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Do Not Disturb – or perhaps: ‘Why We Should be Disturbed’?

March 26, 2021

Michela Wrong’s awaited new book on Rwanda is well researched, well written, and shines a light on uncomfortable truths.

I was living in the African Great Lakes region at the turn of this century, when Michela Wrong published In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz – her explanation of President Mobutu’s accession to and sustained hold on power, and why it eventually slipped from his grasp, in what was then Zaire. I read it avidly, as did several friends, including politicians whom I knew. The book provided helpful and accurate insights into how things had worked – and hadn’t worked – under Mobutu. It stood out as a diligent journalistic search for a story and an accurate explanation of that story, based on triangulated interviews with people who had been involved in or close to the action. And it was a complex story well-told: accessible to the non-specialist reader, but not over simplified.

I’ve known for some time that Wrong was working on a new book about the same region, in this case about Rwanda, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Published in the UK next week – almost 27 years after the Rwanda genocide was unleashed – Do Not Disturb does not disappoint.

It follows a similar format and style as Mr Kurtz: weaving different strands of a complex story together in an accessible manner, moving seamlessly forwards and backwards in time, and bringing to life many of the protagonists through sharply written accounts of their actions, as well as through their own words.

The story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, and why, has been told many times. Wrong avoids retelling too much of this, using it more to set the scene for and explain what has happened in Rwanda since, than to rehash a deeply tragic but well-rehearsed story. Her interest is in understanding how the governing regime in Rwanda has evolved in the quarter century since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fought its way to power, as seen mainly from within.

To do this, she takes a very detailed, human drama as the backbone of her tale. This is the story of Patrick Karegeya, one-time political prisoner in Milton Obote’s Uganda, later a head of external intelligence for Paul Kagame’s government in Kigali, before becoming alienated from the regime and falling from grace, eventually escaping to exile and then his eventual murder – by the state, it is widely believed – in 2013.

Examining how the Kigali regime has acted since taking power, Wrong claims Kagame’s RPF has cleverly exploited its international reputation as Rwanda’s genocide saviour, as well as the international community’s guilt at its own failure to prevent the genocide. She shows how the RPF government has done this even while committing awful acts of violence itself – often against defenceless civilians. Somehow, the international community, and aid donors, have allowed themselves to ignore or accept this aspect of the Rwanda they continue largely to support.

Central to her account, she describes in great and convincing detail how individuals rise and – all too rapidly – fall within the RPF system, and how those who fall are dealt with – not stopping short of murder. She paints Karegeya and other disaffected RPF cadres in somewhat sympathetic shades, emphasising their personal histories and family lives. But she does not shy away from acknowledging the role they also played in organising and committing atrocities before they fell from grace, including acts of thuggery against other individuals accused of undermining the regime. One of the many interwoven themes running through the book is the immeasurable human suffering caused by political violence in Rwanda and neighbouring countries in recent decades: much of it seen as ‘collateral damage’ to which the RPF’s leaders (along with other political leaders) seem to have become inured, and which they appear quite cynically to instrumentalise.

The book is well-researched, but Wrong’s knowledge and understanding of political science sits lightly on the text. One senses that she draws on it without shoving it down the reader’s throat. That is welcome. This is not a scholarly book, but it’s serious, fully researched, triangulated, balanced, thoughtful and well-read journalism. I think Machiavelli – a man with his own painful, personal experience of the consequences of rising and falling politically – would recognise the story told here. This is not a book about a ‘grand theory’ of post-conflict governance. (God knows we have enough of those.) Rather it emphasises the role of individuals who played key roles at key moments, and it asks what drove them then, and what drives them now. In pursuit of this, Wrong traces some of the protagonists back to their early years at home and at school, and their formative experiences as young adults. This may be just one of the many reasons why President Kagame won’t like this book: because it paints him, supplying evidence from multiple sources in support, as a fundamentally unstable and vindictive individual, projecting a chronic inferiority complex onto the political dynamics that he has so far manipulated so masterfully.

