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The controversies of the DNA database 29, February 2008

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Have you noticed a strange number of cases in recent years of old crimes being solved? I confess, I have hunted around for empirical evidence to back up that claim, but I simply can’t remember the names of the cases themselves. Nevertheless, like any good political scientist, I am still totally convinced that my initial notion is true, despite a dearth of evidence supporting it.Such a hypothesis would, however, fit in with the trend in recent years adopted by the UK government of collecting more and more people’s DNA. This elicits predictable responses from predictable people.

The government trot out the usual dynamic and positive adjectives defending their case along with statistics beseeching people to just see sense and eschew the dark side. According to the Government, if you’re against the plan it seems you are just begging for someone’s daughter to get murdered or raped. In an interview with the home affairs select committee, Meg Hillier the Home Office minister employed, to my mind, despicable and childish emotional blackmail to make her point when she said that she “wouldn’t want to be sat in the same room as someone whose family member was murdered, saying we could have prevented this but we didn’t.” The bizarre thing is that she needn‘t use such a distasteful argument. The figures that the Government quote are really quite impressive (but when are they not?). Apparently, DNA evidence has helped to solve 452 murders, 644 rapes, 222 sex offences and 2,000 violent crimes in recent years. Nevertheless, there are no plans for a mandatory nation wide DNA database.

On the other side of the debate you have, among others, Shami Chakrabarti the Director of Liberty.

“At the moment in Britain, if you were arrested of any offence ever, even if you’re never charged or cautioned, you’ll stay on the database forever…where do you draw the line – market manipulation, dropping litter?”

As far as I am concerned, Shami can keep on going: parking violations, not crossing the street at zebra crossings, gratuitously offensive clothing, talking loudly on a mobile on the train … no offence is too small for your DNA to be scooped up and put in the DNA database. I think it is simply irrefutable that were such a database to be mandatory, more crimes would be solved quicker. This is surely an obvious fact which does not need testimony to back it up. If it did, however, look to Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy who arrested necrophiliac Mark Dixie for the murder of Sally Anne Bowman. Cundy was deported from Australia in 1999 and his DNA – as envisaged by the DNA register – would have been on file. However, it was not, and only when he was arrested for being in a pub brawl was his DNA sampled and the case closed. Therefore, as Detective Superintendent Cundy put it, “If there had been a national DNA register, with all its appropriate safeguards, then rather than nine months before Mark Dixie was identified, he could have been identified much sooner.”

However, this is not the real issue with the DNA database, so far as I see it. Indeed, Mrs Chakrabarti is perfectly correct when she asks whether the government is capable of safely storing such critical information about people. Their current record does not inspire confidence. From the loss of personal data of more than 25 million people by the Child Benefit office, to the loss of data regarding 1400 students here in Scotland, there appears to be systematic problems at all levels of the government and its appendages. Indeed, the fact that at present Britain’s DNA database holds the records of around 4-5 million people, making it percentage terms the biggest file of its kind in the world, may well leave people uneasy.

Were these inherent problems to be rectified then a modest expansion of the DNA database would, I imagine, have most people’s support. However, given that such a solution (or at least people’s confidence in it) is far off, if not impossible, it comes down to a judgement call. Perhaps this particular decision would be better informed in light of the case which is about to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2001 an 11 year old boy with no previous warnings or cautions, was arrested for attempted robbery. He was subsequently exonerated and asked for his DNA to be taken off the register. The police refused and their decision was backed up by the High Court in 2002, owing to the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act, which allows the police to retain DNA samples, even if the person in question is cleared or indeed never charged in the first place. The boy in question, who is now a teenager, along with another man in a similar situation are currently in the process of bringing their case to the European Court of Human Rights. If they win their case, it is thought that some half a million names would have to be removed from the database.

That seems like a lot to me. Do you think that there is a chance that one of these half a million people is likely to commit a crime at some time in future? Or that someone whose DNA record is deleted in the future because of this change in law, is likely to commit a crime? Would their DNA being on file aid a quicker arrest and prosecution? Does the chance of this scenario coming to fruition outweigh the chance of the government posting their records to God knows where and losing their them? These are personal decisions for which there are, need it be said, no right or wrong answers. My own inclination is to err on the side of caution (my caution that is) and leave the names and records where they are.

