Friday 24 April 2009

Article 2

1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

(Photo: An Abu Ghraib detainee who was beaten to death whilst in a 'stress position')

[Update: Rhodo Zeb has a solid round-up of the legal debate - as much as there is anything debatable about torture - over on his blog]

Thursday 23 April 2009

Life and fate -

"Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone's right to be different, to be special, to think, feel, and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to those peculiarities."

- Vasily Grossman

Wednesday 15 April 2009

What Hillsborough still has to teach us.

The Hillsborough disaster happened a few months before my ninth birthday, as a young Liverpool fan I remember trying to think what it might have been like in the crush at the front of the terrace - and drawing a blank. Even now I still can't really grasp it, nor can I really understand how it happened. All you can do is read the words of those who were at the scene trying to describe their horrifying struggle to survive:

“As soon as I was in the tunnel, I knew there were problems,” Tony said. “There was no going back. Just too many people. I kept telling myself to be calm, not to panic. I knew that if my head went down under the level of the crowd, I wouldn’t come back up. But the pushing just carried on.

“Then I was out of the tunnel. I thought it was over, just for a second. Then I knew it was worse. Much worse.”

People were still trying to force their way through the underpass, believing, like Tony, that the sunlight and terraces meant safety. Instead, horror waited. “I’d been turned around, facing away from the pitch, so I didn’t know what was happening behind the goal. It was hard to breathe and stay upright, but it had gone past the point of struggling and moving. My elbow was jammed into a fella’s neck and he was pleading with me to move it. He kept saying: ‘I can’t breathe, I’m dying.’ But I couldn’t move it. Then he stopped talking. His head went under.”

I understand that the police opened a gate which thousands of people piled through so as to relieve the press outside the stadium, and that the fans went as a body into two pens which were already over-crowded thus triggering the disaster. What I can't understand is how the police could have ignored what was going on in the pens, how they could have responded in such an incompetent fashion, and how they could then have doctored their reports to cast their response in a better light. However, this kind of deception by the police is not limited to this incident.

There is something singular about this disaster, it happened, not as a result of a force of nature, or as a result of malice, but as a result of thousands of small decisions made with too little information. The fans who tried to press forward into the grounds had no idea what was going on in the pens because they couldn't see it, once they were far enough into the stadium to become aware of it, it was already too late. From that moment on, the only way in which they could escape what was happening was by doing what they did - by struggling for life with the fences, the police, and with their fellow fans. It seems that many lives were saved by the actions of the fans whilst the police, having sentenced them to death by directing them into the pens, failed to respond.

People aren't usually aware of the safety systems which are designed to keep us safe from the consequences of group behaviour until they fail. Once can drive through a complicated traffic system thousands of times without being aware how the traffic lights, signs, junctions, bypasses etc. all act to minimise accidents whilst maximising traffic flow. However, once a light fails, or a sign goes missing, or an accident causes the delicate balance of the system to go into gridlock, then people become aware of how their individual decisions are channelled in a way that can be to their detriment if done improperly. What seems like a process of entirely free choice is in fact a choice directed along set routes through a system hopefully designed with our safety as its paramount goal.

At Hillsborough, this system consisted of two elements - the design of the stadium, and the reaction of the police and emergency services. As a result of previous deaths incidents at football grounds of rioting and pitch invasions, the stands at Hillsborough were designed to contain the fans in seperated pens from which they could not easily escape. The greatest importance was laid on keeping the fans from breaking through or over the perimeter into the centre of the pitch and thus disrupting the match. The police also had the prevention of rioting as their primary objective, no attempt was made to control the flow of fans towards the stadium, to get them to line up ready for the turnstiles, or to break up the fatally dense crowd which gathered.

Once the crowd had gathered, it seems unlikely that it could have been directed thorough the turnstiles without injury resulting, but the solution chosen by the police officer in charge at the scene triggered a much worse disaster. The obvious way of avoiding it - slowing the entry of fans through the gate and diverting the flow into the flanking pens - was never done. The police had been expecting violence, and responded initially to escaping fans by forcing them back into the stands. As crucial minutes ticked by, and blue-face faced fans breathed their last, they did nothing. Even when they did respond it was in a chaotic fashion which undoubtedly increased the death toll. The emergency plan which had been put in place was never initiated - by the time the officer in charge realised what was going on, it was too late for most of the victims - despite the amount of information he had available to him through CCTV cameras and the reports of his own officers.

The lessons of all this for us seems very clear, especially in light of the financial crisis of the past year -

1) Any complex system dependent on thousands of human decisions can create outcomes which none of those within the system could have wanted.

2) Information and directions should be communicated quickly and clearly to those within the system, no matter how bad the news.

3) Distrust any system which does not have the safety of those within it and around it as its primary concern.

