Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The WATM Podcast Episode 4

Podcast four is live. The WATM duo tackle Afghanistan, a bevy of South American elections, the Swiss referenda, the president of the European Council and the latest podcast feedback.
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Sunday, 22 November 2009

The WATM Podcast Episode 3

It’s the awkward third podcast. In it we cover our disappointment with Obama, our despair with Homeopathy, our desires for high-speed rail, our deliberations over the elections in Romania and our delight at a cocktail.
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Thursday, 5 November 2009

The WATM Podcast Episode 2

Our latest podcast for your delectation.

Topics this week: FLATM/SHATM, Prof Nutt sacking, Bloomberg's re-election, the Bloody Swiss and, of course, the COCKTAIL MOMENT!

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Saturday, 24 October 2009

The We Approve This Message Podcast

First episode is up. Four meaty topics, one meaty cocktail and a disclaimer - enjoy!
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Sunday, 18 October 2009

Danders and hackles at the ready. It's abortion this week.

We haven't been posting messages to WATM with anything like the correct level of assiduity. It is difficult to be motivated, though, when one hears that a reader, @smithsky1979 (for it is she), sighs with pre-emptive exhaustion when she sees a message pop up in her RSS. To 'hell' with you, Smith. But for the rest of you, we have news.

Since m'colleague and I have mastered the written word so successfully, it is time to conquer new heights. Onwards to the WATM Podcast. More news will be coming forthwith, but let me assure you that jingles are currently being composed and topics considered for inclusion. I think politics might feature heavily along with foreign affairs, transport issues, cocktails chat (that's just me) and assorted self-righteous geekery, natch.

But today, for your delectation, we must grasp a nettle which has been tempting us for a while: abortion.

Hark, I can hear danders and hackles being raised the land over.

Plenty has been written about the rights and wrongs of abortion, but that is not our task today. Anyway, matters of absolute and relative morality will be considered in a separate message (part 2 of 2) currently being prepared by m'colleague. Instead we want to consider why certain positions on abortion seem to be coterminous with politics and religious positions. There is no obvious reason that should be the case.

Without much fear of contradiction I can say that the western Right are opposed to abortion rights while those of the left are in their favour. This is more stark in the United States than it is in the UK and Europe, but the generalisation does hold.

Why should this be the case? A decision about the morality of abortion is a matter of science, reason, and personal judgement. No reference to one's belief in the role of the state is needed, for instance, nor one's ideas about the organisation of capital and labour, which are the ideas which really govern the Left-Right divide.

In fact, if we were to refer to those ideas, then the Right's traditional desire to reduce the power of the state in favour of personal freedom would seem to suggest they would be in favour of abortion rights.

Perhaps we can explain this problem as a matter of faith. In the US, at least, those on the Right are more likely to hold Christian beliefs of the variety which abhor abortion for apparently biblical reasons. (That the WATM duo think that taking a position based on such a text is ludicrous is neither here nor there as far as our current discussion goes.) This doesn't follow in the UK, though, where the biggest Christian denomination is the Church of England (and associated clingers-on). As far as I can tell the C of E believes less and less with every passing year, with the exception of Sharia Law which recently became part of the Archbishop of Canterbury's preaching. And the Church is certainly not full of fire-and-brimstone anti-abortionists.

Those on the Left also have to explain the sometimes feverish pro-abortion attitudes some take, and the desire by some (I've seen it) to demonise comrades who take a different view.

All of which is to say that it should be completely in order for all positions on abortion to be 'allowed' within the various political factions and groupings.

Those of us who believe in science and evidence for deciding the nature of things, rather than relying on revealed truth, should look at the scientific evidence, ask ourselves about personal freedom, consider whether we think abortion sufficiently egregious to attempt to stop those who differ in their position from following through on their beliefs and be happy to defend our position. We should not allow abortion evangelicals, or actual evangelicals, to cloud our judgement.