China’s selfless quid pro quo 28, February 2008

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Chinese President Hu Jintao is currently entertaining a Nigerian delegation in Beijing.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, cooperation and help was promised in the fields of energy, telecommunications,  agriculture, and manufacturing. Yet more unsurprisingly, the Nigerian delegation maintained that they were “sticking to the one-China policy, and support[ed] China’s peaceful reunification process.” And just in case anyone has any nefarious or cynical ideas as to why China are engaging with Nigeria, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier told the Nigerians that “China’s assistance to Africa was purely selfless, and only aimed to help Africa accelerate its independence.” The Chinese: such humanitarians.

Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? 28, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia, Soft Power.
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For those studying the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and attempting to discern its future directions, there are two broad schools of thought into which opinions fall. One says that the Kingdom is slowly but surely reforming; that the elite, or at least enough of the elite, are of the opinion that reforms are critical to the future of Saudi society. This line of thinking usually endows King Abdullah with relatively liberal values and a desire to open up the Kingdom. The other school suggests that the real heart of the elite is true-blue conservative, with a very large C. Concessions for greater rights and freedoms, where they have been made, were grudgingly employed because of international (or indeed domestic) pressure to do so. Whilst they may make hopeful noises from time to time about liberalisation, really, deep down, the regime just want things to remain the same as they were for their forefathers. The protagonist for this half of the argument is usually referred to as Prince Naif, the head of the Ministry of the Interior.

Therefore, for the student beginning to delve into the seemingly bipolar world of Saudi Arabian politics, there is a choice to make, and what is worse, there is ample evidence for both camps. This can most starkly be seen regarding the role of women in Saudi society and their rights, or lack thereof.

In the months around the turn of 2008, there have been a myriad of confusing, contradictory and, at times, disheartening reports on women’s rights. In November 2007 the Saudi appeal court doubled the sentence of a 19 year old Saudi woman who was gang raped 14 times from three to six months in jail and from 100 to 200 lashes. Her crime was sitting in a car with a man who was not related to her. This, understandably and justly, created international opprobrium and lead – over a month later – to Saudi King Abdullah pardoning the woman for the crime and thus sparing her the punishment.

Despite the barbarism of the initial sentencing and the staggering inhumanity and callousness of the appeal, in the end, some kind of sense prevailed. In January this year there was another small step forward for women’s rights, when it was decreed that women could now stay in hotel rooms by themselves. True, this is only provided that they had photo ID which would be photocopied and sent to the local police, but, again it is one small step in the right direction. More importantly, however, the very next day it was reported that women in Saudi Arabia would be able to drive ‘by the end of the year.’ This would be a massive step. The fact that a woman could drive is more or less incidental; it is the fact that this has become the symbol of the battle over Saudi women’s rights, which makes this so important.

Back in 1990 a group of women drove through the streets of Riyadh hoping to capitalise on the presence of so many foreign reporters in the Kingdom owing to the Gulf War, only to be arrested and have their jobs taken away. The time was, it seems, not right. However, that is all it is: time. All agree that there is nothing whatsoever in the Quran which forbids women to drive. Indeed, two prominent Saudi scholars including one of Saudi’s most senior religious figures, Abdel-Mohsin al-Obaikan, have recently reaffirmed this wide spread belief. However, aside from practical issues (is it safe for women to wear the mandatory Niqab when driving?) problems lie in the fact that many of those against allowing such a practice see this as making it easier for men and women to fraternise. Indeed, they see women driving as the first great step towards a more liberal and permissive society.

