UK-Mexico love-in

On Monday 22 September the British Mexican Society held its annual ‘Two Ambassadors’ event to celebrate and promote the countries’ bilateral relations

The Mexican Ambassador to the UK's residence

The Mexican Ambassador to the UK’s residence

Once more this fixture in the society’s calendar was fully booked, with a brimming audience anticipating the latest high-level update from both diplomats, held in the Mexican ambassador’s residence in London. It is a congratulatory type of occasion, and those in attendance looked not for discord but rather a chance to cherish the joint ambitions for the future and successes of the past. The two nations have deep links that stem from the birth of the modern Mexico, as the United Kingdom was the first country to recognise informally the new country after independence from Spain and the second (after the US) to notify the Mexican government officially. The two countries have a long and shared literary, artistic, sporting, scientific and industrial history.

The Mexican ambassador to the UK, Diego Gómez Pickering, spoke first, softly to start with as he warmed up by praising the UK’s “solid economic recovery” and “business-oriented strategy” and confirming that he thought that Great Britain was “destined to remain a world leader in the eyes of Mexicans”. He divided his presentation into four sections that roughly broke into: current economic situation/UK recovery; uniqueness of the countries’ relationship; Mexican structural reforms; and the future untapped economic partnerships.

(L-R) Mexican Ambassador to the UK, Diego Gómez Pickering; British Ambassador to Mexico, Duncan Taylor; and British Mexican Society chairman, Richard Maudslay

(L-R) Mexican Ambassador to the UK, Diego Gómez Pickering; British Ambassador to Mexico, Duncan Taylor; and British Mexican Society chairman, Richard Maudslay

After that, the diplomat went on to look at the upcoming, if rather ungainly-titled ‘2015: The Year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico’. This ‘dual year’ will “foster better understanding…/renew projects and initiatives”. It appears that culture and education will be the bases of the twelve months of intended mutual positivity, with the nations focusing their ‘year’ on universities, the arts and society as a whole.

Mr Gómez Pickering also looked forward to the visit next month of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall and there was an added regal element to this year’s event in London, as the society’s patron, the Duke of Gloucester, was there.

The British ambassador to Mexico, Duncan Taylor, spoke at length in praiseworthy terms about the “remarkable and palpable goodwill towards Britain [from Mexico]”. He said he was “encouraged by the warmth of feelings” and commented that the two nations thought “very much alike”. He spoke about shared values and outlooks and lauded Enrique Peña Nieto’s structural reforms as an “extraordinary series of measures”. He was on more uncertain ground when talking about joint development projects in Belize. He recognised the “different histories and different perspectives” when describing the British-Mexican togetherness: one a previously colonising country and the other a nation that was colonised.

There were questions from the audience that followed up on three themes: the coming bilateral cultural year mentioned above; science and innovation; and literature. After the event, there was a reception in another room in the residence where margaritas and some Mexican culinary delectation was were on offer. I spoke to the Mexican diplomat then about two matters. Firstly: indigenous rights, which President Peña Nieto had just addressed at the UN Plenary Session of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The leader discussed the importance of protecting and promoting the rights of indigenous people and their cultures and customs across the globe. Mexico, for its part, recognises 56 languages in use by its more than 15 million native peoples.

I also asked Mr Gómez Pickering on a more difficult issue: the exorbitant numbers of child migrants attempting to cross Mexico’s northern border and the disappearances, murders, rapes, robberies and extortions committed in the deserts and forests of Mexico against travelling workers. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights noted recently that despite the change of government (from the conservative PAN of Felipe Calderón to the centrist PRI) there had been no let-up in the violations of human rights against undocumented migrants. The ambassador palmed off the issue to his human rights attaché, Stephanie Black, who did admit the enormity of the problem and suggested that while the PRI had been addressing the matter there was still a long way to go.

MYANMAR ELECTION V – Watching and waiting

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 April, Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog is covering the vote live from Yangon.

Monitors from across the world have descended on the country to observe the voting process. They are in place noting the run-up to tomorrow, how the voting actually goes in practice and checking any irregularities that emerge afterwards.

Speaking to a UN observer about the vote, he reiterated the simple desire, first and foremost, to see a free and fair election. Aung San Suu Kyi is not so sure that this aim can be achieved. But even as recently as yesterday the government’s English-language mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, once again reassured readers that the voting process would not fall down and would be found by the observers to have complied with all the international recommendations.

