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The dangers of distraction: how pressure on No 10 has international ramifications

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One might easily be forgiven for thinking that the drama over the Downing Street parties is a purely domestic issue. The numerous allegations of parties and eventual admission made by the PM that he was indeed at one of the events has been met with anger and disgust in local constituencies across the nation. Alongside these, good old-fashioned British humour in the form of parodies, memes and sketches have circulated across social media and television, with everyone from football pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher to a group of Boris-masked dancers outside Downing Street mocking the PM.

Yet, a more serious observation of the current situation suggests that the fallout of the revelations may not have only domestic consequences, but international ones too. Many miles from Westminster, Russian military forces numbering around 100,000 have been deployed along the Ukrainian border. Whilst the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister claimed Russia has “no intentions to attack…”, President Putin has suggested “retaliatory military-technical measures” could be implemented, should the West’s approach remain unchanged (BBC News). NATO’s General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg is clear that a risk of conflict is real, and the Pentagon warns of a potential so-called false-flag operation, carried out by Russian operatives as a pretext to invade the Ukraine.

Despite this, the West seems both uncertain and distracted. The US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised questions over to what extent its allies can rely on US support. In Germany, it remains to be seen how a new coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz will fill the boots of Angela Merkel on the global stage, whilst President Macron of France faces a Presidential Election in April. This is capped off by the continuing presence of coronavirus, where cases in Europe continue to rise.

And thus, heads turn towards the UK – a historically critical player in international conflicts and tensions. Yet instead of planning operational responses to potential Russian aggression, two irrelated operations are the talk of Westminster and No10. According to reports from across the political spectrum. Operation ‘Save Big Dog’ and Operation ‘Red Meat’ have been launched in an effort to save the PMs job. Whilst ‘Save Big Dog’ aims to portray a change in culture at Downing Street via a clear-out of officials, Operation ‘Red Meat’ has greater political repercussions.

Operation ‘Red Meat’ can be understood as a rollout of policies popular with Conservative backbench MPs. In other words, they are an effort to appease those MPs who hold Johnson’s political future in their hands. This rollout of multiple policies not only distracts politicians from major foreign policy issues, but could harm operational planning by military branches.

This is best seen in plans to give the Armed Forces, and hence the Navy, command over operations in the Channel, aimed at deterring migrant crossings. The Conservative chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, confirmed to Sky News his belief that such a policy is a “massive distraction” for the military at a time where focus should be on China and Russia. Therefore, government efforts to solve a ‘domestic issue’, prove themselves to have a direct impact on foreign policy and planning.

This does not mean that communication with Ukraine is non-existent. One cannot simply ignore that defence secretary Ben Wallace has confirmed that anti-tank missiles are being supplied to the Ukraine. However, when questioned about what increased support NATO would provide to the Ukraine, should an invasion occur, Wallace merely emphasised his “hope” that the provision of the supplied weapons alongside the threat of sanctions would be enough to deter Russia.

However, history shows that sanctions are often insufficient in deterring Putin from action. Thus, Wallace’s response suggests a lack of planning around how to deal with a potential Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, whilst appreciative of arms support, has said “We are facing the biggest army in Europe by ourselves”. It would be wise of the government to, at this stage, signal an increase in communication with NATO allies in an effort to plan for all possible outcomes, particularly considering President Biden’s admission that NATO remains divided on a response.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to send such a signal when the foreign secretary Liz Truss, who has not visited the Ukraine since the tensions began, is preoccupied with what seem like never-ending talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ironically perhaps, the foreign secretary is only heading these talks as a consequence of the resignation of former Brexit minister Lord Frost, who had concerns over the domestic measures imposed in order to tackle the spread of Omicron cases – another example of how domestic policy has long-term consequences.

Whilst German foreign secretary Annalena Baerbock visited the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Monday, the mirror image of Truss tweeting about talks on a Protocol which everyone hoped we’d heard the last of over two years ago, depict just how much domestic issues have the potential to distract from other foreign policy concerns. Such a view is given further credit with reports of Truss also turning attention to what is being dubbed a “schmooze operation”, in an attempt to win Conservative MP support, in view of a potential leadership campaign should Johnson leave office. Reports of Truss allegedly inviting MPs, including the Conservative leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, to drinks events gives credit to such claims.

These cases emphasise Tobias Ellwood’s words given in a Channel 4 News interview – “We’re all distracted by so many levels here”. And yet, the UK and other big players in Europe, distracted and unclear in their stance, would be key players in NATO decisions, should it come to conflict. A lack of communication and planning between the nations during these tensions could prove catastrophic.