In recent years, there have been other smaller but still significant improvements in women’s rights, which could be seen as softening up the ground for the decisive decision over women driving. For example, women may now travel abroad without a male companion (though his permission is still needed), own companies and seek a divorce. Further sign of progress was seen at the end of January when the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs allowed the creation of a women’s charity – ‘Ansar Al Marrah’ (supporters of women). Its stated goal is to help women improve their social, educational, and cultural levels. The degree to which it will be able to help is, however, entirely dependant on the level of support that it receives from the authorities. Yet, this is, nevertheless, another positive sign.

Unfortunately, we may well get to see just how much power this charity has sooner rather then later. At the start of February a woman was arrested for having a coffee with a work colleague in a Starbucks. After being arrested, she was put in jail, denied the right to call her husband, and forced to thumbprint (sign) a prewritten confession. It was only when her husband found out about this and managed to pull some strings that she was released. There have been suggestions that she might seek legal advice against the religious police that arrested her and the Charity has offered their help.

The arrest was carried out by the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, who used to be a feared organisation in the Kingdom and were highlighted in a recent UN report as “reportedly often act[ing] independently and are accountable only to the governor…[and thus] said to be responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who ‘deviate from accepted norms.’” Their powers today are as wide ranging today as they have ever been, but, tellingly, in 2006 there were record numbers of attacks on the religious police by angry citizens in addition to a number of high profile incidents highlighting the seemingly growing trend against the police in more recent years. This could suggest that the Saudi population are turning a corner.

A number of factors appear to cause or support such changing attitudes. The explosion of blogging has been a well documented phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Whilst the police have been cracking down on this, including the arrest (for officially no reason) of one of the country’s most famous bloggers, Fouad Al Farhan, it is still a massively popular means for Saudi’s to discuss social and political issues. Also, the slow but sure encroachment of Western values via American soft power (i.e. through television, films, music, education in America etc) could finally be having an effect.

However, the religious police are not giving up easily, as shown by the arrest of large numbers of Saudi young men for the outrageous, scandalous, and reprehensible, moral, legal and ethical crime of allegedly “flirting” with a group of girls covered head to toe in a shopping mall in the Kingdom. Not to mention the arrest and sentencing of a lecturer at a Saudi University to flogging for meeting with a female student and the death sentence passed down to an illiterate woman who is accused of being a witch.

Perhaps it is a naïve comment to make, but despite such instances, I am personally convinced that, eventually, Saudi society will reform and treat its citizens equally. The only question is how well the country can manage this transformation. There is worrying scope for destabilisation, which King Abdullah is all too aware of. Indeed, maybe we ought to fall back on the trite, unhelpful, clichéd but thoroughly genuine fact that it took the Western world significantly longer than 150 years to give equality to the sexes. Saudi Arabia is a young country: all we can hope for is that it is a quick learner.

Altruism in the Gulf? 28, February 2008

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A recent Economist article entitled “Cash is going to the poor, too” did its best to combat the idea that all Gulf money is spent on are tall buildings, taller hotels, massive middle class housing developments, gargantuan malls, indoor skiing pistes, and the creation of artificial islands in the shape of a palm tree or indeed, the world. The article started off reasonably enough, much the same way that I have: reminding the reader of the largess of the Gulf countries and the glitzy projects that they have engaged in in recent years. It then went on to the iconoclastic element of the article, the ‘you thought this, but actually…’ part, but – alas – it just didn’t make it.

When it said that Gulf money was going to the poor, I suppose that it was technically true. They correctly quote a number of stories where Gulf money did indeed end up in the poorer countries of the Middle East and beyond. Mauritania and Bangladesh were just two of such countries mentioned. However, as with all the examples given in the article, Gulf money didn’t go there for altruistic reasons: they were simply business investments. Needless to say, these examples are a good start and I am sure that Mauritania does not care as to the particular motives of any investment: all is welcome. However, this was not, as I read the article, the tone that the author was trying to convey. By the title alone if nothing else, surely the author was trying to infer the emergence of an altruistic, kind and benevolent type behaviour in the Gulf countries?

