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No, Aleppo is not being “liberated” – despite what the Morning Star says

Eastern Aleppo being recaptured by the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad is not “liberation”. The left must not pretend it is.

Did you hear? Aleppo is being “liberated”. Al Jazeera reports that the Syrian army and allied militias are taking more and more neighbourhoods in eastern Aleppo, held by rebels for the past four years, back into government control. There are reports that government forces executed dozens of civilians “over alleged connections to opposition fighters”, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stating that at least 60 people had been killed on Monday.

These efforts at “liberation” have now extended to pro-government forces “entering homes in eastern Aleppo and killing those inside, including women and children”, according to the UN. Its human rights office says it has evidence at least 82 civilians have been shot on the spot, with a spokesman calling it “a complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo”.

Freedom at last, eh?

If none of the above sounds like “liberation” to you, it apparently does to the Morning Star, whose front page proclaims that “[f]inal liberation of Aleppo is in sight”:

Meanwhile, the White Helmets, the Syria Civil Defence organisation recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has co-signed a statement calling for the international community to provide safe passage for civilians currently trapped in Aleppo. The statement reads:

“For years, our humanitarian volunteers have worked to save the lives of our people in Aleppo: operating in underground hospitals, rescuing entire families buried under the rubble and risking our lives to document what the daily war crimes committed by Assad regime [sic] and its ally Russia. We can do no more.”

Now, the city of Aleppo stands to be handed back to that regime. What the Morning Star calls “liberation” actually means returning the people of that city to the charge of a man who has committed war crimes.

Bashar al-Assad's actions have been condemned over and over again by prominent and expert voices, both outside Syria and from within. In September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the Security Council “to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court”. In the same month, France opened an inquiry into the Assad regime to probe alleged crimes against humanity.

The so-called Caeser images (capturing detainees being tortured) showed what Desmond de Silva QC, a former chief prosecutor of the special court in Sierra Leone, called killing on an “industrial scale”. Smuggled out of Syria by a man employed to photograph the tortured bodies of Assad’s victims, the photographs suggested to Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch that, “we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria’s notorious dungeons”.

It remains popular among parts of the left to view global justice as a battle for and against US imperialism – a principle some are willing to doggedly adhere to even as images of tortured Syrian bodies reach our newspapers. But it is not only Western countries that are guilty of propping up dictatorships. If we are to commit ourselves to standing for oppressed peoples, we would do well to heed the voices coming from Aleppo today.

I'm a mole, innit.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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