As the narrative of Do Not Disturb unfolds, so the argument unfolds within it, of a revolutionary regime built on highly visible public lies. For example, the pretence that ethnicity is no longer a central question for Rwandans – when in fact, the regime is predicated above all on protecting one particular ethnicity from harm. The book provokes, but does not explicitly answer, the ‘big question’ often posed by foreign observers of Rwanda. On one hand, Kagame can be viewed as an autocrat with a benign vision, holding power close for now, in order to prepare his devastated county for a time when it will be safe to relax and allow the kinds of personal and political freedoms he currently denies Rwandans, because the country is ‘not yet ready’ to be free. On the other hand, he is a simply a cynical, tactical genius, ready to take whatever steps are needed to hold on to power, with no real vision and potentially thus undermining the sustainability even of whatever rickety political settlement currently exists. I’m not sure that Wrong specifically asks or answers this question, but one ends the book with the fairly clear impression that she tends – as Machiavelli might have, too – towards the second option.

To answer that question fully would probably require a fuller political economy analysis than Wrong provides. Personally, I would have liked her to have included more of that. I think it would have added an additional layer of explanation for the events she describes, and perhaps filled out the shape of her narrative a little more. But no matter, much of that analysis is available elsewhere: this book is already almost 450 pages long, and I can see that she – or her editor – had to set the limits somewhere.

For anyone interested to understand the origins of the RPF in 20th Century Rwandese politics and in the Ugandan civil war that brought President Museveni to power in 1986, as well as how power has been allocated and revoked in Rwanda since 1994, and also consider what all this means for the future of Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region, this book is eye-opening, essential – and deeply concerning. I thoroughly recommend it.

From a Global Britain, are people too small to see?

March 19, 2021

Does the UK’s new integrated approach to its foreign relations recognise the need for a human security approach? Probably not.

The UK government published Global Britain in a Competitive Age this week, its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It’s a veritable Christmas tree, draped in many sparkling, coloured lights and hard to know where to look. Or perhaps it’s more like visiting the zoo: just as one has finished being intrigued by the lion enclosure (the increased nuclear arsenal, say), one is immediately distracted by what’s going on in the monkey cage (science and technology) or the aquarium (bio-diversity). Perhaps as befits an ‘integrated’ review, there’s a lot going on.

So I decided to guide my own initial read-through by asking three key questions, premised on my own particular (and professional) interest in peacebuilding. I wanted to know, first of all, does this review prioritise building stability and long-term peace in fragile countries and regions? Second: does UK aim to support the kind of international order in which stability and peace are more likely to thrive and be sustained? Third, is this review self-aware? Does it reflect an awareness of the trade-offs between the UK’s own security, defence and development and that of others – does it adopt a human security approach to the UK’s overseas reach?

Supporting stability and peacebuilding
By and large, the review is quite encouraging here. Yes, there are questions to be asked about geographic focus and spending levels, and of course the devil may be in the details. But it clearly and explicitly says the UK will support the resolution of conflicts. It will also help conflict affected societies build resilience and tackling conflict causes, rather than just the symptoms. It sets out a series of thematic priorities for UK overseas aid which not only includes addressing conflict explicitly, but also covers many of the areas where conflict drivers are to be found: in governance, human rights abuses, economic, education and health inequalities, and so on. It proposes establishing a conflict centre in Whitehall, designed to coordinate cross-governmental expertise and actions in helping prevent, manage and resolve conflicts. Overall: promising, at least.

