How do you solve a problem like Syria? (Part 2)

On June 17th I wrote about the crisis in Syria, in light of G8 talks and debate over whether the Syrian rebels should be armed. In that post I discussed whether military intervention in Syria could be a just war as defined by Thomas Aquinas, and spoke about how I disagreed with arming the rebels. Since then the hostilities have escalated and tomorrow a recalled parliament will be sitting to debate what can be done. So how do you solve a problem like Syria? Is military intervention justified or should we be wary of a military solution and instead work upon further diplomacy and negotiation?
In an ideal world, and as I advised in my previous post, the solution to the Syrian conflict would be a diplomatic one where both sides could come to the table and discuss peace. However at the moment that level of negotiation seems like a distant dream; with strong support for Assad in the international community and both sides unwilling to negotiate the chasm between the rebels and the government seems too wide to bridge by diplomacy. Negotiations would also be extremely protracted, or difficult to start in the first place, and in the meantime more civilians would die, potentially by chemical attacks.
There is precedent for military intervention without the backing of the UN security council, for example in Kosovo, but just because we theoretically could intervene doesn’t mean that we should. At the back of the government’s mind when they’re debating this issue (although we don’t know yet what Bill is being proposed) should be the welfare of the Syrian people. The trigger for this debate and the feeling that intervention is necessary is the alleged chemical weapon attacks on Syrian civilians. Whatever action we take should be for the benefit of these civilians and to alleviate their suffering; I think this would be very difficult to achieve if we were to bomb Syria or were to invade as we did in Iraq. Also, if military action were taken, the governments sending in troops would have to have careful plans for withdrawal and clear objectives. These objectives should not be support for any one side or to enforce a regime change, they should be to help the people of Syria and to end the conflict quickly.
Overall it is extremely difficult to know what action to take regarding Syria. I am sure that military intervention will make the situation worse, but then so would be doing nothing. Of course any use of chemical weapons is morally abhorrent and we should do what we can to protect vulnerable civilians from such atrocities. Unfortunately it is still very unclear what the best way to do this could be.


A maximum working temperature

I originally intended to write this from my very sunny garden but retreated indoors when the heat got too much for me. As a student on her summer holidays I’ve been at leisure to enjoy the sunny weather and recent heat wave while managing to keep cool when I need to. Unfortunately workers in offices with either inadequate or no air-conditioning don’t have the same luxury, and can really suffer in the heat. So, given that there’s a minimum working temperature, what is the maximum temperature permissible in work places? Answer, there isn’t one.

This means that technically it doesn’t matter how hot it gets, a worker has no right to not be at work due to office temperature. I’d like to think however that managers would use their discretion and common sense; I grew up in Germany and remember one day during a particularly hot summer the temperature reaching 36C, which prompted my English school to send us home early. Just relying on people using their common sense is inadequate though and not how we use the rule of law in this country. It’s no wonder then, that the recent record temperatures have prompted calls for legislation to create a maximum working temperature.

If this heat wave isn’t a freak occurrence and is instead a taste of things to come due to a changing climate it is essential that we legislate to make sure that nobody is forced to work in dangerously high or uncomfortable temperatures. The actual temperature used would of course be subject to debate, but the existence of a minimum working temperature shows that it is possible to define a temperature outside of which it isn’t possible to work. This would be welcomed by both employees and employers, since productivity is bound to suffer if temperatures are too high for employees to work to the best of their ability.

It could be argued that in other countries people regularly have to work in these temperatures and even higher. While it is true that Britain does not get as hot as other countries, those countries also have air conditioning in their offices and workplaces. Implementing a maximum temperature would force workplaces to ensure they have appropriate air conditioning and facilities to cope with the heat, thus protecting the safety and health of workers. Safety of employees is an important area of law and legislation defining a maximum working temperature would be a welcome addition to the rights of employees.

Review: The Murder Trial

I sat down to watch The Murder Trial on Channel 4 with no small amount of trepidation. This was only the second time that cameras had been allowed into a UK courtroom, and this documentary was billed as giving the audience a view into the inner workings of a court. As someone who has visited courts before and viewed trial proceedings I really wanted this documentary to give an accurate portrayal of how the court functioned and the roles of those who work in the criminal justice system. I was also worried that the programme wouldn’t make clear the difference between the devolved Scottish legal system (Scotland has its own legal system, which this case was tried under) and the English legal system, which could create confusion within the audience. My fears were unfounded though and I found The Murder Trial to be both entertaining and informative.

It will always be difficult to fit a five week trial with so many witnesses and so much complex evidence into the space of a two hour programme but I thought that The Murder Trial was edited well and managed to fit in the key details of the trial with a good pace and tension that gradually increased as the trial unfolded. I did however at times wonder what had been left out and whether the programme had been deliberately edited in such a way as to add suspense and surprise when the verdict was announced. I also found some of the interviews and recreations with police footage outside of the courtroom scenes a little slow, while not adding much to the plot. I do realise though that a balance has to be made, and although I’m the kind of person who would love non-stop courtroom scenes for two hours other people may not feel the same way and the programme has to be kept entertaining.

