Serious questions remain for Andrew Mitchell on aid to Rwanda

Why did he choose to reinstate aid to Rwanda on his last day as International Development Secretary?

A month of feverish speculation about one of Andrew Mitchell’s first actions as Chief Whip – the infamous incident at Downing Street – eventually led to his decision to resign the post.

Yet there has been much less focus on one of his final actions as Secretary of State for International Development – despite far more serious ramifications. As he prepared to leave his post in the Department for International Development, Mr Mitchell ended a freeze on aid to Rwanda. As a result, £16m was granted to the country in a move which left the UK internationally isolated.

While the move received some coverage – including by the New Statesman here, it did not receive widespread coverage.

It reversed a previous decision made by Andrew Mitchell, in common with allies in the European Union and beyond, following intensification of fighting in Eastern Congo - fighting in which the M23 rebel group played a substantial role.

It is not clear why the UK government made the decision to reinstate aid on the day Mitchell left the department, why it made the decision alone and what, if any, consultation took place with European Union countries who, increasingly, co-ordinate policies and payments with the UK government.

It is also a puzzle that any Secretary of State should make such a sensitive decision on his last day in the job, since the issue was not especially time sensitive and could have been considered, with appropriate discussion with allies, by his successor.

The decision became more sensitive still within a month. A Reuters news report said that concerns have been set out by UN experts in a report due out in November that Rwanda’s defence chief is effectively leading a rebel group against its neighbour’s Government. The M23 rebels have been fighting government forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo for much of the year, a key factor in the initial suspension of aid in July. Rwanda has strongly denied the suggestions.

Andrew Mitchell’s actions in restoring aid moved against the tide of international opinion and left Britain isolated.

The question is: why?

In a parliamentary answer last month, the government confirmed they remain “very concerned by continuing reports of Rwandan support for the M23 rebels, by the humanitarian situation, and by reports that the M23 rebels are setting up a parallel administration, and are committing human rights abuses.”

Asked by Cardiff West Labour MP Kevin Brennan why aid was restored despite those concerns, the Prime Minister said: “We should be very frank and firm with President Kagame and the Rwandan regime that we do not accept that they should be supporting militias in the Congo or elsewhere. I have raised that issue personally with the President, but I continue to believe that investing in Rwanda’s success, as one of those countries in Africa that is showing that the cycle of poverty can be broken and that conditions for its people can be improved, is something we are right to do.”

This response does not sit well with the decision to suspend aid in July.

Certainly, the Foreign Office is sensitive to continued concern on the matter. Minister Hugo Swire, speaking in a debate on the Democratic Republic of Congo on 23 October said in reponse to me pressing him on the matter:

The decision to disburse £8m of general budget support while reprogramming the remaining £8 million to targeted programmes on education and food security took account of the fact that withholding the money would impact on the very people we aim to help. By reprogramming some of the general budget support, we signalled our continuing concern about Rwanda’s actions in eastern DRC.

I am sure that the honourable gentleman was not trying to make some kind of cheap political point about the issue. The point is that we are committed to helping the poorest people in the world and we believe that there are people in Rwanda who are still deserving of our support. The decision to continue that support was taken across Government.

Andrew Mitchell’s decision to reinstate aid amended the package to Rwanda: part of the aid was “reprogrammed” to targeted programmes. This indicates worries that the funding could have been use inappropriately had a simple reinstatement of aid been made.

It is very welcome that Andrew Mitchell will be giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development on 8 November on his decision to reinstate aid to Rwanda. Substantial questions remain for him to answer.

Ian Lucas is Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East and the Labour MP for Wrexham

Andrew Mitchell photographed after his resignation as Chief Whip. Photograph: Getty Images

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.