Supporting an enabling international order
The review is also quite encouraging in its repeated emphasis of the need to support the evolution of an international order that’s fit for the future, replacing the post-WW2 and post-Cold War arrangements that everyone acknowledges have been creaking for years. The UK wants to play a leadership role, bringing cutting edge thinking to maximising collaboration and security, minimising conflicts, and enabling good, democratic governance and open societies across our ‘increasingly fragmented’ world. I am not sure the challenge has been identified quite right here. Is ‘fragmentation’ really the issue, or is it that we need institutions reflective of new and evolving patterns in the distribution of power? It would have been helpful to see a recognition of how countries like the UK have disproportionately benefited from the international order of the past, arguably at the expense of others’ conflicts. The review does identifies specific new and evolving challenges on which the UK will focus its contribution: these include space, cyber, regulations, science and technology, and conflict prevention and resolution. The review says that the UK’s diplomatic capacity will be boosted – but does it say enough about how the UK will contribute to the softer international governance challenges? It seems more focused on new issues, rather than new international approaches. Overall: encouraging, but needs to be watched and nudged.

Human security
It is my third question that gives me most pause. An Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy that was self-aware would explicitly discuss trade-offs. But I’m not sure this document does that, or at least not enough. It does recognise that the UK’s values and interests will not always be aligned – but I didn’t see much – or anything, really – about how the conflicts between them will be resolved.

What I did see however, was a preponderance of rhetoric – on practically every page it seems – about the UK’s interests: maintaining its competitive advantage, keeping its citizens safe, ensuring the prosperity of its people. Whereas the problem of insecurity and conflicts elsewhere are framed in terms of their challenge to global stability, rather than the challenge they pose for those caught up in conflict. To take just one example on page 63, the UK will focus on security in the Middle East ‘to protect our interests’ (my italics). More grandly put: ‘The precondition for Global Britain is the security of its citizens’.

But there is nothing really to suggest that the human security of people affected by violence in, say, West Africa or the Middle East matters because it matters; nor that by emphasising a human security approach, there is more likelihood of building a stronger and more stable social contract and thus stability and peace in such places.

The document rather gives itself away when it glibly suggests that the UK’s ‘prosperity and security are mutually reinforcing’. Well, yes, but only if its prosperity relies less and less on exploiting unequal terms of trade with the developing world, and on partnerships with regimes that harm their own citizens. Otherwise, prosperity in the UK will continue to create and exacerbate the kinds of grievances that undermine peaceful and open societies, rather than enable them.

So returning to my three questions, and subject to the devil and the details, I’d say that on the first, a commitment to supporting peacebuilding, the document is encouraging. It is also quite encouraging on the second, supporting an enabling international order, but I’m a bit concerned that the issue is not quite framed correctly, and thus may not succeed. While on the third, the Review is disappointing, as it seems pretty clear that human security has been marginalised, and therefore people ‘over there’ are less likely to benefit from the UK’s support, than they have a right to expect.

My Interview in Sentinel Literary Quarterly

December 1, 2020

I was highlighted as the Monday Writer this week, for the Sentinel Literary Quarterly. My interview with publisher Nnorom Azuonye, along with three of the poems from my collection Poetry After Auschwitz can be read here: phil-vernon-slq-monday-writer-30-november-2020.pdf (

Should the UK government cut overseas aid now?

November 24, 2020

I have never been a great fan of legally fixing the floor of the UK’s overseas aid budget by law, at an arbitrary 0.7% of GNI, as was done by parliament through the International Development Target Act in 2015. While I support overseas aid enthusiastically, I always felt that establishing the figure in law was anti-democratic. I also though it likely to have perverse consequences both for the quality of some aid, and for the future of overseas aid itself, because it would create a negative pushback.

For these reasons, and based on sober political debate, I would therefore be happy to see the 2015 Act repealed, and aid budgets subject to normal democratic scrutiny in annual budgets and multi-annual spending plans. But I don’t agree with the government’s suggestion that it should cut aid back from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI in response to COVID’s fiscal impact. There are three reasons why not.

First, this is leading to a somewhat hysterical, generalised debate, rather than a rational discussion about the merits of particular aid spending versus the particular domestic spending to which the funds would be diverted. The debate is about generalities, lacking in substance. That is not the right basis for such an important decision.