Perhaps I am being too harsh (though I doubt it). I am still troubled by an article I read in the Kuwait Times a couple of years ago at the very height of the oil boom when Kuwait’s coffers were bursting at the seams. There was an op-ed in the paper by an MP saying that Kuwait’s largess must not be used to fund development projects or simply used to give aid to poorer countries abroad, but used to wipe out (more) of the Kuwaiti’s personal debt. If anyone knows much about Kuwait, they will already know that Kuwaitis pay no taxes, receive significant amounts of money just for being Kuwaiti, receive even more money for having Kuwaiti children, when married are given plots of land or money to buy a house, are guaranteed a job in ‘a ministry’, pay next to no utility bills, and whose personal loans are periodically forgiven so that they may go out buy the latest model of Humvee. To be Kuwaiti is to be rich. Very rich. They did not need, in my opinion (and that of many Kuwaitis that I talked to), more debt relief at the expense of aid to the third world.

For sure, in recent years many of the richer countries in the Gulf and beyond have escalated their aid contributions. This is, however, often offered with religious strings, but, in many ways, that is exactly the way that Western countries have been operating for years now, and after all, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


Chinese efficiency: LHR-PEK 27, February 2008

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China has just announced the opening of their new terminal at Beijing International Airport. To give it some perspective, this single terminal is bigger than all of Heathrow’s terminals put together and – better still – this gargantuan building, which is now officially the largest building in the world, was built for half the cost of T5 and took only four years from ground breaking to grand opening. T5, on the other hand, will have taken nearly twenty years. Obviously there are good reasons as to why T5 was so expensive, which hardly need explaining. However, my biggest problem is the time scale disparity: 20 to 4.  Twenty years is simply a ludicrously long time. If only we could resign ourselves and say ‘perfection takes time’ but we all know that like the Scottish Parliament (another staggering example of an utter waste of time and money, not to mention a complete and utter taste bypass), bits will be falling off in no time…

Christofacism? 27, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute, made a brief but excellent point last Friday. He was commenting on the attack on the American Embassy in Belgrade by angry (Christian) Serbians and compared this act of violence to similar situations but involving Muslims. He quotes the neoconservative argument that “there was something deeply wrong with Muslims for protesting when they were kicked or expelled, saying that look, the Serbs have been harmed by US policies but they don’t go around attacking US embassies. ” As Cole succinctly puts it, “I guess they’ll have to find a new argument.” He goes on to sagely ask whether Fox news and the Republican Party will now start vociferously complaining about “Christofascism” – I some how doubt they will.


The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new 25, February 2008

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The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new.

The Chinese reaction to the criticism of their Sudanese policies has varied widely. Liu Guijin the Chinese special envoy to Africa spoke eloquently to journalists in London last week. In excellent English, he calmly and coherently made the Chinese case. China was indeed trying to help in Darfur through various meetings and other mediums. China only supplies some 8% of the weapons to Sudan, he claimed, and professed confusion as to how stories exaggerating China’s arms exporting deals come about. “Is it a misunderstanding or is it intentional?” he mused. However, he reiterated the fundamental plank of Chinese foreign policy being non-intervention and was clear that China would only go so far in terms of persuasion. This particular example is similar to the Chinese response in front of the Western media as a whole: professional and slick.

This is in stark contrast to the Chinese domestic response to the same crisis, even in the English language news in China. Take Xinhua for example, the Governmental mouth piece. To choose two of their stories covering Sudan and China, one was titled “Sudan’s FM lauds China’s role in solving Darfur issue.” At a press conference with Liu Guikin the Sudanese foreign minister gave a statement as if it was written for him by the Chinese:

“China is using its good relations with Sudan to help it solve the Darfur issue…China is not here to help Sudan in a way that will prompt the Darfur conflict to continue. China is here to help Sudan in issues regarding economic developments. China is here to help build Sudan, and China is engaged in business not only in the oil sector, but also other sector…[Commenting on some Western organizations’ threat to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games] What they should do is to solve the Darfur issue in a right direction, instead of putting more pressure on China.”

It seems that the Sudanese English language newspapers were equally on message, as quoted in Xinhua:

Sudan Vision, the largest English-language daily in terms of circulation, ran an editorial in both English and Chinese, the first of its kind by a newspaper in Sudan.

