On Writing – The fourteen-year-old test

Every organisation that is around for long enough develops its own jargon. One question that we in ESI ask ourselves often is whether a given draft “can be understood by a perceptive fourteen-year-old.” Does it meet the fourteen-year-old test?

The logic behind this is simple: whether we write about the Bosnian constitution, rural poverty, election monitoring, the furniture business in Turkey or the European statistical system, we try to communicate with people from many countries with different backgrounds. We imagine a group of readers consisting of a Bosnian minister, a Turkish journalist, an Italian diplomat and an American NGO activist. We assume that our readers are experts in their fields, experienced and pressed for time. We do, however, assume that they are as impatient with bad writing as we are.

A literate and curious fourteen-year-old already knows a lot about the world and is eager to learn more every day. What she is not yet familiar with is the jargon in any field. She is also likely to ask what a certain concept actually means when it is first encountered, whether “human capital”, “free and fair elections”, a “functioning market economy” or “annual GDP growth.” Or what the purpose of any text or discipline is.

Marc Bloch
Marc Bloch – great writer

In his book The Historian’s Craft Marc Bloch, one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, put himself in the position of a father asked by his child: “What is the use of history?” And then he sets out to answer this simple but certainly not childish question in a book written while he was already part of the French resistance in 1942. (He was later arrested and shot by the Gestapo).

When the stakes are real, there is no time for any but important questions to be addressed. And to always aim, even if one falls short, for the elegance and simplicity of masters like Bloch.

To write in “Fourteenish” is thus to write for a broad audience of concerned readers; eager to learn but impatient; for readers interested in a wide variety of issues on which they cannot always be experts; for readers who always ask: “What is the point?”

As William Zinsser put it in his classic On Writing Well – required reading for anybody drafting policy papers – “writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say?” And writers must remember:

“In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing readers through sloppy workmanship. If they doze off in the middle of your article, because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours.”

One of the ambitions of this blog is to begin to “translate” policy papers on different issues, in particular texts on economic development and EU policy, into Fourteenish.

We begin this series of with Reflections on (not) writing well on economies; followed by a look at a thought-provoking and lucid policy paper, the 2015 Kosovo NERP (National Economic Reform Programme).

PS: If you come across any text – a policy paper or an academic report – which you believe deserves to be held up as an example of a particularly badly or well written text, please send it to g.knaus@esiweb.org.

On the future European order – Ouroboros and why the crisis in Strasburg matters

Ouroboros – the snake that devours itself

If you come to our website often you will have noticed that ESI writes a lot about the Council of Europe. You might wonder why. Are there no other, more important European issues? And why is our stance so critical?

One reason that we keep returning to issue relating to the Council of Europe is that almost nobody else does, outside of a small group of human rights activists mainly concerned about the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan.

For large European think tanks and for most European media, the crisis in the Council of Europe still does not exist. Or does not really matter. Why care about debates in PACE, or about what the secretariat in Strasburg does or does not do, when there is a war in Ukraine, crises in the Middle East and challenges to democracy in old and new EU members?

We at ESI disagree. We believe that when the institution that gave us today’s European flag, and that remains the guardian of the moral constitution of democratic Europe – the European Convention on Human Rights – is fatally undermined, this points to a very serious crisis for all of Europe. It is a wound that must not be allowed to fester. Today the Council of Europe resembles Ouroboros, the snake of Greek mythology that devours itself … in this case, by destroying the moral basis on which it was founded.

Look at the European order today, and Europe’s big three organisations: the OSCE, the EU and the Council of Europe.

The OSCE has a justification as a forum for debate even with autocracies. This was its original conception in Helsinki in 1975. This is why Belarus (and Uzbekistan and the Vatican) can be members today.

The EU has to defend its own standards internally (and do a much better job at this) and externally, in particular when it comes to its ongoing enlargement talks.

For the Council of Europe, however – the first institution to enlarge to almost all of Europe in the 1990s – the current crisis of values, norms and credibility is existential. It has to be a club of European democracies, or it does not have any reason to exist.

This is why Belarus is not a member today. This is why Russia and Azerbaijan currently have no place as members, unless things change in both countries. There really is no use for an institution focusing on human rights and democracy when these standards are defined by autocracies and thus undermined for everyone else.

ESI strongly believes that the Council of Europe should matter. It should be talked about more. It should be given the resources to fulfil its crucial role better. But the key recource missing today is not money, but attention. Think tanks and media should follow what happens in Strasburg. It is a shame that the foreign ministers of influential countries attend its meetings so rarely (to begin with Germany and France) and that parliaments throughout Europe pay so little attention.

We believe that it is important to preserve the idea that one day the European Convention on Human Rights will be the normative basis for all of Europe (including Russia and the South Caucasus), not just the current European Union. Just as it was crucial to preserve this aspiration in the decades prior to 1989 in a divided Europe. It may look unlikely now; it definitely looked implausible then.

Europe's moral constitution
Europe’s moral constitution

For what is the European Convention? It is the basis of civilised life, in a continent known as much for autocracy and human rights violations as it is known for the enlightenment and rights.

It is comprised of the following basic commitments, that are once again under pressure across the continent:

Article 1 Respecting the rights in this convention

Article 2 The right to life – a duty to refrain from unlawful killing and to investigate suspicious deaths

Article 3 Prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There are no exceptions on this right.

Article 4 Prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour

Article 5 Provides the right to liberty, subject only to lawful arrest

Article 6 Provides a detailed right to a fair trial

Article 7 Prohibits retroactive criminalisation

Article 8 Provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, home and correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.

Article 9 Provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Article 10 Provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.

Article 11 Protects the right to freedom of assembly and association.

It is irresponsible to close our eyes to the fact that today the European Convention is being mocked by certain member states of the Council of Europe, not occasionally but systematically. Today these core articles are not only disregarded but also openly challenged.

If Azerbaijan or Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe today (or would preemtively leave voluntarily) then this does not mean that a democratic Azerbaijan or Russia might not one day join again. In fact, that would be the goal. It would give human rights defenders in these countries a clear objective. And they should be supported in this in all possible ways. Greece was not in the Council of Europe under military rule in 1968 … and later rejoined it as a democracy.

Today we have the worst of all worlds. We see the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights mocked, the institution and its bodies paralysed. We see these institutions turned against the very people in those countries who defend them there … and who risk jail and worse for doing so.

We see democrats indifferent to the institution, while autocrats invest resources to capture and manipulate this critical intervention. Things are upside down. It is time to put them back in order.

We have written before about parallels between the fate of the League of Nations and what is currently happening in Strasburg (See : Europe’s Abyssinian Moment).

