be part of a small class with other six-year-olds. “A little boy then said to me: ‘My mom said not to play with you because you’re a nigger,’” Bridges recalls. “And the minute he said that, it was like everything came together. All the little pieces that I’d been collecting in my mind all fit, and I then understood: the reason why there’s no kids here is because of me, and the colour of my skin. That’s why I can’t go to recess. And it’s not Mardi Gras. It all sort of came together: a very rude awakening. I often say today that really was my first introduction to racism.”It was also an insight into the origins of racism, she later realised. “The way that I was brought up, if my parents had said: ‘Don’t play with him – he’s white, he’s Asian, he’s Hispanic, he’s Indian, he’s whatever – I would not have played with him.” The little boy wasn’t being knowingly racist towards her; he was simply explaining why he couldn’t play with her. “Which leads me to my point that racism is learned behaviour. We pass it on to our kids, and it continues from one generation to the next. That moment proved that to me.”By the time Bridges returned to the school for the second year, the furore had pretty much died down. There were no protests, she was in a normal-sized class with other children, predominantly white but with a few more African Americans. The overall situation had improved, although Bridges was upset that Henry had left the school (they have remained lifelong friends). Thanks to Henry’s teaching, Bridges spoke with a strong Boston accent, for which she was criticised by her teacher – one of those who had refused to teach her the year before. Every year, though, more and more Black students came to the school. By the time she moved on, high schools had been desegregated for nearly a decade, although Black and white pupils still did not mix. The south’s racist legacy was still close to the surface: her high school was named after a former Confederate general, Francis T Nicholls. Its sports teams were named the Rebels, and had a Confederate flag on their badge, which the Black students fought to change. (The school was renamed Frederick Douglass high school in the 1990s, and its teams are now the Bobcats.)Bridges says she did not have much of a career plan when she finished school. “I was really more focused on how to get out of Louisiana. I knew that there was something more than what I was exposed to right there in my community.” She first applied for jobs as a flight attendant, then became a travel agent for American Express for 15 years, during which time she got to travel the world.By her mid-30s, Bridges had satisfied her wanderlust and was married (to Malcolm Hall, in 1984) with four sons. But she felt restless. “I was asking myself: ‘What am I doing? Am I doing something really meaningful?’ I really wanted to know what my purpose was in life.” In 1993, Bridges’ brother was shot dead on a New Orleans street. For a time she cared for his four daughters, who also attended William Frantz elementary school. Then in 1995, Coles, now a Harvard professor, published his children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges, which brought her back into the public eye. People in New Orleans had never really talked about her story, Bridges explains, in the same way that, for years, people in Dallas didn’t talk about the Kennedy assassination. “You have to understand, we didn’t have Black History Month during that time. It wasn’t like I could pick up a textbook and open it up and read about myself.” Bridges helped promote Coles’ book, talking in schools across the US. It became a bestseller. A few years later, Disney made a biopic of Bridges, on which she acted as a consultant. “I think everybody started to realise that me, Ruby Bridges, was actually the same little girl as in the Norman Rockwell painting.”The proceeds from the book helped Bridges set up her foundation. Bringing her nieces back to William Frantz, she noticed the lack of after-school arts programmes, so set up her own. She continued touring schools across the country telling her story and promoting cultural understanding. (She recently had a new book published, This Is Your Time, retelling her story for today’s young people.) Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the school was badly damaged. There were plans to tear it down. “I felt like if anybody was to save the school, it would be me,” she says. Bridges successfully campaigned to have the school put on the National Register of Historic Places, which freed funds to restore and expand it. “So now it has been reopened. Kids are back in the seats. And I’m really proud of the fact that I had something to do with that.” A statue of Bridges stands in the courtyard.It was not until much later in life that Bridges became aware of Rockwell’s painting of her. It is not a faithful recreation of the scene (if anything it is closer to John Steinbeck’s eyewitness account in his 1962 book Travels With Charley in Search of America) but in contrast to Rockwell’s earlier cheery Americana, it captures the anger and drama: the N-word and “KKK” are scrawled across the wall behind Bridges, along with a splattered tomato.When Barack Obama became president, Bridges suggested the painting be hung in the White House to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the event. Obama agreed, and invited Bridges and her family to its unveiling. He gave her a big hug. “It was a very powerful moment,” she says. “As we embraced, I saw people in the room tearing up and realised that it wasn’t just about he and I meeting; it was about those moments in time that came together. And all of those sacrifices in between he and I. He then turned to me and said: ‘You know, it’s fair to say that if it had not been for this moment, for you all, I might not be here today.’ That in itself is just a stark reminder of how all of us are standing on someone else’s shoulders. Someone else that opened the door and paved the way. And so we have to understand that we cannot give up the fight, whether we see the fruits of our labour or not. You have a responsibility to open the door to keep this moving forward.”Ironically, and dishearteningly for Bridges, today William Frantz’s pupils are 100% Black. The white population had already begun moving out in the mid-60s, she explains, partly because of damage done by Hurricane Betsy, in 1965, but also in response to the changing demographics of the district. Today it is one of the poorest in the city, with relatively high crime rates. It is not just New Orleans: “white flight” has effectively resulted in a form of re-segregation in schools across the US.Bridges sees this as the next battle: “Just as those people felt like it was unfair, and worked so hard during the civil rights movement to have those laws changed, we have to do that all over again. And we have to, first and foremost, see the importance of it. Because we’re faced with such division in our country, but where does that start? It starts very young. So I believe that it’s important, just like Dr King did, that our kids have an opportunity to learn about one another: to grow together, play together, learn together. The most time that kids spend away from home is in school, so our schools have to be integrated. And I know that there are arguments on both sides about that, but we’re never going to become the United States of America unless we, the people, are united.”This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges is published by One. To order for £8.36 (RRP £8.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com. P&P charges may apply. More

