Monday, November 23, 2015

Hope and not terror

The Times, 23 November 2015

If Albert Camus’s claim that he learned about morality and obligation through football is anything to go by, then last Tuesday the world witnessed a splendid example along these lines.

The football match between England and France was characterised by a strong sense of solidarity, symbolised by the singing of the French national anthem and the French flag all over the place.

The 90,000-strong attendance at Wembley stadium gave a shining example of the power of sport to unite people.

Such solidarity was also shown at other international football matches played in the past days, though there were also two bomb scares and some other unfortunate incidents.

The important thing, however, was that Europe stood up to be counted against the terrorist attacks in Paris. Europe showed that despite the psychology of terror propagated by ISIS, life must go on. In short, hope was given precedence over terror.

This sense of hope should ensure that international events such as the Climate Summit and the European Football Championship, and also daily events such as the celebration of everyday life in town squares, should take place.

Indeed, Europe should show resilience, just as it did in other terrible instances throughout its history, when war, intolerance, oppression and totalitarianism blemished the continent.

Europe should not give itself up to the politics of fear and negativism, but should make sure that its values of tolerance, equality, freedom, respect of rule of law are defended and celebrated.

Europe should also support all those who are resisting terrorism outside of Europe’s borders. Beirut and Ankara are only two recent examples of terrorist attacks on common people or on those whose civil society activism supports peace and democracy.

The extremity of ISIS’s methods should remind us of the dangers of all-or-nothing ideologies, as they are essentially anti-democratic and tyrannical.

To the contrary, the democratic structure of the European Union – with all its defects and shortcomings – respects different opinions and cultures, and assumes that no one has a monopoly over knowledge and ideas.

In such a context, European politics are based on adversaries within a democratic game and not enemies in a war. Adversaries play by the rules and respect difference. Conversely, enemies disregard the democratic rules of the game and instead resort to methods such as violence and intolerance.

Statements made by certain Far Right and xenophobic groups within Europe play in the hands of those who want to destroy the basic characteristics of European democracy

ISIS and other terrorist groups are enemies of Europe as they threaten the basic foundations of European democracy. At the same time, the EU and its member states should not embrace internal politics which point towards anti-democratic methods.

It is terrorism that should be treated with an iron fist, but not at the expense of democratic freedoms and inclusive policies.

In this regard, certain statements made by certain Far Right and xenophobic groups within Europe play in the hands of those who want to destroy the basic characteristics of European democracy.

Why should Europe pick upon refugees and cultural minorities, many of whom are actually fleeing from the terror of ISIS and others?

I think the government did the right thing in stating that it will respond to calls for assistance from France, in line with the Constitution. If Malta expects solidarity from other countries should Malta be a victim of terrorist attacks, then it is only fair that Malta plays its part in line with Europe’s mutual-defence clause.

In a society characterised by risks and unknowns, it would be naïve to expect that terrorism will disappear at one go, or through a couple of airstrikes. The potential terrorist is everywhere.

Some are terrorists out of ideological conviction; others are radicalised due to their social networks or social experiences. Hence, a plurality of tactics is required in anti-terrorist strategy, ranging from soft to hard methods, from immediate responses to longer-term processes.

But I think that it will be even more naïve and dangerous not to recognise that you cannot negotiate with terrorism. In such a context one should appreciate the difficult yet vital decisions taken by political leaders to enhance security while defending the values and freedoms of democracy: a democracy based on pluralism, diversity, different opinions and mutual respect.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Banning the Burqa?

Times of Malta. 16 November 2015

Maltese members of parliament were recently discussing whether the burqa should be banned from use in public.

This is not a straightforward issue. It transgresses left and right, liberal and conservative, secular and religious opinions. Many feminists want to ban the burqa and but others don’t. Such divisions exist even internally within political parties and civil society organisations.

There are various arguments characterising the burqa debate, which, in turn, are not necessarily exclusive of each other. In this article I wish to focus on three.

The first argument concerns equality. Here, it is argued that equality should be given precedence over diversity, as sometimes multiculturalism can have its limits, for example when a cultural practice forces women to wear the burqa and to be considered as second-class citizens.

The argument goes that if multiculturalism leads to a moral relativism, then this can lead to a dangerous context of ‘anything goes’, at the expense of equality. ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’ would simply be personal opinions, and no one would have the right to condemn or stop a practice which belongs to a particular culture.

A shortcoming of this approach is that even if one agrees that the burqa is a sign of gender inequality, why not attack this rather than its symbols?