Here is another thought-provoking parallel from Europe’s early 20th century history. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference East European nations signed treaties guaranteeing rights to minorities. These treaties called for religious freedom and civic equality. Minorities were granted the right of petition to the League. Governments in Eastern Europe complained about these “unjust requirements that the great powers did not impose on themselves”. These countries had a point. However, the proper response to this complaint was not to water down these rights, but to apply them equally to everyone.

Instead, the solution chosen was the worst of all. These rights were never applied and these treaties were never taken seriously. Despite there being a special League of Nations Minorities section it proved to be a “weak reed”: of 883 petitions the League received between 1920 and 1939, only four resulted in condemnation of the accused state. When the first anti-Jewish university quota system was introduced in Hungary in 1920 protests at the League of Nations failed to secure the law’s withdrawal. (For more on this see Bernard Wasserstein’s fascinating book “On the Eve – the Jews of Europe before the Second World War.)

Perhaps then too there were serious and influential people who thought that Europe had more important problems than to defend norms and treaties concerning human rights in small East European nations.

However, this assumption was wrong then and it is wrong now. The crisis in Strasburg matters not just to a few brave human rights defenders on the European periphery. It matters to all of us.

This contradiction matters
This contradiction matters

PS: For more on the crisis of the Council of Europe, see also the latest ESI newsletter:


A Europe without political prisoners? ESI in Stockholm

What would it take for the vision of a Europe without political prisoners to become a reality in the 21st century?
The Congress of Europe, held in The Hague and presided over by Winston Churchill, proclaimed in 1948 the need for “a Charter of Human Rights guaranteeing liberty of thought, assembly, and expression as well as the right to form a political opposition”:

The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law … To rebuild Europe from its ruins and make its light shine forth again upon the world, we must first of all conquer ourselves.”

The Statutes of the Council of Europe, signed at St. James Palace in London in May 1949, committed all members of this new organization to respect “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their people and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law.”
The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ready for signature in Rome in 1950, then spelled out these fundamental civic and political rights, which “the governments of European countries which are like-minded” committed to respect.
Repression of liberty of thought and of political opposition in Europe did not end with the creation of the Council of Europe and the adoption of the Convention, however. Hearing about two Portuguese students in Lisbon, sentenced to seven years imprisonment for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom motivated the British human rights lawyer Peter Benenson to write an article in the Observer about “forgotten prisoners” in 1961. He started:
“Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find areport from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. There are several million such people in prison—by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains—and their numbers are growing. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all oer the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.”
At the time five of Benenson’s eight “forgotten prisoners” were Europeans: a Romanian philosopher, a Spanish lawyer, a Greek trade unionist, a Hungarian Cardinal and the archbishop of Prague. Benenson of course went on to set up an innovative and new organisation in the wake of his successful camapaign: Amnesty International.
However, neither Portugal nor Spain, neither Romania nor Hungary nor Czechoslovakia were then members of the Council of Europe (Greece would withdraw from it in 1969 following its military coup). None of them had accepted and ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. More than half a century has since passed. The Council of Europe has expanded dramatically so that today 47 countries with a total population of 800 million people have pledged to respect the fundamental rights of the European Convention. But today there is again a challenge to its core values, and this time it is one that has emerged within the very institutions that were meant to protect them.
In October 2012 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a definition of “political prisoner”.  This definition was first developed by eminent European human rights lawyers working for the secretary general of the Council of Europe as independent experts. The adoption of this definition, following a heated and controversial debate, came at a moment of growing concern that in a number of Council of Europe member states we see a new wave of trials for political motives.  In some countries, one sees the re-emergence of the phenomenon familiar from an earlier period of European history: dissidents, sent to jail for speaking out loud.
The immediate question that emerged now was obvious: how would such a definition become operational? The first attempt to apply it – in the case of Azerbaijan in January 2013 – ended in defeat in the Parliamentary Assembly (see more here: http://www.esiweb.org/index.phplang=en&id=156&document_ID=136)
There are many wider policy questions raised by all this –which ESI together with the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation explores this week at a seminar in Stockholm: What should and could be done by the institutions of the Council of Europe to operationalize the definition of political prisoner that has just been adopted? Is the current system of monitors capable of confronting systemic violations? Are other member states, who are committed to defend the European Convention of Human Rights, able to define red lines that must not be crossed by Council of Europe members with impunity? How can European civil society do even more to use existing institutions and commitments to resist a rising authoritarian temptation?
The October 2012 PACE resolution sets concrete criteria for what defines a “political prisoner.”. According to Resolution 1900, adopted in a 100-64 vote, a person shall be regarded as a political prisoner if he or she has been deprived of personal liberty in violation of guarantees set forth by the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of expression and information; and freedom of assembly and association. Additional criteria include detention imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offense; the length or conditions of detention being clearly out of proportion to the offense; a clearly discriminatory manner of the detention; and unfair, politically motivated proceedings leading to the imprisonment.
But what can institutions like the Council of Europe do, going forward, to better defend the ideal of a Europe in which the values of the ECHR are fully respected and in which there would not be any political prisoners in the sense of the definition adopted by PACE in October 2012 (see below). Of course there is always the European Court of Human Rights for individual cases, but what if problems of political prisoners become systemic? It is important to put this debate in the current European context of challenges to the convention, including politically motivated arrests.
Situations are obviously different even among countries in which problems exist. Azerbaijan and Russia, along with several other post-Soviet states, are today members of the Council of Europe. Yet in recent years governments in these countries have become increasingly aggressive in challenging core values of the Convention – through legislation and through systematic arrests and intimidation of critics and possible political opposition. They have thus tested the instruments and institutions of today’s human rights regime in Europe and have found them to be weaker and easier to manipulate than anybody would have expected in the 1990s. Four decades after the rest of Europe learned about “dissidents” in former communist countries a new generation of dissidents is emerging in the European East … yet this time in countries which insist to be considered “like-minded members” of the club of European democracies.
Furthermore two other members of the Council of Europe, Turkey and Georgia, have also come into focus in this context, though
evidently the situation in both of these two countries are very different from that in Moscow and Baku, as well as very different from each other. In Turkey we have conceptually at least three different kinds of issues. There is a pattern – for decades – of a judiciary using repressive laws to attack free speech in the name of public morality; there are a range of cases on the basis of anti-terror legislation; and there are the recent high-profile cases against senior military officers and the “deep state”. There is noticeably a lot more freedom of speech than one decade ago, with competitive elections; yet there are also de facto more journalists in jail in Turkey than in any other countries in the world. The trials against many senior military members have been a key tool in a struggle by a civilian government to break the hold of power of the military; and yet there are many signs that they are also political trials, not too concerned about evidence and fairness. How promising then are current efforts to promote reforms of the legislation and the judiciary in Turkey to address such problems? Is the definition of political prisoners, is the Council of Europe a useful reference point in a Turkish context?
In contrast to its Caucasian neighbours, Georgia has seen a democratic election lead to a real change in power in October 2012; and there are strong and protective laws on freedom of speech. The Council of Europe definition on political prisoners has recently also been applied to set
people free from jail.  At the same time there are growing concerns about prosecutions of former UNM members. A lingering question is whether these cases will turn into witch-hunts, whether the judiciary will be able to preserve credibility and fairness, and how to ensure that the behaviour of the executive and prosecutors remains within limits of rule of law.
The aim of the Conference is to have an open discussion on the issues of political prisoners and political persecution, rule of law and the role of the judiciary overall in the context of the cooperation within the Council of Europe, in particular in the member states mentioned. The discussions will also focus on how the Council and its member states should act in a consistent fashion in addressing these issues.  And what options there are for different instruments available to in the Council of Europe framework to have more impact on the human rights situation in member states: the parliamentary assembly (PACE) and its monitors, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers and the office of the secretary general.
Some recommended reading:
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, The Definition of Political Prisoner, 2012
Rapporteur of the committee of Legal Affairs of PACE, The follow up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
European Stability Initiative, Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012
European Stabiliy Initiative, Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013
Human Rights Watch, Laws of AttritionCrackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency, 2013                                http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/04/24/laws-attrition
Andrew Drzemczewksi, The Prevention of Human Rights Violations: Monitoring Mechanisms of the Council of Europe, 1999
PS: The Council of Europe definition of political prisoner states:
The Assembly declares that a person deprived of his or her personal liberty is to be regarded as a “political prisoner” :
a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees  set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and  information, freedom of assembly and association;
b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to  any offence;Those deprived of their personal liberty for terrorist crimes shall not be considered political prisoners for having been prosecuted and sentenced for such crimes according to national legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights.
c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of  proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared  to other persons; or,
e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears  to be connected with political motives of the authorities.