The monitor admitted that not all the scientific tools used in other electoral missions will be at hand here. He also said that the global observers had been in a bit of rush to organise the monitoring as the government in Naypyidaw only published the guest-list last week.

The observers will try to make it to all the townships where votes are taking place, for although there are several constituencies in Yangon, the voting will reach across the country, up to Mandalay and down to the Irrawaddy delta area. The UN, EU, US and ASEAN will not accept electoral fraud from any angle and the National League for Democracy and other opposition parties, such as the Democratic Party and the National Democratic Force, have to ensure they play by the rules as well.

Kicking sand in their face

Western Sahara is caught between Moroccan overlords, the Sahara desert and an uncertain future

The Arab Spring has so far not reached the nomadic Muslims of El Aaiun. Or Semara or Bir Gandus. Or in fact any town at all in Western Sahara. And it looks likely that it will be blown off course as it tries to reach down to the desert coastal territory.

When Spain left in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both rushed in for a land-grab and the local Polisario Front declared Western Sahara to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania has since retreated, leaving only an anomalous section of its national railway in the far south-eastern corner.

Morocco has done more than roll a few engines through the dunes in the last 36 years. The UN-supported republic only has legitimate administration in the thin eastern slice of the country that is not governed by Morocco. The rest, including El Aaiun, the capital, is run by Rabat. For those from Tangier down to Agadir, the Southern Provinces are considered a fundamental part of the kingdom.

The UN disagrees and sees Western Sahara as a part of an ‘incomplete decolonisation’. On 15 April, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that despite the repeated stalling of talks over the dispute (10 rounds of UN discussions have taken place in the last four years), the international community must make more effort to find a solution to the problem.

A ceasefire has been in place since 1991 and Morocco has floated a proposal to devolve more autonomy to the 500,000 Sahrawis. The Polisario Front have rejected this idea and Mr Ban admitted that:

“While both emphasise their full commitment to the search for a solution, a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process, and each party harbours deep suspicions of the other.”

Sahrawis, spread out across a large, arid (but rich in phosphates) country, will not be able to remove Morocco in the same way the Tunisians and Egyptians kicked out their presidents. They cannot organise a rendez-vous on Facebook. The nomadic version of Islam that had developed there means they cannot get together on Fridays to plot the latest post-prayer protests.

They will have to rely on the UN coming to a definite agreement with Morocco to hold the long-postponed referendum on self-determination and try to garner firm help from the 50 or so countries which have formalised foreign relations with the republic. South Sudan recently became Africa’s newest independent nation. The dream for Sahrawis is that it does not take them too much longer to capture that title.

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.

Our lips seem to be sealed

After the arrest of seven more journalists in Turkey recently and the tightening of media laws in Romania and Hungary, advocates of press freedom in the EU are starting to sweat.

According to the Turkish Journalists’ Association, 58 reporters are currently behind bars in Turkey, and the jail sentences continue to be handed out. The arguments between the press and the politicians are intensifying. On Tuesday 15 March, the Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the foreign media of aiding a ”defamation campaign” against him and hit out at his own press for ‘smearing his government’.

On the same day, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

If there are genuine reasons to suppose that any journalists have committed crimes outside the scope of their journalistic work, then those reasons should be transparent to the journalists themselves, to their defence lawyers and to the rest of us.”

The EU has painted Turkey with the bright colours of ‘Muslim democracy’. But the frowning has begun over the restrictions of the press being dished out from Ankara. The government there is very wary of anything with a hint of the alleged plan to bring down Mr Tayyip Erdogan’s administration in 2003, the so-called Ergenekon plot.

The EU is worried that Turkey, its crucial link between the continent and the Islamic world, (and possible future partner), is heading down a slippery slope. Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele affirmed that

“as a candidate country, we expect Turkey to implement core democratic principles and enable varied, pluralistic debate in public space”.

But there is also concern for what is happening within the confines of the club itself. Romania has amended its broadcast law six times in the past year. Hungary recently warned during its presidency of the EU that other members should keep their noses out of Hungarian internal affairs. This came in response to the concern expressed over Budapest’s new media laws.

During a time when the economy is causing European leaders a real headache, press freedom issues must not be sidelined. Turkey is whipping up a stir with journalistic events there and this is not what the EU needs, with the country being Europe’s ‘democratic’ route into the Maghreb and the turmoil there. If it wants to continue to put Turkey on a pedestal, it needs to demand rigorous assurances from Ankara on press freedom.