In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to a botched response to Russian action, potentially leaving the West in an even more precarious and uncertain geopolitical situation. Whether states will be able to lay aside their focus on political and practical discussions at home, in order to increase planning and communication with one another in the face of foreign aggression remains to be seen.

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Protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s right to self-government

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While there has been some appreciation of the difficulties caused by the Protocol that the EU has seen fit to impose upon Northern Ireland as part of Brexit, the extent of the difficulties has been, and continues to be, massively under-estimated. One clear example of this tendency is provided by the Sub Committee on the Protocol of the Lords European Affairs Committee. While it is encouraging that the Committee has acknowledged the existence of a democratic problem related to the Protocol that is worthy of consideration, the way in which the Committee has characterised the difficulty as a “democratic deficit” is deeply problematic.

When discussing EU-related challenges, the term “democratic deficit” has a well-established meaning that relates to a difficulty of a wholly different order to that impacting Northern Ireland as a result of the Protocol. It pertains to member states and their electorates (not jurisdictions like the UK, and therein Northern Ireland, that are not part of the EU) and arises from the fact that a large number of EU decisions are made at a supranational level in respect of which it is difficult for national parliaments to secure accountability and yet in relation to which the powers of the European Parliament are either too weak or too inaccessible to voters who instinctively seek accountability on the more immediate national rather than distant supranational basis.

Crucially, however, whilst the democratic deficit is frustrating, it by no means leaves the peoples of the EU without democratic rights. There is a European Parliament representing the people of the EU in and through which they can and do, to some degree, seek to call European governance to account and people can, of course, seek to hold the EU to account through their national governments, which are fully represented in the EU institutions.

By contrast the nature and extent of the democratic problems resulting from the EU Protocol on Northern Ireland are of a wholly different order. Instead of presenting us with a challenge that weakens democratic accountability, creating a shortfall that needs to be made up, the Protocol completely removes representative democracy from Northern Ireland with respect to some 300 areas of law making. The two scenarios – democratic difficulties resulting from membership of the EU and democratic problems resulting from the NI Protocol – are thus like chalk and cheese. The latter requires an entirely different characterisation the former.

The best available framework for coming to terms with the consequences of the Protocol on Northern Ireland is the United Nations category: a “Non Self Governing Territory” (NSGT). The UN definition of an NSGT (a colony) is a jurisdiction any of whose laws or government are made/discharged on its behalf by an external power of which it is not a part and in which it has no representation. This describes the situation facing Northern Ireland today.

Some might object here, pointing out that while in some 300 areas laws are made for Northern Ireland by an external power of which it is not a part, and in relation to which it has no representation, that in all other respects Northern Ireland is self-governing, as part of the United Kingdom. Crucially, however, the UN definition does not require all aspects of government to be made by the external power in order for a jurisdiction to be classed as an NSGT. Indeed, if one looks at the small numbers of colonies that remain in the world today, they tend to have their own legislatures and governments and are deemed by the UN to be colonies because in certain areas they are still governed by an external power in which they are not represented.

This is all rather awkward for champions of the Protocol because the international community has made it very plain, through the UN, that it does not think people should live in states that are governed to any extent by external powers of which they are not a part and in which they have no representation. As a reflection of this, the UN has a standing Committee on Decolonisation (to promote decolonisation), has deemed this the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2021 – 2030) and sets aside each year a UN Week of Solidarity with the Peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories, the 2022 expression of which runs from today 25 May until 31 May.

The Protocol, though, is not just unthinkable because it involves taking a jurisdiction that has enjoyed self-government for over two hundred years and forcing upon it NSGT status. It is also unthinkable because it directly contradicts the Good Friday Agreement which commits to upholding civil rights including “the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations.”

Since the application of the Protocol, the people of Northern Ireland have been unable to pursue national or political objectives democratically, through the ballot box, as they relate to changes in some 300 areas of law because they can neither stand for elected office to become the elected legislator to make those laws, nor can they vote for a candidate to become an elected legislator making those laws. Given Northern Ireland’s history in which some people have sadly turned from the ballot box to violence, it is extraordinary that anyone should deem it appropriate to curtail the impact of our votes, removing some aspects of our lives beyond the reach of our democratic politics.

I welcome the fact that at long last the British government has said it is prepared to do something about the Protocol. At minimum, these changes must end the practice of laws being made for Northern Ireland by a government and legislature of which it is not a part and in which it has no representation. To depart from this would deal a fatal blow to the Good Friday Agreement.