Reflections on Interventions and the EU. Short guide to a big debate

Slide presentation, discussion and public debate

Friday 26 November Haus der Musik (Vienna), 15:00

The future of liberal imperialism and European foreign policy

Minna Jarvenpää Gerald Knaus Miroslav Lajcak Rory Stewart
Minna Jarvenpaa Gerald Knaus Miroslav Lajcak Rory Stewart

ESI picture story: Liberal imperialism (2003)

In early 2010 Rory Stewart, then professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and myself, a visiting fellow at the Carr Center, taught a joint weekly seminar on state building and intervention. Out of this grew an ambitious book project on the future of international interventions and an abiding interest in comparing experiences and possible lessons from the big interventions of the past two decades: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Friday, 26 November 2010, Rory will come to Vienna. We will present at a public event jointly organised by Erste Stiftung and ESI, in the context of a debate on future visions for European foreign policy.

In Vienna we will be joined by two other panelists, experienced practitioners in the field of these ambitious state building missions.

One is Minna Jarvenpaa, who worked in senior positions for OHR (Bosnia), UNMIK (Kosovo), UNAMA (Afghanistan) as well as for former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. The other is Miroslav Lajcak, one of the most experienced European diplomats of his generation, former Foreign Minister of Slovakia, former High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and former Special Envoy in charge of dealing with the complex issue of Montenegrin independence.

For those who want to come to this event, please check out the official invitation here.

Also, if you are interested in doing some background reading on the topic, here are five of the most interesting background texts on the subject, capturing some of the debate in the past years.

Kofi Annan

1. Kofi Annan’s “Reflections on Intervention”

Against the background of a worsening crisis in Kosovo, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan gave a visionary speech on the future of intervention in 1998.  He started out by presenting a traditional view in which “intervention” is seen as the enemy of state sovereignty and international law:

“Our century has seen many examples of the strong “intervening” – or interfering – in the affairs of the weak, from the allied intervention in the Russian civil war in 1918 to the Soviet “interventions” in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Others might refer to the American intervention in Vietnam, or even the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974. The motives, and the legal justification, may be better in some cases than others, but the word “intervention” has come to be used almost as a synonym for “invasion”. Article 2.7 of the [United Nations] Charter protects national sovereignty even from intervention by the UN itself. “

And yet, he continued:

“… in other contexts the word “intervention” has a more benign meaning. We all applaud the policeman who intervenes to stop a fight, or the teacher who prevents big boys from bullying a smaller one… a doctor who never intervened would have few admirers, and probably even fewer patients. So it is in international affairs. Why was the United Nations established, if not to act as a benign policeman or doctor? Our job is to intervene…”

What is the problem of the age? Annan described a new post-cold war world of collapsing, fragile and failing states, of warlords and ethnic warfare. In such as world the biggest challenge to security is no longer states fighting each other (a danger for which forms of containment offered a traditional strategy) but fighting their own citizens; and in which states collapse from within rather than being toppled from without. And thus he proceeds to assert a new doctrine, based on the notion that the suffering that is the result of civil wars and state failure cannot leave either the UN or other state’s indifferent: and that even the UN Charter protects the sovereignty of “peoples”, not “states”:

“This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… the General Assembly had adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which puts all states under an obligation to “prevent and punish” this most heinous of crimes. It also allows them to “call upon the competent organs of the United Nations” to take action for this purpose. As for punishment, a very important attempt is now being made to fulfil this obligation through the ad hoc Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And ten days ago in Rome I had the honour to open the Conference which is to establish a permanent International Criminal Court.”

The trauma of Rwanda is evoked as concrete illustration of the horrors of non-intervention: he refered to himself as “haunted” by the memory of actions for which he – as head of UN peacekeeping – was also responsible at the time:

“Personally I am haunted by the experience of Rwanda in 1994: a terrible demonstration of what can happen when there is no intervention, or at least none in the crucial early weeks of a crisis. General Dallaire, the commander of the UN mission, has indicated that with a force of even modest size and means he could have prevented much of the killing. Indeed he has said that 5,000 peacekeepers could have saved 500,000 lives. How tragic it is that at the crucial moment the opposite course was chosen, and the size of the force reduced.”

And then he made the immediate transition to the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo unfolding at that very moment:

“The last few months’ events in Kosovo present the international community with what may be its severest challenge in Europe since the Dayton agreement was concluded in 1995. As in Bosnia, we have witnessed the shelling of towns and villages, indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the name of security, the separation of men from women and children and their summary execution, and the flight of thousands from their homes, many of them across an international border. In short, events reminiscent of the whole ghastly scenario of “ethnic cleansing” again – as yet on a small scale than in Bosnia, but for how long? how can we not conclude that this crisis is indeed a threat to international peace and security?