“Indeed, Chinese leadership and media refused to trail behind Western fabrications on Darfur, and have instead firmly stood in the face of pressures put on it because it is fully aware of Western attempts to capitalize on the African problem to pass its own agendas which did not change since the colonial era,” the independent daily said in the editorial.

“We have every right to mock at the flawed voices attempting tolink the Olympic Games China will host to the Darfur problem. Such cheap attempt will not affect the eligibility of China for hosting this international activity in the best manner,” the editorial said.

“We, too, appreciate China’s repeated call for political dialogue to resolve the Darfur issue, contrary to Western pressures on Sudan,” it said.

“But the way Western countries dealt with the issue, providing Darfur rebels with funds, weapons and political support, made the rebels reluctant to reach peace. Not only that, the West has continued to use rebels as pawn to achieve its target,” said the editorial.


Such flagrant bias would simply not be tolerated in Western media. Indeed, it would surely be treated with the scorn and contempt that it deserves. What is more puzzling is that China appears to realise this, at least to some extent. You don’t see them peddling this kind of insipid and transparent dialogue in the West, not that they could find (one would hope) a Western newspaper to promulgate Beijing’s line in such an obsequious manner.

Victor Mallet of the Financial Times recently wrote an interesting piece tangential to this theme. He suggested that Beijing ought to open up its media to a greater extent, to allow Chinese people to decide the pros and cons for themselves. Then, “its officials and citizens would be better prepared for the onslaught of criticism and political activism likely to be directed at Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies ahead of the Olympic Games.”

Beijing’s cautious, simplistic and anachronistic assumption that such sycophantic reporting is the safer way to proceed to minimise protest and disharmony is sure to backfire.

Firstly, if people do indeed believe such stories in their entirety then, as Mallet points out, they will be shocked and none too happy with the Western media coverage of events in the lead up to the Olympics. This will create a feeling that the Western media and thus the West are unjustly attacking China just as it is about to take centre stage in one of the most significant events in its recent history. Again, one must not underestimate the importance of the Olympics to the Chinese, in terms of the pride with which they take in hosting it and the prestige that they believe will bestowed on China because of it.

Secondly, for those who read such reports with a wry and rueful smile, the Chinese government are doing themselves no favours. Such reporting suggests gullibility on the part of the reader: not a nice assumption to be fostered upon anyone. Disenfranchising swathes of citizens (and it is surely swathes: most people don’t really take these reports seriously?) will only push them to seek more sources of news, something which the Government seeks to keep under control.

Overall, such reports smack of the old days; of absurd communist pre-Perestroika press or even of Comical Ali, where press reporting was decidedly more fiction than fact. And, to reiterate, the Chinese know better: they show that they do in their modern, fluent and professional Western media interviews. They must not think that they can keep – á la King Canute – the tide of free press and free discussion away from their citizens, it is simply not feasible and, in the long run, not advantageous.


Cartoons from the Middle East 16, February 2008

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 akhbar al arab uae 14.2.08 pol game in leb

The political game in Lebanon

Akhbar Al Arab, UAE



The explosive situation in Lebanon

Al Bayeb, UAE


Iranian, Israeli and American relations 15, February 2008

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The University of Berkeley, California has a useful series of interviews with various people of various persuasions discussing various aspects of international relations and politics.

In this video, Trita Parsi, the Director of the National Iranian American Council discusses the surprisingly close relations between Israel and Iran over the past two decades.

Miliband reclaims democracy promotion from the dark side 15, February 2008

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The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband recently made an impassioned speech at Oxford University calling for the promotion, maintenance, and protection of democracy to be one of the central pillars of British Foreign Policy. Needless to say, this is a controversial topic. Few would disagree with the promulgation of such a noble goal: the disagreements begin when it comes to its implementation.

As Miliband points out, something strange happened a few years ago in American politics. Many of those on the right in America went from being conservative to being neo-conservative and with it an about face in their foreign policy. No longer was the right half of America bemoaning American forays into Somalia or Yugoslavia in the name of spreading democracy or indeed simply saving lives; indeed, now they were hawkish advocates of more extreme policies. The notion of regime change ‘for the better’ became a tenet of their policy, that is, however, only as and when dictated by their perceived national security requirements.

