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The Problem with Referendums

President Juan Manuel Santos was not obliged to hold a referendum to ratify
the deal to end sixty years of war between the Colombian government and FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). It was held because both Santos and the FARC leaders thought a referendum victory would make it harder for any later government to break the deal – but they lost the referendum.

In Sunday’s referendum, slightly more than a third of qualified Colombian voters (37 percent) actually bothered to cast a ballot – and the ‘No’ side won by a sliver-thin majority of 50.2 percent. The ‘Yes’ side, however, got large majorities in the more rural parts of the country that had been devastated by the long war.

In the war zones, most people just wanted the killing to stop, but in the safer urban areas people had the luxury of wondering whether it was morally justifieable to grant an amnesty to rebels who had killed so many people. And as in most referendums, lots of people seized the chance to make a protest vote against the government in general. So the peace deal was lost.

There is no Plan B. “If the public says ‘No,’ the process stops and there will be no result,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. “The consequence of ‘No’ winning is war,” said former President Cesar Gaviria, who led the campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.

That may be too pessimistic, for FARC’s leaders really do want to end the war. “If ‘No’ wins, it wouldn’t mean that the process has to fall apart,” guerrilla negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada said in late June. “We aren’t required by law to decide to continue such a painful war.”

But without the legal protection of the peace deal, many of FARC’s 5,000 fighters will be reluctant to lay down their weapons and come out of the jungle. Why did Santos take the risk of a referendum?

Neither the Colombian constitution nor any other country’s says that peace agreements ending civil wars must be ratified by a referendum. (National constitutions do not even consider the possibility of a civil war.) And when civil wars do end, most governments recognise that emotions are still too raw to put necessary concessions like an amnesty for all the combatants to a popular vote.

At the end of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Nelson Mandela won the country’s first one-person-one-vote election, but he did not hold a referendum asking the voters to approve the agreement he had negotiated with the white minority regime. Instead he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where those who had committed atrocities were asked to admit their crimes, but were not punished.

There was no referendum held to ratify the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that effectively ended the 30-year civil war in Northern Ireland. Nobody asked the Lebanese people to approve the diplomatic Taif Agreement of 1989 that led to an end of the fifteen-year civil war there, and it was the Lebanese parliament, not a referendum, that passed the amnesty law.

A referendum is a very blunt instrument even when the question at issue is less tangled and emotional than a civil war. In the recent referendum on British membership in the European Union, for example, most of the 51.9 percent who voted to leave were really voting against mass immigration (half of which does not come from the EU) and against the impact of globalisation on their living standards.

It’s also easy for a government to write a referendum question that gets the answer it wants. In the Hungarian referendum (also last Sunday) on whether or not to accept some of the refugees who arrive in the European Union, for example, the question was: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

It might as well have read: “Do you want to abandon Hungarian sovereignty and let the EU resettle terrorists here?” Ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban wanted a ‘No’, and he got it: 98 percent of those who voted said ‘No’. (But more than half of the electorate didn’t vote at all, possibly out of contempt for Orban’s blatant attempt to manipulate public opinion.)

Then there was the Greek referendum of July last year, when Prime Minister Tsipras asked the public if it accepted the tough conditions of an EU offer to bail Greece out of a debt crisis once more. He wanted a ‘No’ and he got it (61 percent ‘No’, 39 percent ‘Yes) – but ten days later he ignored the result and agreed to an even harsher offer from the EU. And got away with it.

Referendums are usually “advisory” and do not have the force of law. They rarely have an outcome that could not be achieved by a simple vote in an elected parliament at a hundredth of the cost. And a democratically elected parliament does a much better job of asking and answering the right question.
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To shorten to words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“It’s also…opinion”)

Antibiotic Apocalyse

I have never advocated that people who routinely feed low doses of antibiotics to livestock should be executed without trial. That would be too harsh, too irrevocable. There should be fair trials, and fines for a first offence, and prison for a second. Only habitual offenders should face the death penalty.

But first, there has to be a law. At the moment, it isn’t even illegal in most countries.

At the United Nations last week, every single member country signed a declaration that recognises the rise in antibiotic resistance as a threat to the entire enterprise of modern medicine. It’s a start, but that’s all it is – and time is running out.

“The emergence of bacterial resistance is outpacing the world’s capacity for antibiotic discovery,” World Health Organisation director-general Margaret Chan warned the meeting. “With few replacement products in the pipeline, the world is heading toward a post-antibiotic era in which common infections will once again kill.”

The declaration urges countries to cut back on the use of existing antibiotics in order to preserve their effectiveness, to make better use of vaccines instead, and to spend more money on developing new antibiotics. It doesn’t put any actual money on the table, however, and it doesn’t even make make it illegal to pump “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics into
farm animals. (It can’t. National governments have to do that.)

I was not really recommending the death penalty for feeding antibiotics to livestock. That was just for dramatic effect. But the reckless misuse of antibiotics is rapidly destroying their effectiveness.