This time, ladies and gentlemen, no one will be able to say that they were taken by surprise – neither by the means employed, nor by the ends pursued.

A great deal is at stake in Kosovo today — for the people of Kosovo themselves; for the overall stability of the Balkans; and for the credibility and legitimacy of all our words and deeds in pursuit of collective security. All our professions of regret; all our expressions of detemination to never again permit another Bosnia; all our hopes for a peaceful future for the Balkans will be cruelly mocked if we allow Kosovo to become another killing-field.”

Tony Blair – Gareth Evans

2. Tony Blair and Gareth Evans on the responsibility to protect

Less than a year later the theme of righteous intervention was defended in a speech of a British prime minister, Tony Blair, at the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999. The humanitarian crisis in Kosovo had given way to the first war ever fought by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. As Nato planes bombed Serb forces, Blair said:

“Unspeakable things are happening in Europe. Awful crimes that we never thought we would see again have reappeared – ethnic cleansing. systematic rape, mass murder.… This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values. We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.”

He addressed the same dilemma which Kofi Annan had highlighted:

“The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts. Non-interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily. One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim. But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as “threats to international peace and security”.

He then put the doctrine of intervention in the context of an emerging, interdependent, global community:

“We are witnessing the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community …”

Tony Blair thus outlined a “doctrine of the international community” based on the idea of a “just war”: a war to halt and prevent humanitarian disasters such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan raised the issue of humanitarian intervention in his speeches to the UN General Assembly in 1999 and 2000. And as a way to help forge a new international consensus the Canadian government established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in autumn 2000.

The report it published in December 2001 held that states have a “Responsibility to Protect”: where a population is suffering from mass atrocities, and the state is unwilling or unable to stop them, the principle of non-intervention is replaced by the international responsibility to protect. As one of the leading members of the Commission, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, put it, the ambition was bold indeed: it was to “end mass atrocity crimes once and for all.” However, Evans was also careful to warn that this was not a doctrine legitimising any form of intervention:

“The responsibility to protect is not about conflict generally, or human rights generally, let alone human security generally, but rather about a small subset of cases where atrocity crimes are occuring, imminent or likely to occur in the foreseeable future if preventive strategies are not adopted.”

How many such cases might one anticipate? Evans notes that while there are at any given time hundreds of countries “subject of reasonable human rights concern” there are “only a dozen or so countries that can properly be regarded at any given time as being of responsibility-to-protect concern.”

Robert Cooper

3. Robert Cooper and liberal imperialism

Robert Cooper was one of the leading strategic thinkers in the UK government at the time of Blair’s 1999 speech on intervention as an advisor to the prime minister. He then moved to Brussels to become the leading EU foreign policy civil servant as Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs in the European Council under Javier Solana.  Today he is again at the heart of efforts of building up a new European machinery (the External Action Service) for a common foreign policy.

Cooper also published  in 2002 a widely discussed article “The new liberal imperialism”. This was followed by the book “The Breaking of Nations – Order and Chaos in the 21st Century”.  These texts reflect both the Balkan experience and the new atmosphere of global crisis after the attacks on 11 September 2001. Cooper’s book begins with a warning in the very first sentences:

“The worst times in European history were in the fourteenth century, during and after the Hundred Years War, in the seventeenth century at the time of the Thiry Years War, and in the first half of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century may be worse than any of these.”

How could the 21st century be more dangerous than the period of two world wars or the utter devastation of the Thiry Years War, when one third of the population of Central Europe perished? The reason is the “spread of terrorism and of weapons of mass destruction”:

“Henceforth, comparatively small groups will be able to do the sort of damage which before only state armies or major revolutionary movements could achieve. A few fanatics with a “dirty bomb” (one which sprays out radiological material) or biological weapons will be able to cause death on a scale not previously envisaged.”

In his book Cooper divides the world into a post-modern world (the inter-dependent West), the modern world of traditional nation states and a pre-modern world. It is the pre-modern world, “the pre-state, post-imperial chaos”, a terra nullius, that poses, when allied to weapons of mass destruction, such a serious threat that it might even necessitate an armed intervention:

“The existence of such a zone of chaos is nothing new; but previously such areas, precisely because of their chaos, were isolated from the rest of the world. Not so today when a country without much law and order can still have an international airport.”


“where the state is too weak to be dangerous, non-state acros might become too strong. If they become too dangerous for the established states to tolerate, it is possible to image a defensive imperialism. If non-state actors, notably drug, crime and terrorist syndicates take to using non-state (that is pre-modern) bases for attacks on the more orderly parts of the world, then the organised states will eventually have to respond.”

This is a major change in the international debate in security since the early 1990s. Then,Cooper noted,

“the chaos in Somalia and the breakdown of the state in parts of the former Yugoslavia excited pity, anger and shame, but they did not represent a direct threat to the lives or livelihoods of those living in safer, better organised territories … thus the initial Western response to the situation in the Balkans, in Somalia or Afghanistan was a combination of neglect, half-hearted peace efforts, plus a humanitarian attempt to deal with the symptoms, while steering clear of the (possibly infectious) disease.”

The lesson of 9/11, however, was that chaos in critical parts of the world matters and must be watched. It was not rival empires which brought down Rome, but the barbarian invasions.

What should be done when a zone of chaos turns into a major threat? Cooper presents no easy answer:

“The difficulty, however, is in knowing what form intervention should take: the most logical way to deal with chaos is by colonisation. If a nation state has failed why not go back to an older form – empire?”

Cooper sees clear problems with this, however:

“No Western country believes enough in their civilizing mission to impose their own rules permanently by force; nor could this be done, since the Western ideology is democratic and democracy cannot be achieved by coercion …Nor would traditional imperialism be acceptable to the peoples of failed states – except perhaps in an initial phase when they are rescued from chaos or tyrants.”

Here Cooper was much more cautious than many others who would come to accept a similar diagnosis of the threats posed by weak states . He noted that

“empire is expensive, especially in its postmodern voluntary form. Nation-building is a long and difficult task: it is by no means certain that any of the recent attempts are going to be successful. Great caution is required for anyone contemplating intervention in the pre-modern chaos.”

But at times a new, liberal imperialism may nonetheless be necessary.

James Dobbins – RAND Corporation building in Washington DC

4. Rand studies on Nation-building

Starting in 2002 ever more ambitious ideas emerged in the corridors of power in Washington DC.  At the same time new thinking about “nation-building” (as Americans called it) was pushed forward by the world’s biggest think tank, the RAND corporation.  A series of studies were produced which were soon widely quoted by practitioners involved in state building efforts. These studies, based on the case study method, expressed a simple core idea: that nation building interventions were above all a matter of organisation and resources. They were a managerial challenge above all.