To date I have not seen campaigns in parliament against, for example, the marketisation of the body, which renders human beings as objects, for example on mainstream television programmes.

Another argument deals with security. Here, one can refer to France’s 2010 ban of the public display of religious symbols, including the burqa, and to the European Court of Human Rights’ support of the country’s banning of people covering their face in public.

France had argued that when one’s face is covered in society, this violates a “minimum requirement of life in society”, and the court’s judgement added that “a veil concealing the face” goes against other people’s rights to “live in a space of socialisation”.

The problem with this argument is that it is very arbitrary. Does revealing your face necessarily make you more sociable? If terrorism is seen as a main concern in terms of security, does wearing a veil make you a terrorist? As far as I know, terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the American Oklahoma bomber, did not wear a burqa.

Finally, another argument gives priority to choice. Here, it is stated that in a pluralistic society, people are reflexive and have a right to choose their identity, as long as it does not infringe on the identities of other persons.

Henceforth, the argument adds, women who choose to abide by their religious beliefs by wearing the burqa should be free to do so, just as other women and men get along their daily lives by wearing what they deem fit to wear. Proponents of the choice argument usually add that burqa opponents are concealing their own fear of living with difference, which is a key characteristic of liberal democracy.

Besides, by giving power to the burqa bashers, society can drift towards unnecessary impositions by the state on people’s individuality.

Yet, even this argument has its problems. What if the liberal democracy championed by the supporters of the burqa does not extend to the circumstances of everyday life? Is the burqa really a personal choice or is it an imposition by an ultra-conservative patriarchy within one’s family?

Maybe a pragmatic way forward for the burqa debate would be to see what wearers have to say about this but this option has similar challenges to the ‘choice’ argument.

Given the complexities involved, maybe the burqa issue requires a practical working agreement rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Perhaps it would be wiser to give more importance to civil society deliberation than having a short-termist parliamentary debate that aims to resolve the issue after a few sessions. People and groups from different sides can and should discuss the issue in a spirit of respect. Internally, each group may have its own different voices, yet this diversity can actually encourage broader communication.

In this sense, the burqa debate can lead to a genuine multiculturalism of respect, where cultures learn from each other, rather than a multiculturalism of intolerant identities that do not interact.

My deepest condolences to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. In such dark moments, hope should still guide us. #NousSommesUnis

Monday, November 09, 2015

Żonqor may still be spared

The Times of Malta, 9 November 2015

During last Monday’s Parliamentary Environment Committee meeting, the development proposal for the American University of Malta was once again on the agenda.

I had the opportunity to be present for the meeting, though I chose not to participate in the debate. Its outcome could be given both positive and negative interpretations, depending on one’s position on the issue, and on one’s sense of optimism or lack of it.

One very positive aspect of the meeting was Marlene Farrugia’s chairmanship. She gave ample speaking opportunity to all those who wished to participate, irrespective of whether they were members of Parliament or civil society representatives.

Farrugia made sure that the meeting was held in a spirit of dialogue and respect, and she emphasised some statements to help drive certain points home.

A main protagonist of the meeting was Mepa’s chief executive officer Johann Buttigieg. Buttigieg is a civil servant whose loyalties to his political masters are clear. At the same time he is diplomatic and does not rubbish those who question him.

He dutifully reported that so far, his office has only carried out a desktop study for the site selection exercise, adding that according to the Agriculture Department, Żonqor is characterised by abandoned fields and dumping, and not by agriculture.

The latter statement was immediately shot down by civil society representatives who know the area well or who possess expertise in agriculture. Besides, it was pointed out that Żonqor farmers are being ignored by the government.

Buttigieg also revealed that a full environment impact assessment will be carried out on the university proposal, and that this will consider all possible sites, and not just Żonqor.

Should this important statement give rise to optimism among those active in the defence of Żonqor from development?

Persons in the EIA business know that the norm in EIA studies is to highlight one site at the expense of the rest. Buton the other hand, everything is possible in politics.

In this regard, the site selection exercise carried out by Buttigieg’s office highlights some alternatives to Żonqor, one of which, in Tarxien, was given prominence in the parliamentary meeting.

The land in question does not have environmental or infrastructural challenges which characterise other possible sites (including Żonqor), and it has Mepa’s seal of approval in terms of adequacy.

Indeed, during the meeting, the Mepa CEO said that it is up to government to select Tarxien for the American University of Malta, given that it is suitable.

Given the above, the obvious question is, what is Prime Mister Joseph Muscat waiting for to liberate Żonqor from development?