  • in

    Where India Went Wrong

    In just over a month, India has gone from boasting about its vaccine diplomacy to becoming the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. As this author explained in a previous article, many have questioned whether India’s vaccine diplomacy was a bold masterstroke or an unwise distraction.

    Before the start of the second wave of COVID-19 infections in March, the pandemic seemed to be under control in India. In September 2020, the country recorded an average of 95,000 daily cases of COVID-19 during the peak of the first wave. By January 2021, that figure had dropped to under 20,000.

    At the same time, the United States went from around 35,000 confirmed cases per day in September to a peak of over 300,000 in January. At the start of the year, the United Kingdom was in the midst of a deadly second wave of infections, which reached over 60,000 cases a day. At that time, Britain was battling a more contagious strain of COVID-19 known as the “Kent variant,” which is named after the region where it was first discovered in England. Countries in Europe and around the world raced to halt flights to and from the UK in a bid to control the spread of the new strain, which they feared would soon go beyond the British isles.

    India’s Health-Care System Is in Shambles

    READ MORE

    To put these figures in perspective, the UK population is 66.6 million, the US is 328 million and India is around 1.36 billion. That means at the start of 2021, the infection ratio per 100,000 people in India was far lower than in the UK and the US.

    Lax Safety Measures

    As a result, Indians thought the country was beyond the worst of the pandemic. In March, Harsh Vardhan, the Indian health minister, said the country had entered the “endgame” of the health crisis. This led to a false sense of hope, which made the public and the central and state governments complacent. Restrictions that were brought in to curb the spread of the coronavirus were quickly eased. Life had almost returned to normal in January with the opening up of nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, tourist locations and public transport.

    At the same time, elections were announced in five states, including West Bengal, which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had set its sights on winning. All political parties and their supporters held rallies with tens of thousands of people in attendance. The Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela attracted millions of people who took a dip in the Ganges, a river considered sacred in Hinduism. Nearly 60,000 spectators were also allowed to enter stadiums to watch cricket matches. All of these events took place with lax safety measures in place, with no social distancing or wearing of masks.

    Embed from Getty Images

    In hindsight, India did not anticipate a second wave of COVID-19. It lifted the lid on public restrictions at a time when countries such as the UK were battling a winter wave of infections. As mainland Europe realized, it was inevitable that the more contagious strain of COVID-19 discovered in the UK would spread. India failed to realize this despite repeated warnings.