The key argument is expressed in the aptly-titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building”.  Nation building is not only the inescapable responsibility of the world’s only super-power but it is also doable, if only the right lessons are learned from history. The authors of these Rand studies, under  the leadership of former State Department  intervention expert James Dobbins (who worked in senior positions on the Balkans as well as on Afghanistan), positioned different interventions on a spectrum from “co-option” (under which the intervening authorities “try to work within existing institutions”) to “deconstruction” (where the intervening authorities “first dismantle an existing state apparatus and then build a new one”):

“Where to position any given intervention along this spectrum from deconstruction to co-option depends not just on the needs of the society being refashioned, but on the resources the intervening authorities have to commit to that task. The more sweeping a mission’s objectives, the more resistance it is likely to inspire. Resistance can be overcome, but only through a well-considered application of personnel and money over extended periods of time.”

There are few references to the complexity of such missions, or to the serious possibility of failure, as Cooper had warned. There is little concern that interveeners might simply not know how to do nation building under certain conditions.  For the Rand authors this takes becomes above all a matter of inputs and outputs:

“Mismatches between inputs, as measured in personnel and money, and desired outcomes, as measured in imposed social transformation, are the most common cause for failure of nation-building efforts.”

In a study of eight US-led nation building missions the authors underline:

“What principally distinguishes Germany, Japan, Bosnia and Kosovo from Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan are not their levels of Western culture, economic development, or cultural homogeneity. Rather it is the level of effort the United States and the international community put into their democratic transformations.”

Putting in sufficient resources is the key to ultimate success. This is also important for another reason, as the authors of another Rand paper noted:

“There appears to be an inverse correlation between the size of the stabilization force and the level of risk. The higher the proportion of stabilizing troops, the lower the number of casualties suffered and inflicted. Indeed, most adequately manned post-conflict operations suffered no casualties whatsoever.”

Thus, with the right inputs, not only can almost all resistance be overcome; but this might also happened without any casualties!

If you are interested in these Rand studies:

Ted Galen Carpenter

5. Cato’s critique of nation building

As a leading libertarian think-tank in the United States, Cato favors limited government planning and is openly skeptical about “foreign military adventurism.” As such, the organization’s foreign policy department has worked hard to promote movement away from American imperialism.  Scholars such as  ed Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at Cato, write extensively on nation-building.  A typical argument is made in a short recent text Learning from our Mistakes: Nation-Building Follies and Afghanistan (Ted Galen Carpenter).

The author warns that all nation building missions are more or less doomed to failure:

“Afghanistan is an extremely unpromising candidate for such a mission, given its pervasive poverty, its fractured clan–based and tribal–based social structure, and its weak national identity. Furthermore, U.S. and NATO officials should be sobered by the disappointing outcomes of other recent nation–building ventures. The two most prominent missions, Bosnia and Iraq, ought to inoculate Americans against pursuing the same fool’s errand in Afghanistan.”

“The Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian civil war, but Bosnia is no closer to being a viable country than it was in 1995. It still lacks a meaningful sense of nationhood or even the basic political cohesion and ethnic reconciliation to be an effective state. If secession were allowed, the overwhelming majority of Bosnian Serbs would vote to detach their self–governing region (the Republika Srpska) from Bosnia and form an independent country or merge with Serbia. Most of the remaining Croats—who are already deserting the country in droves—would choose to secede and join with Croatia. Bosnian Muslims constitute the only faction wishing to maintain Bosnia in its current incarnation.

The economic situation is equally bad. Indeed, without the financial inputs from international aid agencies and the spending by the swarms of international bureaucrats in the country, there would scarcely be a functioning economy at all.

Although Bosnia is a nation–building fiasco, it eventually may be less of a disaster than Iraq. Americans who cheered the success of the surge strategy, and now swoon at the prospect of General Petraeus achieving a repeat performance in Afghanistan, were premature in their elation. Tensions are again simmering, both between Sunnis and Shiite Arabs and between Arabs and Kurds, and there have been numerous violent incidents. Months after national elections, the political squabbling is so bad that Iraqis have been unable to form a new government.

Moreover, Iraq has already ceased to be a unified state. Baghdad exercises no meaningful power in the Kurdish region in the north. Indeed, Iraqi Arabs who enter the territory are treated as foreigners—and not especially welcome foreigners. Although the Kurds have not proclaimed an independent country, the Kurdistan Regional Government rules a de facto state with its own flag, currency, and army.”

And he continues:

“Despite a 15–year effort and the expenditure of billions of dollars, the Bosnian nation-building mission is a flop. Despite a seven–year effort (and counting), the expenditure of at least $800 billion, and the sacrifice of more than 4,300 American lives, the Iraq nation-building mission is, at best, a disappointment Yet, instead of learning from those experiences, U.S. leaders seem intent on pursuing the same chimera in Afghanistan.

Foreign policy, like domestic politics, is the art of the possible. Containing and weakening al Qaeda may be possible, but building Afghanistan into a modern, democratic country is not. The increasingly evident failures of nation–building in Bosnia and Iraq—both of which were more promising candidates than Afghanistan—should have taught us that lesson.”

Some of the CATO studies that make this argument are the following:

Gerald Knaus – Rory Stewart

6. Finally, if you are interested in arguments made by Rory and myself, here are two short pieces on the same topic:

The European Raj (Gerald Knaus and Felix Martin) – 2003 / media reactions


The Irresistible Illusion (an essay Rory Stewart) – 2009 :

Here Rory argues:

“The fundamental assumptions remain that an ungoverned or hostile Afghanistan is a threat to global security; that the West has the ability to address the threat and bring prosperity and security; that this is justified and a moral obligation; that economic development and order in Afghanistan will contribute to global stability; that these different objectives reinforce each other; and that there is no real alternative. One indication of the enduring strength of such assumptions is that they are exactly those made in 1868 by Sir Henry Rawlinson, a celebrated and experienced member of the council of India, concerning the threat of a Russian presence in Afghanistan:

In the interests, then, of peace; in the interests of commerce; in the interests of moral and material improvement, it may be asserted that interference in Afghanistan has now become a duty, and that any moderate outlay or responsibility we may incur in restoring order at Kabul will prove in the sequel to be true economy.

The new UK strategy for Afghanistan is described as International … regional … joint civilian-military … co-ordinated … long-term … focused on developing capacity … an approach that combines respect for sovereignty and local values with respect for international standards of democracy, legitimate and accountable government, and human rights; a hard-headed approach: setting clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success.