Miliband is, therefore, attempting to retrieve the cause of democracy promotion from it having being sullied and ridiculed under the stewardship of the neocons, as – the critics would argue – little more than a fig leaf for neo-colonial invasions. Just to make his stance suitably distance from the neocon position, he opens his speech acknowledging that Iraq and the issues surrounding it have ‘clouded’ the debate and continues by maintaining that democratic norms ‘cannot be imposed’ and that ‘without hubris or sanctimony’ we must support democratic trends wherever possible.

Becoming of an Oxford PPE graduate with a first, he goes on to set out his plans, point by point, issue by issue, taking on the criticisms and countering them largely effectively.

Setting the scene he points out that democracy has come about in waves. In the third wave, from the 1970’s onwards, there have been groups of convertees to the democratic way: Portugal, Greece and Spain in the 1970’s; those from after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and various countries in Latin America and Africa in the 1990’s. However, the hubris encapsulated and exemplified by Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ (the notion that liberal democracy has ‘won’ and is now the inevitable future of all societies) has now been thoroughly discredited with the drying up of conversions to democracy from the Millennium onwards, he maintains. Indeed, Miliband makes a prescient point by suggesting that China and their staggering economic success offer an alternative version of development, which, obviously, does not include democratisation to any meaningful degree. Therefore, more steps are needed to be taken to make sure that democracy is seen once again – to dismember Churchill’s dictum – as the best worst alternative for a government.  

Further separating himself from the neocons on this issue, Milliband suggests five ways of promoting democracy, none of which include shock and awe. Firstly, he trumpets technology and its ability to disseminate ‘impartial’ news, to facilitate social discussions via blogging, and the opportunities it affords a country to disseminate its soft power (i.e. the UK spreading its cultural ideas etc via the British Council or BBC Farsi). Secondly, the globalizing raw power of finance and economics, not only ties countries together thereby making wars less likely but can also increase social mobility and with that usually comes a desire for more governmental accountability. Furthermore, the introduction of China, for example, into the world economy means that their society necessarily becomes more open and transparent because of the exigencies of countless international institutions, bodies and mechanisms. Thirdly, he sees aid as a weapon which can promote democracy. He cites the examples of money given to women in Pakistan and Bangladesh being used to help them stand as candidates in local elections as just one such instance. Fourthly, the promise of joining international institutions such as the EU or the World Bank can act, as Vaclav Havel said, as ‘an engine that drives democratisation.’ Fifthly, Miliband concedes that hard power will play some kind of roll. Targeted sanctions or security guarantees, for example, could be used to penalise backsliding or to promote democratisation, as argued by Paul Collier.

All of this sounds good, plausible and the morally correct thing to do. However, there are those who see democracy as an insidious form of cultural imperialism, as summed up in the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed’s notion of ‘Asian Values’. Or indeed those who see the initially often destructive nature of democracy and thus relent from its implementation. In answering these charges, Miliband perceptively point towards Amartya Sen’s work which shows that well before the Italian city states were beginning their experiments, peoples of all cultures across the world frequently came together to discuss communal affairs. This is, of course, the essence of democracy and an effective counter point to the distasteful notion of Asian Values.

As for the question of assuaging the initial democratic convulsions, all Miliband can come up with is platitudes: “In countries such as China seeking a stable path to political reform it’s important to recognise that democracy is not a threat to stability but a way to guarantee it.” Really? If China held elections tomorrow Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong would probably vote for independence, not to mention calls for significant autonomy for the various minorities in parts of Southern China and Xinjiang, and how would the rest of the 1.2 billion Han Chinese react to the break up of the motherland?

History has shown that time and again the birth of democracy is initially a painful experience but that it is undoubtedly the best of the worst. The question is whether Miliband has proposed enough carrots and has enough sticks to help persuade countries to follow the path.