Second, such a decision would reduce our borrowing requirement by an amount that would not be hugely material in terms of its long-term comparative impacts on interest and capital repayment. It would also negatively impact the UK’s reputation at a time when we’ve damaged it enough already. And more importantly, it would inevitably cause harms to poorer people, poorer communities and poorer nations, just a time when they can least absorb it.

Third, because it will be virtually impossible to target such a huge cut effectively, in terms of its impact on poor people’s lives. Let’s look at the possible figures.

The government has already predicted that aid expenditure will probably decrease next year by about £2.9 billion, because of the fall in GNI. (To put this in context, aid expenditure was £15.2 bn in 2019). It’s not easy to find the precise figures – newspaper, MPs’ and NGO comments on both sides of the discussion are light on actual figures, perhaps reinforcing my earlier point about the lack of precision in debate. But if we assume that the original aid budget was 15.4 bn, then the already mooted £2.9 bn cut must have assumed an 18% reduction in GNI due to COVID. If that’s the case, then 0.5% of this reduced GNI would be something like £9.35 bn. If that’s anywhere near right, it represents a staggering 39% or £6 bn reduction on an assumed, original pre-COVID budget of £15.4 bn.

Now, it may be true that the perverse incentive created by establishing an aid budget floor by law, combined with the genuine difficulties in achieving and measuring success in aid programmes has led to some poor programming. Surely it has. But even most aid sceptics would probably not argue that this represents 39% of the budget. And even if it did, the way to address this would surely be to examine aid programmes and make a considered, technical judgement about which ones to keep, and which to cut.  Given the complexity of aid, there is no way this could be done within the timeframe of the proposed cuts. Therefore, they are wrong and will inevitably damage good programmes helping people in need.

By all means, review and repeal the International Development Target Act, as part of a rigorous debate about how best to continue supporting poorer communities and nations over the long term. But don’t cut aid now, as a knee jerk response to a short term crisis.

Poetry After Auschwitz

October 7, 2020

Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949 that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’:

“The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” Prisms, 1955, MIT Press.

He later softened this much-cited dictum, at least a little – though in so doing, while allowing the potential of poetry, he went on to pose the even greater – and for him, deeply personal – question of whether it was possible to go on living at all, after the Holocaust. Both his original and modified comments provoke a stream of questions for poets and other artists: how can beauty continue to co-exist with brutality? What purpose can or should it serve? How could the same German nation that had produced such sublime artistic expressions as the music of Bach, Beethoven and – yes – Richard Strauss who had been co-opted by the Nazis, also have committed the barbarism of genocide? How dare a poet claim to create beautiful strings of words, in a world still resounding with the echoes of Auschwitz, and the misery and cruelty that has continued to pile up since? Indeed, how do those of us lucky enough to live in less miserable situations reconcile our good fortune with the values of fairness, equality and universal love?

Book cover, featuring Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee, 1920

In my newly published collection of poems, named for Adorno’s quote, I don’t answer these questions. But many of the poems in the collection do explore them. Indeed, the title poem – which can be read on the publisher’s website, was a specific, personal response to a meditation on Adorno’s words: words which I admit I do not fully understand.

In another poem, entitled Debris, I imagine Stalin’s daughter using Walter Benjamin’s image of The Angel Of History as a way to channel her feelings and insights about her father’s motivation. (Benjamin – whose prose can be at least as difficult to understand as that of his friend Adorno – committed suicide while fleeing from occupied France to Spain in 1940.) Debris also provides the inspiration for the book’s cover, featuring a Paul Klee print, Angelus Novus, of which Benjamin owned a copy and which he used as a reference for his Angel of History.

I’m interested in how the brushstroke of history touches each of us in our particular landscape, and what remains of us after the brush has passed. The book draws partly on my experience of working with people in some troubled places. But the poems also touch on love, landscapes, gardens and plenty more besides. Many of them are written in formal forms – sonnets and the like – where I have tried to exploit the energy created in the convergence of and collision between form, ideas, music and emotion, to explore what poetry offers – perhaps in a kind of shadow or reflection of the dialectic to which Adorno refers.