I bet Sadie of the Tavern is fired up by this one, eh Smith?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Reasonably Offensive

It might not seem like the politest thing to do. Imagine that one found out that, for example, a guest at a restaurant you were running was a student of anthropology, or, much more concerning, a member of the Respect 'party'. Despite the obvious and understandable feeling of pity that one would hold for this poor person, most of us would choose to keep our mouths firmly shut. It just doesn't seem proper that when we bring them the bill we might point out they could have studied something real, or that Mr Galloway is one of the most self-aggrandising men to have stood for elected office.

However, and this would appear to be a much misunderstood point, because something is not polite does not mean it should be legislated against. Your author is certainly not religious, but would gladly defend the right of any others to hold and convey their beliefs, even if they are distasteful to me. If someone wishes to deprive another person of their right to liberty, freedom of association or their own freedom of speech then clearly the issue has moved on from doling out offence to the oppression of a citizen. This would then be unacceptable.

So it was with some disappointment that this story wandered through my browser window this week. Mr and Mrs Vogelenzang, the (Christian) operators of a B&B, chose to engage in a discussion with a (Muslim) customer. They described Muslim dress as 'bondage' and are alleged, although deny, to have called Mohammed a warlord. Zero marks for customer service here, and a quick trip to TripAdvisor to write that brutal review and assign one blob for the service score - how cathartic! Not somewhere to recommend to friends.

However, the recourse chosen by the unnamed guest was not a decision to change her hotel-booking policy, but instead a trip to the nearest police station. Soon afterwards the decorously-challenged coupled were arrested, interviewed and charged with "a religiously aggravated public order offence". The lack of hyphenation here leads your author to wonder if it is the public offence order that has become aggravated by religion. Regardless of how improper we find the couple's behaviour, surely their right to freely express themselves, providing they do not discriminate against their guests, should be protected. My good colleague has previously argued in favour of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. I am not sure where he stands now.

It is vital to separate between causing offence and causing actual harm. Next time your blogger enters a restaurant feel free to insult my atheism, or attack my distaste for nationalism. Just don't expect a good write up on afterwards.

Monday, 17 August 2009

I disagree with you, you Nazi.

“God” speed to m’colleague who has traversed the oceans to prepare his next message to you fine people. He is in the Land of the Free in order to carefully prepare his second, much-anticipated musing on the nature of moral relativism. As well he might, because something is afoot over there. Yes, thanks to the inauguration of a (relatively) liberal Democrat president, it’s crazy right-wing morning again in America.

I refer mainly to the current desire on the part of some in the media to liken Mr Obama and his healthcare policies to that of the vilest dictator who ever lived. Classy.

Civility in political discourse makes me happy. I like it when people disagree, but are pleasant, engaging, friendly and informative while doing so. God knows, m’colleague and I don’t agree on everything (the things I could tell you about his voting record) and yet by our arguing, debating and discussing I know I am far better informed, and far more sure of my own arguments than I would otherwise be.

It is perfectly proper, and indeed comforting, that the right wing, including the Republican Party, opposes what President Obama is trying to achieve with his healthcare reform. It is expected also that the GOPs allies in the media including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh should support them and oppose Obama. It is not expected, or acceptable, for them to liken the President’s desire to stop millions of Americans being uninsured as fascist or Nazi-like.

Do I really need to point out that German Nazis murdered 3 million people in extermination camps and that Mr Obama is seeking to save people’s lives? Do I really?

By virtue of the name-calling and virtual hair-pulling it seems to me that the Right have certainly conceded the high ground and the argument too. Godwin’s Law is not always applicable (sometimes a Nazi analogy is apt) but it is in this case. If you invoke Hitler, you better have a bloody good reason.

All of this characteristic blather is to say that we should be nice to each other in our political discourse. It is likely that no political discussion in the US will be as important or fundamental over the next four years as this, and it is the duty of those with a mouthpiece to enlighten, to educate and to inform.

Civility, in other words, is almost a duty of the media.