A recent study by Public Health England found that the proportion of campylobacter bacteria that are resistant to ciproflaxin, the standard antibiotic in cases of food poisoning, has risen from 30 percent to 48 percent in just the past ten years. If we don’t stop the rot we are heading back to the 19th century in terms of our ability to control infections. Even minor wounds and simple operations will carry the risk of death.

The same goes for communicable diseases. In the 19th century tuberculosis was the biggest killer of young and middle-aged adults in Europe and America. With the discovery of streptomycin in 1944, isoniazid in 1952, and rifamptin in the 1970s it ceased to be a major health problem. But now the drug resistance has grown so great that at least 190,000 people worldwide died of tuberculosis last year.

The problem of bacterial resistance has been understood for a long time. If the antibiotic kills all the harmful bacteria it targets in the person or animal it is given to, then no resistance develops. But if it only kills off the weaker ones because it was a very low dosage, or because the course of drugs was not finished, then the surviving bacteria will be the most resistant ones.

They will pass their resistance on to all their descendants, who will undergo similar episodes of winnowing out the the less resistant ones many more times, and gradually the resistance grows. The only way to keep antibiotics effective, therefore, is to use them as rarely as possible, and to make sure that they kill off all the target bacteria when they are used.

We are not doing this. Doctors over-prescribe antibiotics, often giving them to people who do not have bacterial infections just to get them out of their offices (and sometimes getting a kickback from drug companies for each prescription they write). And nobody makes sure that patients complete the course of treatment even though they already feel better.

Much worse is the widespread practice of giving regular low doses of antibiotics to cattle, pigs and chickens, partly as a means of controlling the spread of disease in their cramped and insanitary living conditions, but mostly because it makes them put weight on more quickly. Getting them to the slaughterhouse a week or two faster is money in the hand.

This insanely greedy and reckless practice is now banned in the European Union, but it is still commonplace in China and the United States. In fact, 80 percent of American antibiotic production goes to farm animals who are not ill, and as intensive farming methods spread to developing countries so does antibiotic use in agriculture.

This has to stop. So does over-prescribing by doctors in developed countries, and the over-the-counter sale of antibiotics without prescriptions that is so normal in many developing countries. “We are now staring at overwhelming evidence of rampant antibiotic resistance, across all ages, all over the country,” said Dr Vinod Paul, head of pediatrics at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.

We also need a whole new generation of antibiotics to replace those that are hopelessly compromised, which requires persuading large pharaceutical companies to change their research priorities. (They make more money by developing new drugs that address the chronic health problems of the affluent, so we’ll have to subsidise them.)

It all has to be done, and it has to start now. “On current trends,” said Dr. Chan at the UN, “a common disease like gonorrhea may become untreatable. Doctors facing patients will have to say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you’.”
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“A recent…year”)

Hungary: Closing the Border

“Hungary is not far away from issuing orders to open fire on refugees,” said one of the European Union’s foreign ministers on Tuesday, and called for the country to be suspended or even expelled from the EU because of its “massive violation” of the EU’s fundamental values. And it’s true that Hungary has built a 175-km. razor-wire fence along its southern border to keep migrants out.

It has deployed ten thousand police and soldiers along that border, and is recruiting
3,000 “border-hunters” equipped with pepper-spray and loaded pistols to help them in their task. And on 2 October it will hold a special referendum asking Hungarians: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

The answer that Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants is“No”, and he is certain to get it. He was an anti-Communist student radical when I first interviewed him almost thirty years ago in the dying days of the Soviet empire. Now he is a right-wing demagogue – but he knew what Hungarians really thought about Communist rule then, and he understands what they think about giving asylum to Muslim refugees now.

The EU foreign minister who made that incendiary remark about Hungarians shooting refugees was Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, the smallest of the EU’s 28 countries, and the foreign ministers of several bigger EU countries, including Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, immediately condemned it.

Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said that Asselborn has “long left the ranks of politicians who could be taken seriously,” and has become a “frivolous character” who is “patronising, arrogant and frustrated”. He also called Asselborn a “classic nihilist” who works tirelessly to destroy Europe’s security and culture.

Szijjarto will not be alone in his views on Friday, when 27 EU foreign ministers (the British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, was not invited) gather in Bratislava for an informal summit. The official topic is the European Union’s future post-Brexit, but they will also be debating what to do about the million-plus migrants, most of them Syrian, Iraq and Afghan refugees, who arrived in the EU in the past eighteen months.

It’s not just Hungarians who want to keep Muslim refugees out of the EU. Right-wing nationalists in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and even Austria feel the same, and they dominate the governments in most of those countries. They see the more relaxed attitude of the big Western European members to “multi-culturalism” as a slow-motion form of cultural suicide (which is why Szijjarto called Asselborn a “classic nihilist”).

Most Eastern Europeans think this way because they have a different history. They experienced almost no immigration under four decades of Communist rule, and it is usually the places with few or no immigrants that are most terrified of them. They also remember centuries of being attacked and invaded by a Muslim great power, the Ottoman Empire (which ruled most of Hungary for more than 150 years).

