Thursday, 17 March 2011

Fools Rush In

The Malta Independent on Sunday

The Prime Minister and his deputy came in for heavy criticism from usually friendly quarters – elderly politicians and columnists amongst others – for not offering Malta’s facilities as a military base for the execution of the UN mandate for the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya and protection of civilians from military fire. This is unfair.

I am not surprised that such belligerence should emanate from opinion shapers who consistently seem to have ants in their pants about restoring Malta’s active military role without giving due consideration to the damage this would inflict on our peace-time economic sectors, not least tourism, manufacturing and financial services. But such criticism coming from former Prime Minister and President Emeritus Dr Fenech Adami amazes me.

It amazes because past prime ministers and presidents should make it a policy to go into strict and permanent retirement and to not participate publicly in divisive policy debates. If they feel the urge to pour their wisdom on the executive, they should do so through private channels. Public uttering undermines the authority of the executive and make the handling of delicate and difficult situations such as the Libya affair much more complicated.

Equally unhelpful is the stance of former Labour Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who objects even to Malta’s passive cooperation (allowing the UN-sanctioned mission to pass through our air space) for the execution of the UN mandate. Inexplicably, he remains silent about the large scale civilian persecution and killing by Libya’s own military machine.

As a civilised society, we respect decisions taken by the UN Security Council. We might have reservations about them but there should be no doubt that we will abide by them and will do nothing to obstruct their execution. Abiding by them does not mean, however, that we have any obligation to participate actively in their execution.

Charity begins at home, and at international level we should be careful about attempting to punch above our weight. The government’s primary obligation is the preservation of our national interest and there is no doubt that this is served best by avoiding active and direct participation in hot or cold wars. Our mission is neither to participate in policeman-of-the-world initiatives nor to maintain neutrality between wrong or right. Our mission is to protect the local economy and local jobs by being a responsible member of the UN without getting caught in potential contradictions of why intervention in Libya is okay, but not in Zimbabwe, in Ivory Coast or in Darfur.

Frankly, I think both the government and Opposition have performed admirably and creditably in this whole Libya affair. Malta actively participated – and remains willing to participate – in humanitarian initiatives, without reservation or discrimination. Whilst making it absolutely clear that we support UN resolutions, we should remain open for dialogue and for exploring solutions that could break the impasse and to offer a platform for negotiations that could lead to a ceasefire, to co-existence and eventually to lasting peace. The fate of Gaddafi’s regime should be decided by none other than the Libyan people.

I am in principle always against any sort of foreign intervention in the internal affairs of a country; but if the UN Security Council passes a resolution that authorises such foreign intervention due to extreme circumstances and abuse of internationally recognised human rights, then it becomes the choice of the lesser evil. The UN Security Council resolution that authorised the no-fly zone and all necessary measures to protect civilians under attack in Libya did not specifically call for Gaddafi’s removal. This situation could have long-term destabilising consequences for Libya and the Middle East.

Those executing the UN mandate had to move quickly during a crisis to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi and Tobruk, as the regime threatened to deliver their version of justice door by door, household by household. With the pro-Gaddafi forces advancing rapidly and clearly in an unstoppable march on the poorly-armed insurgents in their Eastern strongholds, the international community had to move fast without precisely defining the final objective of their intervention.

Now that the imminent danger for civilians is being addressed, the forces acting under the UN mandate must clarify their goals on Libya. They cannot continue the current bombardment for long, especially once the Gaddafi military machine has been weakened enough to minimise the risk of continued attacks on civilians. Whilst it is unlikely that lasting stability could come about without regime change, this cannot be the goal of the UN-enabled forces. Such decisions pertain to the Libyan people.

If the insurgents are determined to liberate Libya and convert their country into a modern democracy that commands respect from its neighbours and world institutions, they must work hard for it rather than expect the world to deliver it to them on a platter. Having neutralised the regime’s fire power, the UN-enabled forces should retreat and work on political initiatives, including the recognition of the Benghazi government as the legitimate interim representative of the people.

Following such recognition, the new government will need to be helped with Bosnia-type training and equipping to give them a fair chance of victory over the Gaddafi regime, which has delegitimised itself through the use of military force against its own people. Such training and equipping should be primarily funded and procured by the Arab League to avoid the impression of an out-dated religious crusade.

In the meantime, our retired politicians should be careful not to become infected with a mild bout of the power disease. An over-long tenure in power strips normal people of their sanity. More than 40 years of hearing unreserved eulogies, of protégés filtering the bad news to ensure that only the good news reaches the top, thus avoiding the risk of having the messenger killed rather than having the message understood, infects with an acute delusion of eternal gratitude.

History is littered with case studies of revolutionaries and liberators who, after reaching their objective to bring about refreshing change, stay on to keep their country in a permanent state of revolution in expectation of the eternal gratitude of the people they liberated. If they stay in power long enough, as is the case with Libya, Cuba, North Korea and Zimbabwe, the upcoming generations have no idea about what they are expected to be eternally grateful for!

Our political has-beens seem to be having a mild bout of the disease of delusion of eternal gratitude. It would be better if they lower their expectations and truly retire rather than instigate the rest of us to rush in where angels fear to tread. 