This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got. Our approach is short-term; it has struggled to develop Afghan capacity, resolve regional issues or overcome civilian-military divisions; it has struggled to respect Afghan sovereignty or local values; it has failed to implement international standards of democracy, government and human rights; and it has failed to set clear and realistic objectives with clear metrics of success. Why do we believe that describing what we do not have should constitute a plan on how to get it? (Similarly, we do not notice the tautology in claiming to ‘overcome corruption through transparent, predictable and accountable financial processes’.)”

And Rory notes:

“We claim to be engaged in a neutral, technocratic, universal project of ‘state-building’ but we don’t know exactly what that means. Those who see Afghanistan as reverting to the Taliban or becoming a traditional autocratic state are referring to situations that existed there in 1972 and 1994. But the international community’s ambition appears to be to create something that has not existed before. Obama calls it ‘a more capable and accountable Afghan government’. The US White Paper calls it ‘effective local governance’ and speaks of ‘legitimacy’. The US, the UK and their allies agreed unanimously at the Nato 60th anniversary summit in April to create ‘a stronger democratic state’ in Afghanistan. In the new UK strategy for Afghanistan, certain combinations of adjective and noun appear again and again in the 32 pages: separated by a few pages, you will find ‘legitimate, accountable state’, ‘legitimate and accountable government’, ‘effective and accountable state’ and ‘effective and accountable governance’. Gordon Brown says that ‘just as the Afghans need to take control of their own security, they need to build legitimate governance.’

What is this thing ‘governance’, which Afghans (or we) need to build, and which can also be transparent, stable, regulated, competent, representative, coercive? A fact of nationhood, a moral good, a cure for corruption, a process? At times, ‘state’ and ‘government’ and ‘governance’ seem to be different words for the same thing. Sometimes ‘governance’ seems to be part of a duo, ‘governance and the rule of law’; sometimes part of a triad, ‘security, economic development and governance’, to be addressed through a comprehensive approach to ‘the 3 ds’, ‘defence, development and diplomacy’ – which implies ‘governance’ is something to do with a foreign service.”

For more: we look forward to see you at the Vienna event!

Haus der Musik – 26 November – 15:00

Where new ideas are born – ESI Anniversary Conference Story

Saturday 11 July 2009 is a special day in the life of this particular European think tank …


In summer 1999 a group of friends gathered in Sarajevo and decided to set up a new institution to analyse international policy in the Balkans. Thus ESI is born.

Ten years later a much larger group of friends, from across a much larger Europe, comes together in Istanbul to discuss the lessons of the past decade (1999-2009) and how new ideas might shape the next decade of Europe’s evolution (2009-2019).


We come together in a colourful building full of modern art, which reflects both the diverse composition of our staff and our eclectic approach to research methodologies, but built solidly on Byzantine foundations, in the heart of the old town.


Our first debate is, not surprisingly, on Turkey: how much have things really changed in the largest EU candidate country during the past decade? And what is likely to happen in the coming years?

Nigar Goksel (Turkey), ESI senior analyst for Turkey and the Caucasus, moderates and watches as Amberin Zaman (Turkey), correspondent of the Economist and columnist in Taraf, explains what it was like to work in Turkey’s South East as a journalist in the mid 1990s … and how much has changed since then. In fact, dramatic change is continuing as we meet, she notes, refering to the most recent legal changes affecting military and civilian courts


Barcin Yinanc (Turkey), editor in chief of Hurriyet Daily News (previously Turkish Daily News) explains why she, too, is an optimist concerning developments in her country … and why she is both a strong believer in EU soft power and in the power of Turkish civil society, including women’s organisations.


Our next debate is on the new contested neigbourhood and the Southern Caucasus. What is the likely future of EU – Russia rivalry and/or cooperation in this region? Does the EU have any soft power here?

Ivane Chkhikvadze (Georgia) and Arzu Geybullayeva (Azerbaijan), ESI analyst and author of Flying Carpets and broken Pipelines, an excellent English-language blog on Azerbaijan, explain how things look from Tbilisi and Baku (where some bloggers have just been arrested on trumped up charges)


… while the co-author of one of the most interesting recent texts on the EU and its neighbourhood, Nicu Popescu (Moldova), explains the dangers should Europe continue to pay too little attention to its Eastern neighbourhood. Keti Tsikhelashvili (Georgia), presenting ESI’s ongoing research in Georgia, agrees. There and then the idea is also born for ESI to establish a program looking at Moldova sometime in 2010. Of course, first funding must be found, but such details cannot spoil the visionary mood …


Hungry for new ideas the group moves a few steps down the road to have lunch, overlooking Topkapi Palace and the Golden Horn: here you see your Rumeli Observer (Austria), Rakel Dink (Turkey), Minna Jarvenpaa (Finland), Eggert Hardten (Germany), Marcus Cox (Australia) and Emanuela del Re (Italy) discussing the future of the world over Kebab.


After lunch Verena Knaus (Austria), ESI senior analyst based in Kosovo, talks about the EU and Kosovo, a topic of inexhaustible complexity, while ….


… ESI friend Arbi Mazniku (Albania) listens and recovers from an intense national election campaign in Albania.


Here Kristof Bender (Austria) and Alex Stiglmayer (Germany) listen carefully as Besa Shahini (Kosovo/Canada) explains the European future of the Balkans and what ESI should do about it …


The last discussion is about the future and impact of think tanks. Jordi Vaquer (Spain), director of Cidob in Barcelona, explains the plans of the Spanish EU presidency, the outlook of the policy elite in Madrid, and the possible role of think tanks in influencing the Spanish policy debate.

Kristof (Austria), Goran Buldioski (Macedonia), director of the OSI Think Tank Fund based in Budapest, and your Rumeli Observer listen, wondering why Spanish foreign policy is so peculiar.


When all is said about Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the role of think tanks participants gather for a group picture in the garden of the conference venue, next to a sculpture which expresses well the complex nature of EU foreign policy ….


At this stage a happy Rumeli Observer realises that with the ideas generated by this one day of brainstorming another two dozen ESI reports could be written. At least …!


The next agenda item is continued debate, now focusing on the Istanbul urban experience, and furious networking, this time on a boat: here Alida Vracic (Bosnia), Marcus Cox (Australia), Kristof Bender, Piotr Zalewski (Poland), Yana Zabanova (Russia), Engjellushe Morina (Kosovo) and Gerda Vogl (Austria) contemplate an uncertain future.

