Something for the weekend (23)

With its Parliamentary Assembly discussions of abortion rights, prostitution, erogenous zones, sexual performance and whole-life electronic snooping – the organisation’s news agenda this week had the flavour of a Jackie Collins, George Orwell and Catharine Mackinnon mash-up.

Foreskin war

After a three-month media ‘phoney war,’ the principal combatants in the the ‘great male foreskin debate’ finally squared-up, to battle for the hearts and minds of the assembled parliamentarians and the watching webcast public.

Discussions went beyond the Muslim and Jewish ancient ritual, to encompass how the removal of tissue affects sensory pleasure, penile function, penis cancer rates, personal hygiene and the transmission of the AIDS virus.

Pop-psychologists and latter-day Freudians could only feast on a lively confrontation, which included views on sexual self-determination, cognitive dissonance, repressed memory and enduring psychological trauma.

The debate was at once a religious studies seminar and an introduction to urology, with emotions rarely far from the surface.

The issue was surrounded on all sides by a range of experts and witnesses, with, fortunately, any whiff of anti-semitism snuffed-out by the presence of Ronald Goldman, a Jewish-American psychologist.

Supported by a representative of a German foreskin amputation survival organisation, Goldman built his argument on the simple premise that the removal of the male foreskin was an outdated and needless trauma, the memory of which could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Circumcising a son, re-enacts the father’s unresolved pain connected with his own circumcision and allows the father to avoid confronting this psychological pain,” he suggested to a hushed audience.

Directly challenging his Jewish detractors, Goldman reasoned that the religious community’s high ethical standards, combined with new information about the effects of circumcision, made a powerful case for “keeping an infant the way he was born.”

That was “surreal” to the ears of the experienced medical Professor Bernard Lobel. “Circumcision is not mutilation,” he told the mostly male audience, who later learned from Selçuk Silay, a Turkish paediatric urologist, that circumcision affected one in three men and was celebrated globally.

Silay then carpet-bombed listeners with more statistics. “If you are not circumcised, you have a almost a 30% chance of having a urinary tract infection. If you are not circumcised, you have a 22% chance of having penile cancer in your lifetime. You have a very higher risk of having a sexually transmitted diseases.”

Each witness impressed in his own right but this was less a dialogue, than an opportunity to rehearse sincerely-held talking points. After 90 minutes of er.. cut and thrust, the assembly’s resolution on the physical integrity of children, which had ignited the furore, ..er, remains intact.

Minors and prostitution

Similarly sober conversations took place on the subject of Ukraine and the prosecution of Georgian opposition leaders and at other assembly side-events whcih examined planned changes to abortion rights in Spain and the uneven law enforcement approaches to prostitution.

The terms of the sex trade were uppermost in the minds of parliamentarians who came together to discuss the increasing recruitment of under-age girls. Minors “enjoy” a premium value among punters, it is understood, because they are believed to be less likely to carry sexually transmitted diseases.

Experts Roshan Heiler and Livia Aninosanu reported on the three main methods used to recruit for prostitution, girls as young as 11 years old.

According to Anninosanu, the preferred technique is the use of the ‘Loverboy.’ He is an attractive, charismatic and unscrupulous teller of stories, who will befriend an impoverished and vulnerable girl, with a history of physical and sexual abuse within her circle of trust, until the moment comes when she can be delivered into prostitution.

Other methods include the promise of employment so lucrative that it would resolve the financial needs of the girl and her family and heartbreakingly, the sale of women into sex slavery by long-term partner or husbands.

The naivety, or indeed, plain stupidity, of the girls was fiercely denied by both experts. Hard hearts melted as they spoke of the girls’ poverty, their need for safety, a better life and someone they could trust.

There will be more on this story next week in a new blog ‘Witness’ series.

Mass state surveillance

Meanwhile, the fluent and persuasive Jacob Appelbaum was encouraging everyone who would listen not to believe the data security promises of e-mail service providers. For that matter, web-users should proceed with grave caution when using social networking sites or posting photographs and should remain extremely vigilant of the traces they leave behind when surfing the internet too.