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How the UK can stop Chinese firms profiting from pain

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This week I’ll speak at a cross-party event in Parliament calling on the UK government to act against Chinese companies complicit in the genocide of my people, the Uyghurs. Last month, the Health Secretary announced that Chinese surveillance firm, Hikvision, is banned from competing for new business with the Department of Health and Social Care. This was a welcome decision, and I thanked the Minister at the time for standing firmly with my people. However, more needs to be done to codify a consistent response. Our leaders need to ensure all firms implicated in the horrible and ongoing violations in the Uyghur region are held accountable. We need to ensure there are no holes in our system that can be exploited.

The plight of my fellow Uyghurs still in our homeland is desperate. Conservative estimates place the number of Uyghurs in extrajudicial detention at around one million – but we believe the real figure to be much higher, at over 2 million. The Chinese state and its partners have carried out forced sterilization, “re-education”, and have taken control over, defiled and destroyed my community’s places of worship. This persecution is fuelled by surveillance, and we need to exhibit a comprehensive understanding of the methods that have been used by the Chinese government to turn my homeland into a high-tech open-air prison.  

Hikvision, which is also sanctioned by the United States, contributes to the most recognised form of surveillance in the region. The company manufactures security cameras that use facial recognition to monitor the movement of people throughout the region, including in the so-called “re-education camps” that house Uyghurs against their will. However, there are other, equally troubling forms of surveillance which require a more calibrated response. The leading example is the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), which has been linked to the forced collection of Uyghurs’ genetic data.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for a robust global genomics industry able to track and identify new variants, helping governments prepare and protect accordingly, and yet very little is known about the more insidious aspects of this emerging technology. The Chinese government’s approach to genomics is telling: a 2015 review of its national security strategy highlighted genomics as a national security issue. Considering this was followed by a 2019 law requiring that all Chinese firms cooperate with the state on national security issues, the existence of a large Chinese genomics company with a global footprint is cause for concern.

This brings me back to BGI, which is today one of the largest genomics firms in the world. There is a lot we do not know about BGI’s activities due to a pervasive lack of transparency, but we do know that it has contributed to Chinese state efforts to document the genetic material of Uyghurs and other non-Han ethnic groups and established a ‘judicial collaboration centre’ in the Uyghur homeland. This genetic data collection, and the racial profiling it enabled, was one of the first stages of the genocide currently being perpetrated against my people. The company has also collected the genetic codes of various groups in order to develop strategies to improve combat effectiveness of Chinese troops at high altitudes.

Alarmingly, BGI’s reach extends to our country. Beijing to Britain, an intelligence briefing focusing on China, has described BGI as “a company that has links to British universities, companies and institutions on a scale that would make Huawei blush,” after the Chinese telecoms giant was banned from providing services to Britain’s 5G network. This follows the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) in the United States finding that BGI serves as a “global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases”. 

As recently as last year, BGI Group was awarded a contract by the UK Health Security Agency for testing PCR Pillar 2 COVID-19 samples and is part of the National Microbiology Framework. It also distributes a prenatal test (the ‘Nifty’ test) that collects genetic data from women. Outside of the UK healthcare system, BGI has enjoyed extensive contracts with the university sector and The Wellcome Trust. Doing business with BGI means we are turning our back on human rights and on protecting British people’s most sensitive, private data. While the government was right to ban both Huawei and Hikvision, there are glaring inconsistencies in the UK‘s approach to Chinese firms. 

Our government has been cagey about its own relationship with BGI. In response to a parliamentary question, the government denied that it had any contracts with BGI. This was subject to a belated ministerial correction, accepting that BGI did in fact have a contract with Public Health England. Alarmingly, the government has been unwilling to answer a second parliamentary question about whether a national security assessment was carried out before BGI was contracted to provide genomic sequencing.  

We are calling on the government to create a version of the United States’ “entities list” that can ensure Chinese companies profiting off the back of egregious human rights abuses, and potentially exposing the UK to national security risks, are identified and sanctioned accordingly. Such an entities list would help remove access to public funding, halt partnerships with UK universities and protect the data, including genetic data, of British citizens. 

More needs to be done to ensure a comprehensive defence against Chinese firms that are complicit in the state’s crimes, and the UK needs to end its own naivete about the threats we are facing in this country. An entities list would be an important step forward.

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CICV calls for delay to phase-out of CE mark

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Construction Industry Collective Voice (CICV) is calling on the Scottish government to intervene on the timing of the replacement for CE marking on products, citing a lack of testing capacity.

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