Once these new questions have been exhaustively discussed, some can no longer sit still …


… and start moving uncontrollably to the rythm of Turkish music…


This continues until the CD-player breaks down and serious conversation about the state of Europe becomes possible again, this time in Rumeli Hisari


… overlooking the narrowest point of the Bosporus. Over some food, raki and wine new plans are hatched, networks are woven and conspiracies developed which future historians of ideas will find hard to disentangle …


… until, at the end of the day, even the most energetic members of the ESI family are exhausted, including Yana Zabanova (Russia) …


… Robin Gosejohann (Germany), who used to run ESI’s administration from Istanbul and is now project manager at Erste Stiftung in Vienna, Besa Shahini (Kosovo) and the youngest ESI analyst of them all, all dreaming of an even more democratic and self-confident Europe in 2019.

All photographs: Jonathan Lewis, www.jonathanlewisphoto.com

The spirit of Halki and the meaning of Greece

Island of Halki in the Dodecanese

On my way to this year’s Halki seminar, organised every year in summer by the Athens-based think tank Eliamep, I took along a few books on Greece (in addition to a new translation of the poems by Sappho). One was a book on ancient Greek culture, The Greek Experience,  by Oxford don C.M. Bowra; the other was a little paperback I had come across on a previous trip to the Dodecanese islands: Bitter Sea – The Real Story of Greek Sponge Diving.

It is difficult to capture the strange but very real magic of this small island.  It is about a one hour boat trip from Rhodes, almost completely depopulated in the winter and even in the summer season most of the houses in the small village of Emborio are abandoned.  Some houses are still in ruins and I was told that in the early 1980s almost all were … there is still a former settlement that is today a ghost town, overgrown and abandoned, in the middle of the island.

It is easy to understand, however, why even busy people, who receive many invitations, make an effort to attend the Halki seminar.  Eliamep is traditionally excellent at organising events, and succeeds, again and again, to attract interesting crowds. This year was no different. But the genius loci of Halki adds something that goes beyond the specific issues (this year, as most years, including the Balkans, Turkey, the Caucasus and the Middle East)  and makes these days special.

Halki is, first of all, a place conducive to clear thinking. Nature is austere, the earth parched and crumbled, the hills treeless and the small flocks of sheep look emaciated.  There are few distractions: a handful of restaurants and bars, the sound of church bells, a grocer, a baker. I was told that there are some 30 pupils in the local school.  I also learned this year that even DHL does not deliver mail to Halki.

Every few hours a ship arrives from some other Greek island, spewing out newcomers who walk around the small village square  Then they disappear in some of the restored private houses in Emborios, likely to experience what happened to Italian invaders in the 1992 film Mediterraneo (set in the small Dodecanese island of Kastollerizo): to be conquered after a little while by the landscape and the people.

This island is a very good place to read Cecil Maurice Bowra’s classic (first published in the 1950s) on the Greek experience. As Bowra sets out:

“on the whole Greece is physically much the same today as it was four thousand years ago: a land of mountains, which are not huddled together in ungainly lumps but flaunt their peaks in proud independence, and of islands, which are themselves mountains with roots engulfed in the sea … Greece is indeed a hard land, capable of maintaining only a small population, but if this population faces its tasks with decision, it will reap its reward.”

What makes Greece most special, Bowra argues, is its light. It is an experience shared by today’s visitors to Halki :

“The traveller who comes from the west or the north to Greece for the first time may feel a slight twinge of disappointment at the nakedness of its outline and its lack of exuberant colour, but he will soon see that he is faced by a commanding beauty which makes no ready concessions to his appreciation but forces itself slowly and unforgettably on him.

What matters above all is the quality of the light,  not only in the cloudless days of summer but even in the winter the light is unlike that of any other European country, brighter, cleaner, and stronger.  It sharpens the edges of the mountains against the sky, as they rise from valleys or sea; it gives an ever-changing design to the folds and hollows as the shadows shift on or off them; it turns the sea to opal at dawn, to saphire at midday, and in succession to gold, silver, and lead before nightfall; it outlines the dark green of the olive trees in contrast to the rusty or ochre soil; it starts innumerable variations of colour and shape in unhewn rock and hewn stonework. The beauty of the Greek landscape depends primarily on the light, and this had a powerful influence on the Greek vision of the world.”

Seen in this clear light, set against this stark landscape, the gods of ancient Greece were neither alien nor unapproachable. In fact, as any perusal of the biography of Zeus makes obvious, they were constantly subject to the most human of passions, foibles, and obsessions: they fell in love madly, experienced jealousy, exploded in anger, and on occasion gave in to the pleasures and perils of revenge.  They were, essentially, like men and women, with the only difference that they did not need to fear death and could thus live carefree lives. They also had more (but always limited) power.  These Gods moved among humans. Sappho writes her hymn to Aphrodite inspired by an occassion when the goddess of love appeared to her, asked what troubled her and reassured her that everything would turn out well.

This is, of course, the central theme in Bowra’s book: as ancient Greeks thought of their gods as possessing human shape and nature, they also in turn discovered the dignity of the human gift as quasi divine.  Gods and men were both children of the same soil, in the same mould, and just as Greek gods were unlike the nonhuman gods of other civilisations, from the Egyptians to the Maya or the Khmer, so Greek conceptions of the human potential differed fundamentally.

Crafty Ulysees, “famous all over the world for my tricks”, becomes the hero of a civilisation of seafarers, the quintessential adventurer, suffering the gods’ whims, negotiating with them, trying to charm, deceive and persuade them as he tries to make his way home … and in the end very much like them in his strengths and weaknesses.  Bowra concludes:

“In no matter were the Greeks more courageous or more rational than in their assessment of humanity, its limitations, its possibilities, and its worth.  They differed fundamentally from their contemporaries in Asia, who thought that the great mass of men were of no importance in comparison with the god-kings for whose service they existed, and from their contemporaries in Egypt, who believed that life in this world was but a trivial preliminary to the peculiar permanence of life in the grave. The Greeks both recognised that men are worthy of respect in themselves, and were content that they should win this in the only life of which we have any knowledge.”

If you make your way to Greece this year: put Bowra’s text in your suitcase!

On the other hand, if you are fascinated by the mysteries of economic development, you might be interested in the story – almost a fable in its simplicity – told in Bitter Sea.  This is the tragic modern story of Halki and its neighbouring islands: it explains both the beauty and past affluence apparent in the biggest houses in its harbour and the desperation that in the end drove so many of its inhabitants away.

Like all development stories it starts with natural resources and human ingenuity.  The resource in this case are natural sea sponges, aquatic animals living on the sea’s bed and on rocks.  They are biological filters, taking in water through their pores and extracting bacteria for their food.  Sponges are the traditional coal, or oil, of the Dodecanese.  Once discovered as a possible source of wealth people were in fact left with few alternatives, due to the poverty on their rocky islands, and learned to dive for them.