Of course, Appelbaum’s detractors point to the difficult but necessary trade-off between personal freedom and the threat of terrorism but the Tor project developer remains unimpressed by such arguments.

“We need to get rid of this false choice between security and privacy,” he declared. “In reality, what we are talking about is dignity and liberty.”

Appelbaum, who warned that “persons of interest” should be prepared for whole life surveillance by machines, not in the fight against terrorism but as part of a “political hegemony” project, joined law professor Douwe Korff and researcher Christian Grothoff from Munich, as the three big guns invited to give presentations to the assermbly’s legal affairs and human rights committee on Data Protection Day.

This has long been one of the organisation’s main causes of concern and the Assembly rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt announced his hope that the testimonies of Appelbaum et al would be followed by that of Edward Snowden, the former American security analyst who exposed mass state surveillance last year.

With excellent timing, the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper uncovered “hard-hitting legal opinion” that claimed state spying might contravene human rights law, a point made during the hearing by Professor Korff.

“GCHQ’s mass surveillance spying programmes are probably illegal and have been signed off by ministers in breach of human rights and surveillance laws, according to a hard-hitting legal opinion that has been provided to MPs,” the Guardian revealed.

“The advice warns that Britain’s principal surveillance law is too vague and is almost certainly being interpreted to allow the agency to conduct surveillance that flouts privacy safeguards set out in the European convention on human rights (ECHR).”

Social rights in Europe

Equally well-timed was the release of a pan-European survey on compliance with social rights laws.

The social dimension to the European project would remain a Cinderella to the three queens of finance, big government and global trade, were it not for the work of the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), among others.

Its survey highlighted deficiencies in social protection across Europe and had a marked effect on debate in the United Kingdom, where the Channel Four television programme ‘Benefits Street,’ which examines the lives of welfare claimants in a Birmingham neighbourhood, is provoking much media-political comment.

It was into this ferment of polarised argument that the report landed, with its findings that “the minimum levels of short-term and long-term incapacity benefit is manifestly inadequate, the minimum level of state pension is manifestly inadequate” and the “minimum level of job seeker’s allowance is manifestly inadequate.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the government’s work and pensions Secretary responded bluntly. “This government has made great strides in fixing the welfare system so that spending is brought under control. It’s lunacy for the Council of Europe to suggest welfare payments need to increase when we paid out £204bn in benefits and pensions last year alone.

Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, appeared to confuse the ECSR’s intials with those of the ECHR when he declared in the Daily Mail newspaper that: “The government can no longer stand by. They have got to say, ‘We’re sick to the back teeth of this interference, we’re going to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights.’”

Launch of ECHR judicial year

Court officials were probably oblivious to Philip Davies blast, busy as they were with preparations for the launch of the judicial year. The event is a stat-fest and obligingly, the court trumpeted that its backlog of cases, down 61,000 in two years, now stands at 100,000.

It is also worth mentioning that a landmark court judgement - O’Keefe v Ireland – may have helped to turn the page on a child sexual abuse case which had troubled the country for decades.

More migrant deaths at sea

The Greek government has written to human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks to urge greater European cooperation on migration, following the Pharmakonisi boat tragedy.

“Such shocking incidents make even more urgent the need for a common European strategic cooperation to effectively address the problem of illegal migration flows while safeguarding human life and dignity,” the letter states.

The commissioner discussed the issue in wider terms, during an Assembly hearing on Islamophobia, describing the welcome given by member states to Syrian refugees as being “relatively cold.”

It was a point echoed by other parliamentarians who urged governments to “show generosity and solidarity” in admitting these refugees to their territory.

And so to next week

Next week, the European Court of Human Rights will hold a Grand chamber hearing in the case Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan, which follows the complaint of an Armenian refugee that he was forced to flee from his home in 1992 during the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland will make a working visit to Georgia and the organisation’s anti corruption unit will report on Belarus.

Please click here for more information on the organisation’s activities over the next seven days.

Bon weekend

Something for the weekend (22)

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