    Now, India is battling its own second wave. The country has repeatedly broken the record for the daily number of confirmed cases of COVID-19. On May 2, India recorded more than 400,000 new daily infections. The actual number of cases is believed to be far higher due to a shortage of testing kits and people getting tested. Many Indians are not getting checked because they have no symptoms but are contagious or they are worried about testing positive for the virus. States like Bihar, West Bengal and Maharashtra have been accused of manipulating and underreporting the number of positive cases and deaths from COVID-19 to avoid criticism over inefficient governance. Worryingly, epidemiologists believe that India has not yet hit the peak of the second wave and that the worst is yet to come.

    No Improvement to Health Care

    It has been argued by many that the pandemic will not come to an end until it is under control everywhere. This is because “viruses naturally mutate over time.” There are currently thousands of mutations of the coronavirus around the world, but only a few of them are variants of concern for scientists. As more people contract the virus and spread it to others, it is inevitable that different strains will emerge. This is why despite the successful vaccination rollout in countries like Israel, the UK and the US, authorities have been cautious as they reopen economies and reduce restrictions for the public. The fear is that some variants, such as the one discovered in South Africa, will evade the existing vaccines and render them less effective.

    India has discovered a worrying COVID-19 variant of its own that is officially called B.1.617. This new strain — which is also known as the “double mutant” due to two mutations coming together in the same variant — accounts for 61% of infections in Maharashtra, a major epicenter for infections. It is unclear whether the Indian variant is driving the second wave, but it is believed to be more transmissible than previous strains of the virus. This is in addition to fear over the UK strain, which has spread to more than 50 countries.

    Complacency by the central and state governments has made the health care system crumble as Indians desperately seek medical assistance. When the pandemic first hit India in March 2020, authorities failed to strengthen the infrastructure at hospitals. As of 2018, the Indian government spent only 3.54% of GDP on health care. Other emerging economies such as Brazil and South Africa spent 9.51% and 8.25%, respectively. In India, there is only one doctor per 1,445 people, which is far lower than the figure the World Health Organization recommends. At public hospitals, there were only 0.7 beds available per 1,000 people.

    .custom-post-from {float:right; margin: 0 10px 10px; max-width: 50%; width: 100%; text-align: center; background: #000000; color: #ffffff; padding: 15px 0 30px; }
    .custom-post-from img { max-width: 85% !important; margin: 15px auto; filter: brightness(0) invert(1); }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h4 { font-size: 18px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-h5 { font-size: 14px; letter-spacing: 1px; line-height: 22px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
    .custom-post-from input[type=”email”] { font-size: 14px; color: #000 !important; width: 240px; margin: auto; height: 30px; box-shadow:none; border: none; padding: 0 10px; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-pen-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: center right 14px; background-size:14px;}
    .custom-post-from input[type=”submit”] { font-weight: normal; margin: 15px auto; height: 30px; box-shadow: none; border: none; padding: 0 10px 0 35px; background-color: #1878f3; color: #ffffff; border-radius: 4px; display: inline-block; background-image: url(“https://www.fairobserver.com/wp-content/plugins/moosend_form/cpf-email-icon.svg”); background-repeat: no-repeat; background-position: 14px center; background-size: 14px; }

    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox { width: 90%; margin: auto; position: relative; display: flex; flex-wrap: wrap;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label { text-align: left; display: block; padding-left: 32px; margin-bottom: 0; cursor: pointer; font-size: 11px; line-height: 18px;
    -webkit-user-select: none;
    -moz-user-select: none;
    -ms-user-select: none;
    user-select: none;
    order: 1;
    color: #ffffff;
    font-weight: normal;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox label a { color: #ffffff; text-decoration: underline; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input { position: absolute; opacity: 0; cursor: pointer; height: 100%; width: 24%; left: 0;
    right: 0; margin: 0; z-index: 3; order: 2;}
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:before { content: “f0c8”; font-family: Font Awesome 5 Free; color: #eee; font-size: 24px; position: absolute; left: 0; top: 0; line-height: 28px; color: #ffffff; width: 20px; height: 20px; margin-top: 5px; z-index: 2; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:before { content: “f14a”; font-weight: 600; color: #2196F3; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input:checked ~ label:after { content: “”; }
    .custom-post-from .cpf-checkbox input ~ label:after { position: absolute; left: 2px; width: 18px; height: 18px; margin-top: 10px; background: #ffffff; top: 10px; margin: auto; z-index: 1; }
    .custom-post-from .error{ display: block; color: #ff6461; order: 3 !important;}