This does not excuse their extreme views about Muslim refugees – “Calling someone a moderate Muslim is like calling someone a moderate Nazi,” said Czech President Milos Zeman five years ago – but it does explain them. They think the Germans are crazy to let a million Muslim migrants in, and they have no intention of sharing that burden even if Berlin and the other big Western capitals say they should.

You can and should condemn this attitude to desperate and mostly harmless refugees – even though there will inevitably be a few “sleepers” among them who are loyal to Islamic State – but you can’t just ignore it. Global refugees are more numerous today than at any other time since 1950, but in twenty years there will probably be five or ten times as many – and the borders will be slamming shut everywhere.

The immediate driver of this tsunami of refugees will often be wars, but what drives the wars will be climate change and runaway population growth. Africa’s population will double in the next thirty years, just as global warming cuts deeply into the continent’s food production.

The population growth rate of the greater Middle East, from Morocco to Pakistan, is lower than Africa’s but higher than any other region. Many countries can’t grow enough to feed their own people even now, and intense heat and semi-permanent drought will make the problem far worse.

There will be tens of millions of refugees, and their destination will be the relatively developed and well-fed countries of Europe (and, in the case of refugees from central and southern Africa, South Africa as well). Similar waves of climate refugees will be washing up against the southern border of the United States and the northern coast of Australia.

The Hungarians may not end up shooting refugees on their southern border this time around. It’s still a quite small problem: one or two million refugees in the European Union (pop. 500 million) is really only a drop in the bucket.

But with time the number of refugees will grow, and politics everywhere is vulnerable to demagogues. In 30 years’ time, and perhaps much sooner, there may be shooting along all these borders.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Most…should”)

Eighty Years On: Is 2016 the New 1936?

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx, 1852

We would all prefer a farce to a tragedy, so let us hope that Marx was right. But he has been wrong a few times in the past, so we must entertain the possibility that what awaits us is tragedy.

The “first time”, in this instance, was the 1930s, when the painfully slow recovery from a global financial crash led to political polarisation, beggar-my neighbour trade wars, and the rise to power of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist leaders in a number of countries. The consequences included the Second World War, death camps, the first and only use of nuclear weapons, and forty years of Cold War.

Well, we had our global financial crash in 2008, and the recovery has certainly been slow. Average incomes in many Western countries have still not recovered to pre-2008 levels, and the growth of nationalist and racist sentiment is evident in major countries like Britain (the Brexit vote), France (the rise of the National Front), and above all the United States (Trump).

The wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that transformed so many developing countries at the end of the Cold War ended with the failure of the “Arab Spring”, leaving a new dictatorship in Egypt and civil wars across the Middle East. In parts of Asia the process has even gone into reverse (military rule in Thailand, death squads run by populist elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia).

Authoritarian, ultra-nationalist governments hostile to the European Union have come to power in post-Communist Eastern Europe (Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice government in Poland). And a trade war is brewing between the United States and China no matter who wins the US election in November.

You could add to the list of worries a new ruler in China (Xi Jinping) who is more autocratic and readier to play the nationalist card than any other Chinese leader since Mao, and a Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe) who promises to remove the anti-war clause from the constitution. Not to mention that addict to high-stakes international brinkmanship, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Quite a list, but does it really mean that we are back in 1936 (fascists in power in Germany, Italy and Japan, civil war in Spain, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union), with the catastrophe of global war just three years away? Or is it just a grab-bag of local problems, failures and worries of the sort that are bound to exist in a world of almost 200 independent countries? Probably the latter.

Right- and left-wing parties are a legitimate and inevitable part of any democratic society, but they both tend to spin off or mutate into more extreme and paranoid versions of themselves in times of economic hardship. It is difficult to argue, however, that the times are really that bad at the moment.

Times are very hard in most developed countries for the old working class, who have been left behind by globalisation, and that is where most of the support for right-wing extremism comes from. But there really aren’t enough of them to take over the state: Trump will not win in November, the National Front will not win next year’s French election, and the Brexiteers in Britain – well, that remains to be seen.

The Middle East is a disaster area, of course, but it is a pretty isolated disaster area, apart from occasional small-scale terrorist outrages in Western countries. To live in fear of a world-wide Islamic caliphate is as delusional as to hope for it.

Democracy is not in retreat in Africa or Latin America, and the pluses and the minuses more or less balance out in Asia (military rule in Thailand and more authoritarian elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia, but more democracy in Burma and Sri Lanka). Nor should we see the triumph of a couple of ultra-nationalist parties in traditionally nationalist Eastern European countries as a sign of things to come in the rest of Europe.

This is not to say that the European Union will survive in the long term without major changes. We are going through a historic shift of the centre of gravity of the global economy from the North Atlantic world to Asia, and many things will have to change as a result.

It is possible that the United States and China might stumble into a military confrontation at some point: that risk is implicit in the kind of power shift that is underway in the early 21st century. But we are not on the brink of any great and awful calamity in the world. It is not 1936.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Right…moment”; and “This is…result”)