For anyone interested to read the poems, the book can be bought for £7 plus P&P from the publisher, through local bookshops, Amazon or other websites. I also have some copies to hand, which I’d be happy to sell at the same price plus P&P – and even sign if you like! My email is

Measuring peace: is it so hard?

October 2, 2020

Measuring peace: it’s a challenge, for so many well-rehearsed reasons. Peace takes a long time to build. It’s a non-linear and unpredictable process, following variable, inconsistent and highly context-specific pathways. To make things even more complicated, these are not always peaceful: violent events and actions often make an important contribution to peace, while peaceful actions may have the opposite impact. In any case, one never really ‘arrives’ at peace, it’s more a question of heading in the right direction. But how to measure this?…

Measuring peace also depends on who is doing the measuring, and why: a philosopher may be content with soft signals that peace is improving somewhat, while a project donor or a politician seeks hard and fast short-term measures to justify their support.

Meantime, not everyone has the same definition of peace, anyway. Political concepts of peace may assume that ‘my’ side has the upper hand over ‘theirs’ or ‘yours’. Some people emphasise short-term stability above all – what’s sometimes known as Negative Peace (the absence of violence). Others argue that Negative Peace is unsustainable, and aim for Positive Peace – when societies have the capacity to anticipate and resolve their conflicts non-violently – and may be willing to forgo short-term stability in the struggle to achieve this.

Negative and Positive Peace are both important, and Negative Peace is probably best seen as a step on the road towards Positive Peace. With this in mind, and while accepting that peace is context specific, non-linear, and all the other caveats referred to above, I’d suggest that there are three relatively simple measures for estimating progress in peacebuilding. All three have the advantage that they can be used on any scale, and by more or less anyone or any institution, albeit at varying degrees of statistical sophistication. They lend themselves to a combination of qualitative and quantitative measurement approaches. All three are easily applied in participatory monitoring and measurement approaches; all three can be used in adaptive peacebuilding; all three can be used in impact assessment; and all three are useful at any scope and scale. And even where they can’t easily be measured objectively on the ground, they nevertheless stand as helpful generic goals to be used in developing strategy and programmes.

The three measures – which draw on peacebuilding frameworks such as International Alert’s Programming Framework and the United Nations/World Bank’s sprawling Pathways for Peace, are as follows:

  1. Prevalence of violence. Has violence increased or decreased; has it changed in nature; who is doing it to whom; how is it experienced differently by women, men, and other social categories? Taken alone, this is probably the closest measure of negative peace. Given the importance attached to their safety and that of their families and communities by people across the world, this is a critical measure of progress, and it has the advantage that it can be captured relatively easily by asking people their perceptions, when more objective measures of the incidence of violence are unavailable.
  2. Functional and trusting vertical and horizontal relations. This takes us into the realms of Positive Peace: it looks at the degree to which active relationships between those with power, and those with less, are seen as helpful to both, and are imbued with mutual trust. These are what are known as ‘vertical relations’. The more trustful they are, and the more that ‘governors’ and ‘the governed’ engage in practical problem solving together within them, the more they will be able to understand each other, and identify and resolve problems and conflicts so they don’t get out of hand. Similarly, the more (horizontal) relationships between and among people (and peoples) are imbued with by trust and the practice of collaboration, the less likely it is that they will come to blows over issues such as access to resources. Functional and trusting vertical and horizontal relations also help reduce the level and incidence of grievances, making it harder for politicians or ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ to enlist people in unrest and violence. At any scale – from the domestic to the global – vertical and horizontal relations are helpfully mediated by a formal and informal institutions that reflect the values of fairness, trust and pragmatism: from family and community systems (at their best) right up to the level of the United Nations (at its best).
  3. Fair access to opportunities to gain a decent livelihood, and to the means of security, justice, education, health and other dimensions of welfare. Delving further into the realms of Positive Peace, progress can also be measured by the degree to which people feel that access to these goods is improving, in ways that are fair to different societal groups – including their own, redressing any perceptions of unfairness that may have existed in the past. Income, assets, health, security and knowledge, along with the means to address and redress wrongdoing, help equip us all to co-exist peacefully. And they also reduce the presence of grievances, hence most people’s willingness and interest to engage in political violence.