    In July 2020, state governments opted to build temporary centers for COVID-19 patients instead of buying additional beds for existing hospitals and allocating more resources. These centers were barely used. Due to their high maintenance costs, they were dismantled a couple of months before the second wave hit. Now, as hospitals face a short supply of beds and a high demand for them, some state governments are considering whether to rebuild the makeshift centers.

    In March 2020, Modi allocated 150 billion rupees ($2.03 billion) to strengthen the infrastructure of health care in India. The government purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) and an additional 60,000 ventilators. Yet as of last fall, just under 24,000 of the ventilators had been installed in hospitals across the country. Both public and private hospitals are currently short of beds, ventilators and oxygen in many major cities.

    As COVID-19 infections sweep the country, social media networks have been flooded with posts calling for help. Friends and families of those suffering from the virus have desperately sought to find available beds in hospitals, oxygen supplies or medication to combat COVID-19. Disturbing reports of people dying after being unable to access treatment have been heard all over the country. Ambulances and other vehicles with COVID-19 victims inside them have lined up outside hospitals that no longer have space available. Many hospitals have reported that patients they were treating died as the oxygen supply ran out. Outside crematoriums, the number of dead bodies is mounting.

    The Government’s “Vaccine Diplomacy”

    With the situation worsening, the BJP-led government has been criticized by Indian courts for focusing on state election campaigns instead of taking preemptive action to combat the second wave. Aside from easing restrictions too quickly and not reinforcing the health care system in time, many states face shortages of COVID-19 vaccines. In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed to have rolled out the “world’s largest vaccination drive,” aiming to get jabs in the arms of 300 million people by July. At the time of writing, only 2% of the Indian population — 29 million — has been fully vaccinated with two doses. This is compared to 23% in the UK and 30% in the US, both of which focused on vaccinating their most vulnerable citizens first to drive down new infections and deaths.

    India had other things in mind. It sought to distribute doses worldwide as part of its vaccine diplomacy. With the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, India has so far exported 66 million doses to 95 countries. Yet, earlier this year, the Modi government implemented an initiative to donate free batches in an attempt to boost the country’s soft power when the pandemic was seemingly under control. Many observers questioned whether the move was necessary instead of focusing on vaccinating Indians themselves. Toward the end of March, as infections increased and vaccines decreased, the Modi government realized that its decision to export millions of doses was premature. It decided to halt the export of doses and instead vaccinate Indians over the age of 45. Yet the damage had already been done due to poor planning by the BJP-led government.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Meanwhile, state administrations in Maharashtra, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh that are not ruled by the BJP have claimed they are running short of vaccines. Critics have accused Modi of playing politics with vaccine distribution as states with BJP governments, such as Gujarat, were given almost the same number of vaccine doses as Maharashtra, which has a population double that of Gujarat. The health minister has denied that regions were short of supplies and instead blamed state governments for the poor rollout of vaccines.

    In order to counter criticism over its inefficient planning, the central government announced on April 19 that all citizens above 18 would be able to get vaccinated from May 1; it had previously focused on health and frontline workers and those over 45. By opening the door for all adults, an additional 600 million citizens are now eligible. Yet with vaccines in short supply, some states have postponed the rollout. The website through which citizens can book a jab crashed minutes after it went live for the new age group.

    The government has approved additional funds for vaccine manufacturers to ramp up production. However, the increased production is unlikely to be available for a few months as vaccines go through a lengthy process of packaging and safety checks. To make up for this shortage, the government has fast-tracked the approval process for foreign-produced vaccines. These include Johnson and Johnson from Belgium and Sputnik V from Russia, which cost more than domestically-produced ones.

    Public Image

    In an attempt to maintain his public image, Modi addressed the nation on April 20. Indians needed assurances and demanded answers, but the prime minister offered none. He neither informed the public about plans to tackle the crisis, nor did he give any reasons about why the country is facing a horrific second wave. This is despite him previously boasting that India’s handling of the pandemic had been exemplary and should a model for the world. It seems the central government is content with placing the blame on state administrations and the public instead of admitting that it made mistakes.