My favourite aspect of The Murder trial was how it portrayed those who work in the justice system and showed them doing their jobs. I’ll be the first to admit that lawyers don’t have the best image; even in TV programmes about the law and lawyers those in the legal profession are portrayed as ruthless and having intense rivalries with those on the opposite side. I feel that this programme to a certain extent helped to dispel that myth and showed what good working relationships lawyers, even on opposing sides, have with each other. It showed the more human and humerous side of those who work in the law, rather than the exaggerated stereotype of the aggressive lawyer. The work by lawyers and different parts of the trial process were explained clearly to the viewer without being patronising; accessible programming like this which shows the real criminal justice system has been long overdue.

Overall I loved The Murder Trial but having said that would not like to see more filming in courts, or more televising of trials. I’d like to elaborate on my reasons for this in a later post, but the main reason I feel this is because it would put too much pressure on those involved in the trial process. However I do urge anyone who hasn’t yet seen The Murder Trial to catch up on it and enjoy a brilliant two hours of television. 

Why I support the Time to Change campaign

Today I registered to volunteer at a Time to Change event, as part of their campaign to talk about, and destigmatise, mental health problems. Normally I like to keep any charity work I do quiet, but I feel that the nature of the Time to Change campaign means the more that volunteers talk about their voluntary work and reasons for doing it, the more we can have an open and frank discussion about mental health problems.

I’ve volunteered at an event in Cambridge where I will talk about my mental health problems. For some readers who know me that sentence will come as a bit of a shock! I haven’t wanted to talk about my depression, which caused what could be called a breakdown in January, for many reasons. The main reason was that I didn’t want to be treated differently; I was still the same person I’d always been, but with a disease. I was concerned that people wouldn’t know what to say to me, which would cause awkwardness for my friends. When depression makes you feel like a burden to others anyway I didn’t want to burden people further. One of the brilliant things that Time to Change does is give friends of people with mental health problems strategies for talking, not just about mental health but about anything that might make their friend feel better.

There are also lots of misconceptions about mental health, which this charity is trying to correct. The most prevalent is that depression is something that can be cured just by talking or “snapping out of it” as though depression was just a bad mood. The reality of depression is that it is so much more than that; there are both psychological and physiological symptoms such as sleeplessness, weight loss, and extreme lack of concentration. Sufferers can feel like they’re simply going through life, not enjoying it. Sometimes, like I did in January, they even feel like they might want to end their lives. I’m not writing about these things to get attention; I want these problems to be openly talked about so that others who feel the same can have the courage to speak out.

With the amazing support of my family and friends I had the courage to speak to a doctor and get medication for my depression. Medication is another area where there is stigma and misunderstanding; even I was scared about being given antidepressants in case they changed how I felt as a person or made me constantly happy and out of it. The truth is that my medication makes me feel as I was before I got depressed, while the counselling I’ve received has greatly improved my confidence. I honestly think that going to see the doctor was the best thing I could have done in my situation and I would urge anyone who has depressive symptoms to do the same.

The point of me writing all this, which has been difficult for me, is to show that anyone can have mental health difficulties, in fact it affects 1 in 4 of the population. If you feel depressed then you shouldn’t feel ashamed; it’s a disease just like any other, the only difference being that it affects the brain as well as the body. I hope in the future mental health problems will no longer be stigmatised and sufferers won’t feel ashamed. Opening a dialogue about mental health is the first step towards seeing mental health problems in the same way as any other disease. 

How a psychic can successfully sue for libel

News emerged this week of a case which at first glance would shock most right-thinking people; Sally Morgan the TV psychic won a case against the Daily Mail for libel, with damages awarded of £125,000. I imagine most readers’ response to this would be “How is this possible?” When the claims of psychics, being able to talk to the dead or predict the future, are so clearly untrue or at the very least unprovable how can a psychic make a case for libel? On looking at the headlines I would agree with the readers’ summation. However if we dig deeper into the story we see a different and much more interesting legal case.

It’s important to state from the start that the case didn’t actually go to court but was settled by the two parties. However if it had gone to court the issue to prove or disprove would not have been whether Sally Morgan has the abilities she claims. That comes down to a matter of belief; a person can say that they believe they talk to the dead and, as long as they don’t wilfully deceive or defraud, wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. Similarly I, with science on my side, could argue that psychic abilities are complete nonsense. This would be what is known in the law as honest comment; my honestly held belief is that psychic abilities don’t exist and someone else’s honestly held belief may be that they do. Neither of these honest comments are libellous.