Sunday, 13 March 2011

Libya - Divorce - Bankers Pay - Air Malta and the Rest

The Malta Independent on Sunday

This week is a rare case of being spoilt for choice on current topics to address in this column. Unable to choose, I propose to share condensed thoughts on each topic.

The situation in Libya is becoming disastrously alarming. A stalemate seems to be developing which could morph into a protracted civil war. This will benefit no one and certainly it is unappetising for Malta having to live next to a dysfunctional state. The situation demands an immediate ceasefire and negotiations between the Gaddafi regime and representatives of the uprising to come up with a peaceful solution in the interest of the Libyan people.

The regime has to do some thorough soul searching and hopefully conclude that a 41-year legacy, which sees the country’s resources spent in self-protection against its own citizens, is a dead end. Even if the regime prevails, it will be a pyrrhic victory, surviving with more blood on its hands and shamed by the entire international community.

The insurgents should take a look at the South Africa model and, rather than be inspired by revenge and mirage justice and in the process prolonging the agony of those they seek to defend while holding out for the full pound of flesh, they should focus on how to unite the country under rule of law, respect for minority rights, institutional building on democratic models and respect for internationally recognised human rights.

If it is true that Malta was asked to mediate between the two sides and the government refused outright rather than make such mediation involvement conditional to a ceasefire, then we have failed our mission to bring peace to the region. I just can’t believe we washed our hands of a mediation offer lightly, and must conclude that the government judged the mediation offer insincere and not accompanied by a ceasefire pre-concession.

As a nation we should count our blessings and thank our forefathers, who imbued our culture with British respect for rule of law and adaptation to democratic institutions; and this without giving up on our Mediterranean flair, flexibility, ingenuity to improvise and the joy of living. A perfect recipe that rendered us successful against the odds of lack of resources!!

Whenever I meet someone grumping about being so near to Libya yet never struck any oil, I retort that finding oil will probably be more a curse than a blessing. It could give us a false sense of security, reduce our alertness while the resource-based growth of the economy will displace other successful segments, like tourism and manufacturing, rather than be in their addition.
* * *

The divorce issue has now moved on and the argument is about the phraseology of the referendum question. I remain adamantly against the referendum per se. For me divorce is a civil right, which, like other civil rights, should not be conditioned to the will of the majority.

If I am wrong and divorce is not currently judged to be a civil right, then we should stay put until there is a parliamentary majority that opines differently. I cannot help feeling that the anti-divorce movement is pushing for a referendum in the hope that this will shelve the issue and tie the hands of the next government that would not dare go against the electorate’s opinion as expressed in a specific referendum. Their insistence on a simple ‘yes – no’ question raises my suspicion. The referendum question, now that it seems that a referendum is a foregone conclusion, has to be simple but not simplistic.
A straight yes or no question would be simplistic. A question with the basic parameters regarding access conditionality and rights of minor children can still be simple without being simplistic.

* * *

Bankers’ pay is in the news again. The chief executives of Royal Bank of Scotland, which escaped death only due to the British taxpayers’ direct bailout, and Barclays Bank, which escaped death due to two strokes of luck and the cheap money pumped into the economy by the main world central banks, have been awarded multi-million dollar 2010 bonuses in the form of share rights that remain blocked for a number of years.

Bankers are a special breed. They can destroy the financial world as they did in 2007/2008, forcing governments and central banks to put up taxpayers’ money to come to their rescue, but as recovery depends on their good health they cannot be fairly punished for their misdeeds.

On the contrary, when things return to normality, bankers in full knowledge of their critical importance for recovery, start behaving with impunity and demand outrageous pay packets as they start making money again, building positions leading to the next financial crisis. I don’t think that any banker who relies on deposits guaranteed by taxpayers should be entitled to million dollar bonuses. If investment bankers still consider themselves masters of the universe, they should move their profession to hedge funds sourced by fully exposed and unguaranteed investors’ money.

Utility banking and casino banking cannot be left to reside in the same institution whatever the short-term consequences. Any revised regulation that overlooks this separation is deficient.

* * *

As Air Malta continues to sink further into the red, and the rescue money taxpayers invested continue to be eroded by accumulating losses rather than restructuring investments, we are gradually sliding into a blame game where parties with vested interests attempt pain distribution on the basis of blame apportionment as they perceive it. I hope that while negotiations are going on with unions defending the workers and the government defending its legacy, there will be a voice for the taxpayer.

We cannot have another shipyard, even if the EU were to permit it. The moment the government took a (good) decision to allow low cost airlines to operate to Malta in the wider interest of our tourist industry, it should have immediately pre-empted a thorough restructuring of Air Malta to permit it to compete in the radically changed environment without being burdened by its heavy legacy costs.

Now that we have wasted valuable time and precious money watching Air Malta sink under the burden of its legacy costs, it would lead to nowhere if we base Air Malta’s restructuring on a deadly blame game. I honestly doubt if Air Malta is still in a state of repair. Maybe it is better to consider the formation of a new Air Malta which would buy from the old Air Malta its valuable assets, including fleet, slots and intellectual rights, and re-build it from scratch on a competitive cost structure without its legacy burdens. The GM model used by the US government is worth bearing in mind. The rest can wait.