    Earlier this week, the BJP failed to win in the state of West Bengal despite heavy election campaigning. It seems that Indians are beginning to realize that Modi’s preoccupation with his public image, and his need to win votes, is costing the country dearly. In fact, the obsession with elections on the part of Indian politicians has contributed to the second wave of COVID-19 infections. India can only hope that Modi and other politicians shift their focus from politics to health care before it is too late.

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

  • in

    The inside story of how we reached the Facebook-Trump verdict | Alan Rusbridger

    As so often is the case, Donald Trump gets to the heart of the problem. On 6 January, he was the president of the United States: probably the most powerful man in the world. He should be free to speak his mind, and voters should be free to listen. But he was also a habitual liar who, by the end of his term, had edged into repudiating the very democracy that had elevated him.And then came his inflammatory words on that day, uttered even as rioters were breaking their way into the heart of US democracy. His words had a veneer of restraint – “We have to have peace, so go home.” But his statements were laced with lies, along with praise for the mob who terrorised lawmakers as they sought to confirm Biden as Trump’s successor – “We love you, you’re very special … great patriots … remember this day for ever.”At 5.41pm and 6.15pm that day, Facebook removed two posts from Trump. The following day the company banned Trump from its platform indefinitely. Around the same day, Twitter also moved to ban the president – permanently.So there was the problem that Donald Trump embodied – in a country whose commitment to free speech is baked into its core. The president might be a bitterly polarising figure, but surely he has a right to be heard – and for voters to be free to make up their own minds?Facebook’s decision to the contrary would spark passionate debate within the United States. But it had a wider resonance. For how much longer would giant social media platforms act as an amplification system for any number of despots around the world. Would they, too, be banned?The classic defence of free expression is that good speech defeats bad speech. Political speech – in some views – should be the most protected speech. It is vital we know who our leaders are. We have a right – surely? – to know if they are crooks, liars or demagogues.On 7 January Facebook decided: no longer. And now the Facebook oversight board, of which I am a member, has published its own verdict on the decision: Facebook was both right and wrong. Right to remove his 6 January words and right, the following day, to ban the president from the platform. But wrong to ban him “indefinitely”.The key word is “indefinitely” – if only because Facebook’s own policies do not appear to permit it. The oversight board (OSB) judgment doesn’t mince its words: “In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.” Ball squarely back in Facebook’s court.What Facebook has to do now – in our judgment, which the company is bound to implement – is to re-examine the arbitrary penalty it imposed on 7 January. It should take account of the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm.The case is the most prominent the OSB has decided since it was established as an independent entity and will inevitably focus more attention on its work. Why is such a body thought necessary?But this 38-page text is, I hope, a serious contribution to thinking about free speech in an age of chaosLet’s assume we might agree that it’s a bad thing for one person, Mark Zuckerberg, to be in charge of the rules of speech for 2 billion or more people. He is clearly a wonderfully talented engineer – but nothing in his background suggests he is equipped to think deeply about the complexities involved in free expression.Maybe most people who have studied the behaviour of governments towards publishers and newspapers over 300 years might also agree that politicians are not the best people to be trusted with individual decisions about who gets to say what.Into the void between those two polarities has stepped the OSB. At the moment we’re 19 individuals with backgrounds in journalism, law, academia and human rights: by the end of 2021 we hope to be nearer 40.Are we completely independent from Facebook? It certainly feels that way. It’s true that Facebook was involved in selecting the first 20 members, but once the board reaches its full complement, we decide who our future colleagues will be. Since a few early meetings to understand Facebook processes around moderation and similar matters we have had nothing to do with the company.We have our own board of distinguished trustees – again, free of any influence from Facebook. From what I’ve seen of my colleagues so far they’re an odd bunch to have picked if you were in search of a quiet life.The Trump decision was reached through the processes we’ve devised ourselves. A panel of five – with a good spread of regional backgrounds – did the initial heavy lifting, including sifting through more than 9,000 responses from the public.The wider board fed in its own views. We looked at Facebook’s own values – what they call voice, safety and dignity – as well as its content policies and community standards. But we also apply an international human rights lens in trying to balance freedom of expression with possible harms.In the Trump case we looked at the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which establish a voluntary framework for the human rights responsibilities of private businesses. We also considered the right to freedom of expression set out in articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – as well as the qualifying articles to do with the rights to life, security of person, non-discrimination, participation in public affairs and so on.We also considered the 2013 Rabat Plan of Action, which attempts to identify and control hate speech online. We took into account a submission sent on behalf of Trump himself and sent Facebook 46 questions. They answered 37 fully, and two partially.And then we debated, and argued – virtually/verbally and in writing. A number of drafts were circulated, with most board members pitching in with tweaks, challenges, corrections and disagreements. Gradually, a consensus developed – resulting in a closely argued 38-page decision which openly reflects the majority and minority opinions.In addition to our ruling about the original and “indefinite” bans, we’ve sent Facebook a number of policy advisory statements. One of these concentrates on the question of how social media platforms should deal with “influential users” (a more useful conceit than “political leaders”).Speed is clearly of the essence where potentially harmful speech is involved. While it’s important to protect the rights of people to hear political speech, “if the head of state or high government official has repeatedly posted messages that pose a risk of harm under international human rights norms, Facebook should suspend the account for a determinate period sufficient to protect against imminent harm”.As in previous judgments, we are critical of a lack of clarity in some of Facebook’s own rules, together with insufficient transparency about how they’re enforced. We would like to see Facebook carry out a comprehensive review of its potential contribution to the narrative around electoral fraud and in the exacerbated tensions that culminated in the violence on 6 January.And then this: “This should be an open reflection on the design and policy choices that Facebook has made that may enable its platform to be abused.” Which many people will read as not-so-coded reference to what is shorthanded as The Algorithm.Social media is still in its infancy. Among the many thorny issues we periodically discuss as a board is, what is this thing we’re regulating? The existing language – “platform”, “publisher”, “public square” – doesn’t adequately describe these new entities.Most of the suggested forms of more interventionist regulation stub their toes on the sheer novelty of this infant space for the unprecedented mass exchange of views.The OSB is also taking its first steps. The Trump judgment cannot possibly satisfy everyone. But this 38-page text is, I hope, a serious contribution to thinking about how to handle free speech in an age of information chaos. More