In this case the comment to prove or disprove the truth of was a very specific one; the Daily Mail alleged that Sally Morgan had received messages from her staff via an earpiece. With this specific comment implying that the public were knowingly deceived a libel case looked strong, especially when it emerged that the staff supposedly giving direction were theatre staff and not Morgan’s employees. Even if this defence from the Daily Mail, i.e. that the comment made was true, fell down they could still try and make a case that Morgan wilfully deceived the public. However this would be extremely difficult and involve trying to second-guess the state of mind of someone who claims they have psychic abilities. It would have to be proven that Morgan didn’t believe in her own abilities and her state of mind was such that she set out to deceive the public; this kind of thing is very difficult to prove in libel law.

Of course this case was settled out of court so we’ll never know who a judge would have found in favour of and what their comments would have been. However on looking briefly at the facts of the case I would be inclined to find in favour of Sally Morgan, and award damages for defamation.    

How do you solve a problem like Syria?

With the G8 summit sitting as we speak the subject highest in the public consciousness isn’t economic or about how the eight richest countries in the world can promote growth and tackle tax avoidance; rather top concern for ordinary people is the problem of Syria and whether the G8 leaders can come to a conclusion on how to deal with the on-going terrible conflict there. With China and Russia backing Assad while America has said it will support rebels any kind of universally agreed deal for helping the country seems like a distant dream. So how do you solve a problem like Syria?

Firstly and most importantly I believe that we shouldn’t simply arm the rebels. Historically when Western powers have followed the same policy in the Middle East, i.e. America arming the Taliban to overthrow the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, these weapons have ended up in the hands of people who have since used the against us. We’re still dealing with the problem caused by arming groups in the Middle East today. In an unstable and volatile country like Syria which has a rebel opposition comprised of many disparate groups, some of whom are Islamic extremists, we cannot make any kind of reasonable guarantee that the weapons will end up in the right hands. Obviously I deplore what Assad has done and is still doing to his own people but just looking at a summary of the news shows that atrocities are happening on both sides. Morally just giving out weapons would be completely wrong and may not help to shorten or improve the bloody conflict.

Although, as I said above, getting parties around a table and coming to some sort of peace deal on Syria seems like an optimistic dream this is the best solution I think to end the conflict. If after multiple attempts at peace talks and negotiation there still seems to end in sight to the conflict then Western powers may feel that the only way to stop the conflict is by intervening and starting a war.

Rather than discuss the political and economic reasons why we wouldn’t want to intervene in Syria, or look at the human rights abuses that would convince us to intervene, I would like to look at this issue from a “just war” perspective.  Just war theory was first developed by Thomas Aquinas and is an interesting and informative way to analyse the morality of conflicts (although the criteria are very strict and a true just war is very rare). Without going into too much detail, if war was waged as intervention proportionately as a last resort then it would be jus ad bellum (just start to a war).  However problems would start once a war began; due to the nature of the Syrian conflict intervening powers would find it difficult to focus only on military and not civilian targets and so the criterion of distinction would not be met. This just war criterion shows a very important problem that intervening could create and how it could exacerbate the problems that civilians in Syria are already facing each day.

So, to conclude, although there are no easy answers to end the conflict I believe that arming the rebels would make the situation much worse. Instead we should work on diplomacy and only when all political negotiations have been tried should we consider a just and considered intervention.

Uncovering the eyes of Justice

The classic image of Justice shows her with a sword and scales, to represent the strength and balance of justice and the truth. However one of the most important features of the statue of Justice is that she is always portrayed as being blindfolded. Rather than be a hindrance the blindness of Justice is essential since it shows that everybody, from the richest man in the land to the poorest, is equal under the law. This equality may soon be a thing of the past however if proposed changes to legal aid come into effect.

Legal aid is the means by which lawyers are paid for representing clients who would otherwise not be able to afford to access justice, and ensures that poor and mostly vulnerable people can get the same quality of representation as those who can afford to pay lawyers themselves. Under the proposed changes legal aid will be cut and a flat rate system will be introduced i.e. a flat rate of payment independent of trial duration. This completely disincentivises lawyers from trying to pursue more complex defences or advising clients to plead not guilty. Reforms to legal aid will result in a race to the bottom in terms of quality of legal advice for those who can’t afford private lawyers. The result of all these changes? A two-tier justice system and no more blind justice.

You may be reading this and thinking “What has this got to do with me? It’s only criminals and not people like me who’ll be affected. You only care because you want to be a lawyer and want to make more money.” On the first point I would argue that we absolutely cannot assume this only affects others. Any of you reading this could potentially in the future be involved in a civil or criminal case and at that point a two-tier justice system, if you end up in the wrong tier, would suddenly be a big problem. We have a system that assumes innocence until proven otherwise and all defendants deserve a proper defence. I care about this issue because I fully believe in equality before the law and that income should never influence quality of justice.

I urge anybody reading this, if you agree with what you’ve read here please petition your MP and the government to reconsider their proposed legal aid reform. If I haven’t convinced you in my very short article that legal aid changes will be disastrous please read other blog posts by greater legal minds than mine and I’m sure you will soon share my opinion. Hopefully we can together convince the government that they must never remove the blindfold of Justice.