Peace must always be defined in its context, and progress towards a more peaceful context will always need to be understood in nuanced terms, reflecting the contours of each particular social, political, economic and physical landscape. Nevertheless, I believe this simple collection of generic measures is a good a place to start in working out how to conceptualise and measure progress in what are inevitably messy and uncertain circumstances.

Re-reading La Peste in the time of COVID-19

September 7, 2020

Re-reading La Peste in the time of COVID-19
Fléau – I had to look it up – it’s ‘scourge’:
gunshots and shouts heard faintly in the night,
and then the sound of nothing, from the hour
we woke, till darkness muffled even silence.
It means the silhouette of cranes, unmoved
day after day, against the sea and sky,
the broken cliffs that penned us in, the tides
that ebbed and swelled but carried only time.
And coffins, queueing to be tipped in layers
and heaped with lime, in ground so hard it hurt,
and seabirds, flying from and to where only
they could know, and never looking down.
We were apart: from other towns,
from friends and lovers
gone before the gates were closed
or lost in layered graves,
and families of whom we feared to hear the news.
We were divorced from who we’d been
and from the times ahead
we’d dared to see in times before,
when we’d known how to grieve.
At first, when the sickness began to slow,
as birds returned, to watch us from the trees,
we couldn’t remember how to celebrate.
When we’d begun to learn the art of joy again
and rediscovered how to walk in crowds,
and ring the bells, a close friend died:
a soldier fallen,
as news of the armistice arrived.

This was published on the Poetry and COVID website, along with many other COVID-related poems and associated comments – well worth checking out.

Demystifying Conflict Sensitivity

July 31, 2020

Since becoming an independent consultant two and a half years ago, I’ve had several assignments concerning conflict sensitivity. This experience has made me realise that some of the messaging about conflict sensitivity put out by conflict and peacebuilding experts – perhaps including myself when I worked for a peacebuilding NGO – risks over complicating the issue.

At its heart, conflict sensitivity has always seemed a simple enough idea. It’s based on the idea that any significant action taken in a conflict-affected context will interact with the dynamics there, and is likely either to make things better or worse for peace. An irrigation project may – by unlocking the productive potential of land – bring age-old arguments about land tenure to the surface. Or it may create an incentive for those arguments to be resolved, so that communities can benefit from the new possibilities. A timber company felling timber in an area affected by ethnic tensions may well inadvertently inflame those tensions, depending on how it goes about its business; or it may help improve relations between ethnic groups, if it takes the trouble to understand the situation and tailor its way of working accordingly. There are many examples and resources available – for example on the conflict sensitivity hub.

The main thrust of the conflict sensitivity idea is that those intervening in conflict-affected contexts need to understand the peace and conflict dynamics there as well as possible, and tailor their intervention accordingly. In so doing, they can minimise the harm they might otherwise cause, and instead potentially make a contribution to peace. It’s perhaps not obvious at first, but it’s not rocket science, either.

One of the things proponents of conflict sensitivity – correctly – emphasise, is the need for effective monitoring. This is because the peace and conflict dynamics are constantly evolving, and because the interaction between the intervention and these dynamics is constantly evolving too. Therefore, the need to keep a finger on the pulse, to be able to anticipate changes and react in time. One of the things conflict experts are often asked by intervenors is, how they should do this monitoring? What kinds of systems do they need to set up?

Obviously the answer is partly context specific: it depends on the nature of the peace and conflict dynamics, the nature of your project, and the specific interaction between them. This will differ from sector to sector, from different kinds of conflict (from interstate war, through civil war to local ethnic tensions, for example), and due to the specificities of time and place. But at heart, it can helpfully be reduced to three generic questions, which all projects operating in conflict affected locations can ask as part of their management or monitoring system every few months, and whenever major new activities are being initiated. These should consider not just the local project zone, but also the wider context:

  • What changes have we seen in the peace and conflict dynamics in the past period, and what do we foresee in the next?
  • What two-way interactions have we seen, between the project and the peace and conflict dynamics; what is the impact of these; and what can we foresee in the next period?
  • What adaptation or mitigation actions have we taken/should we take?