  • in

    Russia Ramps Up Pressure Against Kremlin Critics

    Visibly weakened following a hunger strike in prison yet full of his usual verve, Alexei Navalny appeared before a court via videoconference on April 29 to appeal his fine for the defamation of a World War II veteran just as branches of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) were being shuttered across Russia. This is but the latest installment of the Kremlin’s campaign to increase pressure on Russia’s civil society and opposition.

    On August 20, 2020, Navalny was hospitalized in the Siberian city of Omsk after falling ill during a flight to Moscow following what appeared to be a poisoning attempt. After a standoff with the Russian authorities, Navalny was finally airlifted to a hospital in Berlin, where his poisoning was officially confirmed. The substance was identified as the nerve agent Novichok, a Soviet-era chemical weapon. The use of Novichok inspired calls for further investigations from international figures and (mostly Western) governments.

    A joint investigation by Bellingcat, CNN, Der Spiegel and the Insider “has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates” the FSB in Navalny’s poisoning. As the report states, “the August 2020 poisoning in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia.” Moreover, Bellingcat released a recording in which Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an FSB officer, unintentionally confesses the details of the operation to Navalny himself, who phoned Kudryavtsev under the disguise of a high-ranking security official.

    How Alexei Navalny Created Russia’s Main Opposition Platform

    READ MORE

    Once he recovered in Germany, Navalny flew back to Russia on January 17, but was detained immediately after landing. Following his arrest, he was charged with breaking the probationary terms of a previous prison sentence, which required Navalny to periodically report to Russian authorities. Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail, triggering a public outcry and mass protests across Russia.

    In prison and in failing health, on March 31, Navalny began a hunger strike demanding medical treatment by independent doctors. On April 23, he ended the hunger strike on its 24th day after consultation with non-prison medical staff. However, despite the bad publicity and an international outcry the case has engendered, the Kremlin remains unmoved by growing calls for the release of President Vladimir Putin’s potential political adversary.