The ball is clearly in the Prime Minister’s court. This is even more so when both Mepa’s CEO as well as Mario Cutajar, the principal permanent secretary, said that they do not know what the government’s heads of agreement with Sadeen contains.

Cutajar, whose comments during the meeting were curt and carefully worded, also said that the Office of the Prime Minister is considering all feedback regarding the university proposal.

Environment Minister Leo Brincat added spice to the drift of the discussion, stating that he will oppose ODZ development if it is not the last resort.

In the meantime, civil society, opposition political parties and the independent press are all pressing the Prime Minister to publish the heads of agreement with Sadeen, so as to confirm if the government has a commitment to develop at Żonqor.

If government fails to publish the agreement, it would be very difficult to convince critics otherwise.
But what if something else is in the offing? What if the agreement does refer to Żonqor but Muscat is now changing his mind?

Maybe he did not predict that this issue would have mobilised Malta’s largest environmental protest ever, and is now considering the political implications of acting like a bulldozer.

Indeed, it is voters, and not Sadeen,or other developers, who elect political parties. So Muscat can pull a Muscat on the AUM issue, by changing his position due to popular pressure. It would be a win-win situation and Żonqor would be spared from development.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Will the wardens system improve?

Times of Malta, 2 November 2015
Some months ago, Local Councils Parliamentary Secretary Stefan Buontempo said that the warden system had become a ‘ticket-issuing machine’ which required change.
In his words, government’s reform in the sector “will transform wardens from Gestapo officers hiding behind trees ready to suck the money out of citizens’ pockets into friends of our community”. Consequently the new system would be credible, sustainable and would take on a more civil and educational role.
Through the new system, a government agency will regulate the sector and will procure warden services from private operators at a fixed price.
Will this reform produce a better enforcement system?
I for one am not convinced that a centralised agency under the control of central government is the best way forward. True, such an agency may benefit from economies of scale, but on the other hand it may add another layer of bureaucracy to a system which is already characterised by too much red tape and too little transparency and effective results.
Perhaps it would have been better to have a system which gives more power to local councils, which, after all, are more in touch with their localities’ immediate needs.
Questions have also been raised on the method of appointment of the head of the new government agency. It is a political one on the basis of trust, and not on merit through an open, public call for applications.
I do acknowledge that certain positions within the public sector require persons of trust. But I fail to see how the head of an enforcement agency should be handpicked by the respective minister (or prime minister).
Consequently, will the head be loyal to the political whims of his political masters? Will this result in uneven enforcement, for example when elections are approaching?
Notwithstanding the issues I mentioned above, I wish to refer to certain matters which I hope will be tackled by the new agency.
Such a centralised agency may benefit from economies of scale, but on the other hand it may add another layer of bureaucracy
First, I hope that wardens take action against heavy polluters. These include many old cars, certain delivery vans, certain minibuses and coaches, a good deal of construction trucks and other vehicles. They are not only producing pollution levels which should not be tolerated in any self-respecting society but, in the case of commercial vehicles, they are a source of unfair competition to others. For example, in the waste collection sector, some companies are using new trucks which produce minimal pollution, whilst others are using trucks which are only fit for scrapping.
Second, wardens should enforce on bus lanes. I recently learned that only 12 tickets were issued on the Sliema-Gzira one. Is this right, when cowboy drivers frequently swerve into the bus lane at high speed, to the danger of pedestrians and to the frustration of other drivers who follow regulations?
Third, wardens should take immediate action against construction trucks blocking roads without a local council permit, cars parked abusively on pavements, public spaces and other areas for a length of time. I do agree that at times drivers have no choice but to park temporarily in non-parking spaces in the case of deliveries, transportation of kids or elderly persons, and so forth, but this is a far cry from those who permanently park their cars in public areas such as disability ramps and beaches.
In this regard, it is imperative that wardens operate around the clock. As things stand, it is more likely to see wardens operating during office hours, but everyone knows that enforcement is required at all times of the day, including weekends, when local council offices are closed.
Finally, Malta’s enforcement system should make more use of green wardens. Currently, they are too costly for cash-stripped local councils, and hence their deployment is minimal. No wonder that dog pooh, rubbish bags and other unsightly waste feature prominently in various parts of the country.
I agree with Buontempo that wardens have an important educational role. This can help increase a sense of civic pride and respect. But I also wish to remind him that when front seatbelt legislation was introduced, it was the fining system which made it work. The same cannot be said for seatbelts at rear seats.