This generated the 19th and early 20th century wealth still visible on the Dodecanese islands of Symi, Kalymnos or Halki.  Tiny Halki once boasted a population of 7,000 at the height of the sponge trade.  Small Kalymnos gave birth to no less than six trading companies based in London.  Symi developed a whole wooden-ship building industry for the task of sponge diving.  As Faith Warn tells us in her book:

“During the 19th century the sponge trade thrived here and supported thousands of people.  The wealth it generated funded – among other things – the construction of comfortable houses, built in Venetian style around the harbour of Emborios {in Halki}”

It was wealth purchased at a terrible price. When diving suits were introduced to the islands in the 1860s, allowing divers to go deeper and be even more productive, “diver’s disease” became a plague killing whole generations ignorant about the dangers of diving so deep (without decompression chambers):

“For a very long time, the continuing use of the suit whilst failing to take the necessary precautions had the most appalling results.  It led to the paralysis or death of not just a few divers but a horrifying majority … According to figures published by the Greek government, in just twenty years between 1886 and 1910, there were a staggering 10,000 deaths and 20,000 cases of paralysis among sponge divers in the Aegean.”

And while folk songs celebrated the heroism of sponge divers, people also told the tale of how sponges came to be cursed by Jesus when, on the cross, he was given a sponge soaked in bile and vinegar by a Roman soldier:

“From that time, they said, sponges were sent to the deepest seas and it was ordained that men would suffer in bringing them to land. The many holes in a sponge represented the many men who would die whilst diving for them.”

Not surprisingly the first line of the folk song Halkitikos, originating on Halki, is “Oh sea, oh bitter sea, oh bitter-surging tide.”  But besides the occasional job as a sheppard, the island economy depended on this tragic harvest.  Not surprisingly emigration was seen by many as offering a way out.

In 1904 some 500 divers left Halki and other islands and went to Tarpon Springs Florida, to dive in the Gulf of Mexico. Today the main road on Halki is called Tarpon Springs.

Later competition from artificial sponges accelerated the decline of the trade and emigration. By the 1960s most sponge diving fleets were dismantled.  By 1980  Halki was almost completely deserted. The remaining sponge divers on Kalymnos were then hit by an environmental disaster in 1986, which Faith Warn suggests was linked to the Chernobyl disaster, which killed off sponges on the bottom of the sea in 1986.  Individual tourism, efforts to encourage cultural activities and events, such as the Eliamep Halki seminar held since 10 years, have since brought some life back to the island.

Halki, Symi and their sponges offer a stark tale of the dependency of humans on their environment.  As the poet Pindar, quoted by Bowra, has written:

“Single is the race, single

Of men and of gods;

From a single mother we both draw breath.

But a difference of power in everything

Keeps us apart;

For the one is as nothing, but the brazen sky

Stays a fixt habitation for ever.

Yet we can in greatness of mind

Or of body be like the Immortals,

Though we know not to what goal

By day or in the nights

Fate has written that we shall run.”

Recommended reading based on Halki Seminar 2009:

Reckoning – ESI 2008 in numbers

Boris Marte, Chairman of Erste Foundation, one of ESI’s largest donors

This is a time of reckoning. As one year draws to a close and another one rears its head donors of think tanks want to know what has actually been achieved in the period that has passed. So the end of the year is always also a time for writing donor reports.

Perhaps such reports are read with more anxiety at a time like this. Wider developments remind people of the fragility of all institutions. A colleague recently told me about institutional troubles at two of Turkey’s best known think tanks, Asam in Ankara and Tesev in Istanbul. Indeed: if world companies such as Citibank, Fortis and Ford can get into real trouble, if even international foundations, art galleries and museums around the world are shaken to the core by the effects of a financial crisis, one is reminded of the fact that few human institutions are built for ever.

(In a previous era of innocence, say 6 months ago, I might have added as a bonmot that “all institutions are mortal except for the Catholic Church”, a seemingly eternal institutional survivor; but recently I read an article about growing problems of German bakeries that have specialised in producing altar bread. The Church will remain in business for a while, I am quite sure, but it is striking that even some of its suppliers are in trouble).

The economic crisis has even hit Rumeli Hisari already, my mahala on the European side of Istanbul. A few days ago I wrote that my favourite spot in 2008 was a certain cafe on the shores of the Bosporus. Then I noticed that since the beginning of this year my cafe has ceased to exist. Now its furniture and lots of personal memories have been packed away into lorries. This is not a crisis, of course, except for this Observer. It was not even a very old cafe. But it is hardly the only institution that will meet this fate in the coming months, so I see it as an omen.

On the other hand: the good news for ESI is that it remains very much alive. We are looking forward to celebrate our 10th anniversary as an institution in June 2009. And we have facts to prove our vitality to donors: here is the life of a European think tank, reduced to a few numbers:

  • ESI is bigger than ever. At the beginning of the new year, we have 25 researchers and supporting staff, most of them full time.
  • ESI is more spread out than ever. Our staff is dispersed across 10 countries in Europe, from London to Baku.
  • ESI is more international than ever. Our team holds the following passports: Albanian, American, Armenian, Australian, Austrian, Azeri, British, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Kosovar, Polish and Turkish.

2008 has been an exiting year: Gerald and Chris filming in Rome (April 2008)
ESI in Barcelona: three Balkan Deputy Prime Ministers (Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro) and a film screening (September 2008)

Of course, none of these numbers are spectacular; and you certainly learn more about ESI by reading any one of the 61 reports or discussion papers on our website than by numbers like these. There are many other think tanks in Europe (and in the US) which are much bigger and much more visible in the public debate. But at least we can claim that, as ESI approaches its 10th anniversary, it is – cautiously – growing in its outreach. Under today’s conditions that is not little.

How about the output of this page, the Rumeli Observer?

In 2008 I posted 20 new articles, missing my ambitious target of one article a week on average by quite a margin.

On the other hand, I wrote no less than 31 articles which, for now, remain in the category “drafts”: in Paris, where I spent a month in the Marais in February (When Heads Role); in Sofia, where I went three times in 2008 working on a film (Are Bulgarians Happy?); in Athens, interviewing Greek intellectuals trying to find out how much Greece has changed in the past decade (The two faces of Greece); in Sweden, where I travelled for two weeks during the summer (A Swedish Saint); and most recently in Pristina, where I spent a week in December to see how things were going (Stuck).

I will try to edit and post these articles in the coming weeks.

I will also try to be more productive this year.

That is another New Year’s resolution. Hold me to it, before the next reckoning, which will certainly come … at the latest 12 months from now.