4) Especially distrust any system which tries to contain those within it rather than direct them along productive lines.

5) If necessary, the system itself should be sacrificed to save those within it.

Thankfully football learned these lessons, and the disaster of Hillsborough has not been repeated.

[Update - Saw the memorial service today, where 30,000 people gathered to pay their respects. Seeing a government minister silenced by 30,000 people chanting "Justice for the 96" made me feel indescribably proud. I feel this to be a case similar to that of Derek Bentley - it doesn't matter if a re-opening of the case is too late, some measure of justice needs to be done.]

Wednesday 8 April 2009

The ICRC report on torture of detainees.

Damning. The methods used to torture the 14 detainees identified include:

1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and the use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food

Note that this is not an out-of-the-blue report by a random international pressure group, but a report from one of the world's most respected organisations which was intended to remain secret. It also comes to us supported by the testimony of interrogators, US JAG officers, and the detainees themselves.

Many will be tempted to say that these are not harsh measures, and that the people who were subjected to them deserved everything they got. However, some of those subjected to this treatment have subsequently be released without charge, and the toll which even the mildest of these treatments used in combination over a period of years would take on the human body and psyche is too easy to imagine. That no evidence has ever come forward of useful intelligence ever having been obtained from this treatment goes without saying.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

After the "Grass Mud Horse", the "Hairy Cat"?

Saw this photo of sometimes-controversial Chinese blogger Zuola/Zola* with an toy alpaca and a tufted cat. The alpaca's meaning can be easily worked out by anyone familiar with the Chinese blogosphere, or even those outside of it. The tufted cat's meaning, however, can only be worked out if you realise that "Hairy Cat" (多毛猫) is pronounced similarly to the Chinese word for hide-and-seek (躲猫猫), which links it to a recent case of a prisoner's death in a police-run jail, which the police have sought to blame on a game of hide-and-seek gone bad. How did I work this out? Well, I cheated.

Anyone wanting to buy one of these cute cats can go here.

*The security certificate for Zuola's website appears to be out of date, however none of my anti-spyware/virus stuff seems to be lighting up on it.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis does it 'his way'.

Apparently taking his cue from Ol' Blues Eyes himself, Chris Devonshire-Ellis just doesn't seem able to stay retired. Here's the latest from an email that was leaked to me:

I will continue to commute between Mumbai and Beijing with at least one week a month spent in China. In terms of China Government relations, these are in fact fine. I had dinner with the Vice Minister of Commerce just last week.

I advice this personally so as not to get the China blogs tongues wagging over their annoying tendency to comment and pass judgements based on limited actual knowledge, and so you are aware of what in fact is the situation as regards my position in China and with the firm. My colleagues Alberto Vettoretti and Sabrina Zhang remain, as they have since 2007, the Managing Partners for our China practice.

I would ask this is not posted on any blogs or twittered. I share this information with you as a matter of personal courtesy and for the sake of clarity as concerns recent misleading and inaccurate China media attention. I would appreciate your cooperation.

Why then, am I posting this when it is clearly against his wishes? Well, put simply, the guy already said that he had resigned following the brief monetary turmoil sparked by his farcical faked interview with the head of the CBRC. This is now shown to have been a total lie. Just to remind ourselves of what he actually said in his letter of resignation:

Feb. 23 - Chris Devonshire-Ellis, the senior partner of Dezan Shira & Associates and publisher of China Briefing, has resigned from his positions today. He effectively leaves the business he founded 17 years ago in South China and the publishing company that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

“Due to the serious error of judgment I made publishing details of off-the-record meetings with Chinese ministers, I have decided to step down from these roles,” Devonshire-Ellis said. “My responsibilities will be divided up amongst existing partners and our senior personnel. I have enjoyed working with our staff and clients in helping them prosper and succeed in China and I want to thank all those who have helped me over the past 17 years.”

Managing Partner Alberto Vettoretti is now the senior figure for the firm in China, while Sabrina Zhang remains the national tax partner. Andy Scott, managing editor for China Briefing, will be responsible for editorial control.

Devonshire-Ellis leaves Dezan Shira & Associates with nine China offices, 150 personnel, and an international client base. China Briefing continues to publish a monthly magazine in five languages and a popular series of business investment guides to China.

So the guy who resigned just over a month ago never really left. By his own admission his position is unchanged from 2007. He is also claiming that his relations with the Chinese government are 'fine' after they found out that he was publishing faked interviews with high-level officials. My mole also tells me that CDE's little intimate soirée with the vice-minister was in fact a corporate event which hundreds of people were at as part of an organisation which CDE pays $1000 USD per year to stay part of. It now turns out that, rather than accept the blame for his deception, he was just trying to fob people off. It's time that this charade was brought to an end.