Tag Archives: Switzerland

δημοκρατία: Democracy remains a Greek word

images-10

Are referenda back in fashion?

The quip or blunder about whether or not the French know the meaning of the word “entrepreneur” is often attributed to George W. Bush (like so much else). By comparison, there can be less ambiguity about whether “democracy” is still a Greek word – especially after the result of last Sunday’s referendum.  European heads of state will meet tomorrow (12 July) in Brussels to negotiate over whether Greece remains in the Eurozone. Last Sunday’s referendum gave the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, the political capital he needed to gain the backing of the Greek parliament last night – having delivered a decisive “No” (60%) to the previous terms from Eurozone. 12 hours ago, the Athens Parliament gave Tsipras the authority to negotiate a new bailout by 250 votes to 32. Such a mandate would have been inconceivable only a week ago.

It is still anyones guess whether tomorrow will see the emergence of any new bailout offer between the Eurozone and Greece, or even whether it is in either’s interests to do so. But the referendum has unquestionably given Tsipras much greater authority – strengthening his social contract with the Greek people. The referendum was a gamble, but clearly one worth taking whatever the outcome of the bailout negotiations and Greece’s future in the Eurozone or even European Union. A deal that Tsipras could never have sold back at home would have been in no one’s interests, so the referendum is actually in the interests of his country’s creditors too – even if they did not express this sentiment at the time.

There have been plenty of other referenda in Europe over recent years, one of the most recent, before the Greek vote, being Scotland’s 2014 vote on whether it remained part of the United Kingdom (the Catalonian unofficial referendum a few months later was not recognised by the Madrid government). Recently the UK Government has confirmed that another referendum will be held in the next two years, this time about the UK’s ongoing membership of the European Union. Previously, Scandinavian countries have had referenda about whether or not to join the European Union (EU), and Ireland, France and the Netherlands have also held referenda on specific EU treaty requirements. Sometimes referenda have led to de facto changes in international boundaries – such as those in Kosovo in 1991 or Crimea in 2014 – or to legitimise existing territorial claims – such as in the Falkland Islands in 2013. In countries where referenda are a regular occurrence, such as Switzerland, they seem to be becoming more frequent with up to 10 a year now; likewise in many US states such as California and Arizona.

There are two schools of thought. Those following the social contract theories of Locke or Rousseau tend to see them as a valuable extension of democracy – in fact Rousseau’s ideal “Republic” would have a referendum on every issue (each of us would be so well informed that we could vote before coffee each morning). Others despise them, such as the former British politician and European Commissioner, Chris Patten, who stated in an interview:

“I think referendums are awful. The late and great Julian Critchley used to say that, not very surprisingly, they were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue politicians during an election campaign say oh we’re not going to talk about that, we don’t need to talk about that, that’s all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign the Euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak.”

It should be noted that Chris Patten was also Britain’s last Governor to Hong Kong which was returned to China in 1997 – without a referendum. One can expect him to have strong feelings on the subject, as do many residents in Hong Kong to this day as it happens (as demonstrated during the 2014 protests). It is true that referenda have been the ally of despots to legitimise their annexation of territory but perhaps there is now more evidence, over recent years, that referenda are becoming part of the social licence of democratically elected and accountable governments – winning an election every four or five years is essential but not always sufficient when it comes to major issues of identity or self-determination. The important caveat, and it is an important one, is that law matters and when referenda run against the fundamental values of a nation, then constitutional courts can override such popular expression – as we have seen in the USA on the issue of gay marriage.

So, referenda are no silver bullet, but perhaps they are making a come back as an essential addition to the legitimacy of governments. Perhaps Rousseau was right all along.

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: Are your gifts conflict free?

gift

If you are engaged in seasonal gift giving during December, or at any other time of the year for that matter, have you thought about the origin of what lies inside the box? All gift givers might like to tune into this week’s events at the United Nations.

If you are lucky enough to ever receive a diamond (the way Naomi Campbell is reported to have done one night in South Africa in 1997), then there is a chance you will know, or can find out, the mine from which it was dug. “Diamonds are forever”, but perhaps “blood diamonds” are not – given the publicity generated by the film of that name, the International Criminal Court (especially when supermodels testify) and the Kimberley Process between states –which has tried to establish some certification from the mine for larger diamonds at least, albeit a flawed one according to the NGO Global Witness who left the Process in 2011.

However, conflict metals and minerals are a much broader issue than glamorous rocks alone. For most of us, a mobile phone is a much more likely gift: there as many phones as people on the planet now.  Three wise men bearing gifts these days are unlikely to bring Frankincense and Myrrh, but there will be Gold – in their phones that is – together with Aluminium and small amounts of Antimony, Barium, Beryllium, Cobalt, Copper, Chromium, Gallium, Indium, Lead, Manganese, Nickel, Palladium, Platinum, Ruthenium, Rare Earths and Silver. In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), known for its horrendous internal conflicts, it is Tin, Tantalum, Tungsten as well as Gold that are most associated with fuelling the conflict and which are the focus of Section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act in the USA and now extended internationally through the OECD Due Diligence Guidance. You might like to hope that your electronic gift contains no conflict minerals but how do you know? You might like to ask your high street brands what precisely they are doing about it before making the purchase and hopefully there will be a coherent response. Some niche brands (such as “FairPhone”) make specific guarantees whilst helping to maintain trade with conflict-free miners in the DRC, many steps down the supply chain. For those only interested in the hard stuff, Fairtrade Gold is also available, where miners will receive a minimum price of 95 per cent of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) price for their gold.

For those of you who think it is just western governments think about this, think again. Global Witness does not often commend a government but it did on 24 October 2014 when the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Imports and Exports, which is supervised by the Ministry of Commerce, launched its due diligence guidelines for Chinese mining companies operating abroad. These guidelines cover a range of environmental, labour and human rights considerations. This is part of a wider trend towards a stronger focus on companies disclosing payments to host governments in order to fight corruption, as highlighted by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as well as the reporting criteria of an increasing number of stock exchanges. In Switzerland, one of the leading global hubs in commodity trading, the Government has committed itself to bringing the industry and civil society around a table to agree standards and an implementing mechanism. It is a shame, at least to me, that the recent European Commission proposals stopped short of requiring companies to report on such issues, and that the American Petroleum Institute still fights mandatory disclosure of revenues as set out in Dodd Frank 1504.

On 2 December I have the privilege to moderate a discussion in the United Nations in Geneva (as part of the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights) where representatives of both the US Government and China will elaborate further on their plans, as well as perspectives from key mining countries such as Chile and Myanmar.

There is much moving in the wrong direction in the world at the moment, but for those looking for stars to wish upon, here is one – that governments from all corners of the planet might increasingly cooperate to ensure global supply chains are free of conflict minerals and human rights violations. There are no awards to be given out, the domestic nature of mining in all these and other countries is still far too hazardous and communities all too often adversely impacted upon and inadequately consulted. But if we can all help to make state-state cooperation on such issues more normal, then there is a greater chance that business too will not compete on their social and environmental responsibilities. Conflict-free metals and minerals – what better gift could there be?