These questions don’t necessarily need external peace and conflict experts to be deployed – though it can be helpful to bring them in from time to time. Getting staff together, along with partner organisations or others as appropriate, to ask these questions in a simple 2-3 hour workshop format may often be enough to gather the information needed, and design mitigations and adaptations as appropriate. Conflict sensitivity becomes easier, the more you do it. At heart it’s an intuitive idea: it’s not rocket science, but matters a lot.


June 24, 2020

“For when I am in the presence either of father or mother, whether I speak, keep silence, sit, stand or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything else, I must do it as it were in such weight, measure and number, even so perfectly as God made the world; or else I am so sharply taunted, so cruelly threatened, yea presently sometimes with pinches, nips and bobs and other ways (which I will not name for the honour I bear them) … that I think myself in hell.”

Lady Jane Grey,  reported by Roger Ascham who visited her family when she was a young child.
Ives, Eric (2009). Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery. Wiley-Blackwell.

The Execution Of Lady Jane Grey in the Tower of London in 1554, by Paul Delaroche 1833. (National Gallery, London).


They lead you, blindfold, through the maze,
and leave you there, lost and alone – 
and whisper as they walk away;

then later, to an injured throne
you neither spurn nor wish to claim,
as rival families, and Rome

and Cranmer play their deadly game;
at last, they lead you to the dark,
your eyes wrapped in a fold again.

The giant axeman stands apart 
until the drumbeat sounds, and prays 
for kind precision in his task;

as unkind Delaroche betrays,
and – licensed by your mask – defiles 
you with a practised, coward’s gaze,

caressing you with brushstrokes, while
your unlearned searching hands reveal
a nine days queen, and still a child.

This poem first appeared in The Ekphrastic Review

A global COVID-19 ceasefire? Does it make sense?

May 13, 2020

Oxfam has published a briefing paper calling for more to be done, to put the UN Secretary-General’s call for a COVID-19 global ceasefire into practice. The paper sets out very clearly the importance of locally led peace solutions, but it reminded me of my surprise, when the Secretary-General first made his call back in March – an exhortation which has since been championed by arms-selling P5 member France. (No irony there, then.) I’m not sure I agree.

Military conflicts are awful things: they cause untold suffering. But as Clausewitz famously declared, they are a form of political action, pursued by political actors who think violence is the best available mechanism through which to achieve their aims. In some circumstances, it is easy to imagine a ceasefire fitting in with their strategy, in which case, they will no doubt be amenable to exploring that possibility. But this is an entirely contextual matter, not something that is likely to happen because of a well-meaning global call.

Secondly, ceasefires can be harmful. If a ceasefire seems likely, there is every chance that military action will increase in the short term, so that any ceasefire kicks in at a time of maximum military advantage. So it is quite possible that local forces in some theatres have pre-empted the possibility of international ceasefire mediation by changing their tactics on the ground. Certainly the conflict in Libya has evolved rapidly and unexpectedly since the Secretary-General’s call.

Third, in the same vein, military forces will in all likelihood cynically exploit any ceasefire arrived at because of external calls – rather than due to local circumstances – to prepare for subsequent military action.

So, unless the moment really is locally ripe for a ceasefire – or even better, a peace agreement due to mutually hurting stalemate – I’m not sure that global ceasefire calls are helpful, or perhaps even ethical? Whatever we may think about the goals or methods of a particular protagonist in an armed conflict, surely the first thing well-meaning outsiders need to do is base their posture and proposals on an understanding of why that particular conflict is happening, and the local, national, regional and global political economies of which it is a part. Take context as the starting point.