    Fault Lines

    The poisoning of Alexei Navalny has once again highlighted the cracks in relations between Russia and the West. Last year, the National Security Council stated that it will “work with allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence leads, and restrict funds for their malign activities.” In response to Russia’s use of Novichok, the United States enacted additional economic sanctions, in addition to steps taken against Moscow for its interference in the 2016 presidential election. Officially announced by the State Department on March 2, these sanctions bring together Washington and the European Union in their condemnation of the attempted assassination and imprisonment of one of Russia’s key opposition figures.

    Embed from Getty Images

    As stated by US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, “The U.S. government has exercised its authorities to send a clear signal that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences. Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms.” The actions taken by Washington include an expansion of previous sanctions under the US Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 as well as measures in accordance with Executive Order 13382, which target proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act has been used against various Russian individuals and adversaries with connection to Russia’s chemical weapons program as well as defense and intelligence sectors.

    The United States is not the only country expressing its disapproval for the actions of the Russian government. Last year, after German officials said they had “unequivocal proof” of Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok, Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that there are “serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer.” Similarly, after laboratories in France and Sweden confirmed the use of the nerve agent, French President Emmanuel Macron released a statement urging President Putin to provide information on the “attempted murder.”

    In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also expressed his concern. The attempted poisoning of Navalny has parallels with the attack on the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Then, Novichok first came to international prominence but also failed to kill the intended victim. Johnson publicly condemned Navalny’s sentencing in February, joining Merkel, Macron, the European Parliament and the US in calling for his immediate release.

    The Kremlin Stands its Ground

    The Kremlin denies the allegations that it was behind the attack on Navalny. In his most recent annual address to the nation, President Putin reprimanded the West for its treatment of Russia and warned of possible consequences. The warnings centered around crossing a red line drawn by Moscow and came right after the US announced its newest round of sanctions. As Putin stated in the address, “Russia has its own interests, which we will defend in line with the international law. If somebody refuses to understand this obvious thing, is reluctant to conduct a dialogue and chooses a selfish and arrogant tone, Russia will always find a way to defend its position.”

    Additionally, the Russian president revived the accusation of a US-backed plot to assassinate Alexander Lukashenko, the besieged Belarusian leader who largely owes his tenuous position to Kremlin support in face of mass protests following a disputed election last year. However, no concrete evidence of either the plot itself or any involvement of Western governments has presented itself despite the claims made by Lukashenko himself. Although Navalny was not explicitly mentioned during Putin’s address, implications were made that the country’s opposition movement is part of the Western strategy to destabilize Russia — a familiar refrain in the Kremlin.

    The sanctions imposed by the United States are similar to past rounds put in place after the poisoning of the Skripals, demonstrating a continuity with previous disputes and attesting to the fact that the Kremlin’s behavior is largely unaltered by international outrage. Similarly unsuccessful have been the calls by leading academics, scholars and Nobel laureates both in and outside Russia urging the Kremlin to end its practices of persecuting political opponents.

    While ignoring international pressure, the Kremlin is ramping up domestic repression. One target is Navalny’s FBK, which prosecutors labeled as an extremist organization and ordered it to shut down. On April 30, Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer representing Navalny’s foundation, was detained by the FSB. According to his organization, Komanda 29 (Team 29), Pavlov was charged with the “disclosure of materials of the preliminary investigation.”

    Independent media has also been increasingly targeted. Meduza, which has been publishing out of Latvia since its editor-in-chief left Russia in 2014, has recently been designated as a foreign agent. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, an independent nonprofit corporation that receives funding from US Congress, has also been threatened. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator, has fined RFE/RL up to $1 million for hundreds of violations of the foreign agent law.

    Meanwhile, Washington has stated that discussions are still ongoing for a possible meeting between presidents Biden and Putin, which may be a good opportunity for the new occupant of the White House to turn up the pressure on Moscow. All in all, neither Alexei Navalny’s popularity nor Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism are likely to catalyze immediate systemic changes either in the power dynamics in Moscow or vis-à-vis the West.

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