It is time to name names. Joe Scarborough is an MSNBC morning anchor and a conservative opposed to the President’s agenda. His discussions, though, are lively, interesting and useful to the American public. He brings people in who agree with him and who disagree and he has spoken out (on Twitter in particular) again these vicious attacks, while pointing out the substantive reasons for his opposition. I bet my TV buddy, Tucker Carlson, would do the same if he were still anchoring. And the wonderful liberal Rachael Maddow uses her platform to bring to light the President’s aims and to broadly support them, while pointing out the deficiencies in the Right’s position. (Caveat: Maddow is utterly and completely wrong on Afghanistan -- a subject for another time)

Sometimes, anger and hatred can be entertaining, and occasionally useful for example the Galloway vs Hitchens debate on Iraq. But more often than not it creates more heat than light and is actually off-putting for those of us with a desire to learn, debate and discuss. Let’s have more of that please, folks.

By the way, we are not opposed to a bit of blog-based hatred, so if you want to shout abuse at us in the comments (I’m looking at you, “Dave Fishwick”) please feel free!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Voting for a Qualified Majority

In 1983 it was election time in the United Kingdom. After two rough years for Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minister elected in 1979, she had found popularity as the self-styled defender of the Falkland Islands.

Francis Pym, the Foreign Secretary at the time (a role that was significantly involved in the Falkland's conflict) appeared on the UK panel current-affairs television show Question Time. Talking about the approaching election, he famously stated "Landslides don't on the whole produce successful governments".

Mrs Thatcher was not pleased, although she had little to fear. The Conservatives won a thumping majority and Mr Pym was removed from post two days later. Nonetheless this unease with power is a common theme amongst politicians. More than two decades later, when the hapless Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office, he was widely praised by his own back-benchers for proposing measures that transferred power away from the executive and towards the legislature. We have been trained to think of a concentration of power for too long, or in too unbalanced a proportion to be an undesirable occurrence.

So it will come as a surprise to many that the Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主党) has been in power in Japan almost non-stop since its founding in 1955. It was not until 2007 that the party lost control of the upper house - for the first time ever.

What does this say for Japanese politics? What ability is there for such a model of representation to reflect citizens' changing expectations of the state. The answer is not clear cut - Japan is far from a dictatorship. It is a (quite) vibrant, democratic country. Yet the voters have continually voted for the LDP, despite rising dissatisfaction. Most notably in 2005, in the face of widespread frustration at the glacial pace of reform (brought to ahead by the attempted privatisation of Japan Post), Junichiro Koizumi (小泉 純一郎) snatched a victory after a dramatic dissolution of parliament, after Mr Koizumi successfully painted the opposition as reckless over their plans to pull out from Iraq and not ready for government.

This time again the obituary of the LDP is being written. The Democratic Party of Japan (民主党) has a real chance, with polls showing a 20% gap now between the parties. The election is still weeks away, and all could change, but your writer hopes that this is the time for Japan to finally show its true democratic credentials. Be it huge majorities or single-party rule, power vested in one party without suitable balance is bad for democracy, and it is notable that Japan has failed to enact some market liberalisation that would have served it well as its less efficient manufacturing companies placed a drain on its economy. Worse, long, large-majority government has left Japanese politics too controlled by special interests. Structural problems (notably the ageing population and lack of support for women to enter to workforce) need support from a government, and the LDP seems out of ideas, or too torporific to enact them.

So WATM wishes the DPJ well, and will be following the election closely (not that any election doesn't get closely watched by the WATM team). We're watching you, Swedish Social Democratic Party.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

On the wings of a pair

The maiden flight of Boeing’s new 787 aircraft has been delayed – again. It was meant to enter service in May 2008, but will not even get airborne for the first time at all this year, and now is unlikely to enter service before the end of 2010 – more than two years late.

If, dear WATMers, you think that this post is going to be a screed about Airbus’ superiority over Boeing, you’d be wrong. Airbus’ mega-jumbo A380 suffered similar delays, and the company’s delivery schedule has been paired down so that only 18 of the aircraft will be delivered to airlines in 2009 – a paltry number really.

This is very frustrating for airlines. Clearly aircraft acquisition is one of the major costs for an airline, and decisions are taken carefully and seriously. To make such decisions and then see the planning proved useless by delays in delivery causes huge inefficiencies in the air travel industry. It is also virtually impossible to switch suppliers as a result of such delays when airlines have committed to a fleet strategy and have committed serious cash to getting the job done.

Neither the airline business, nor the consumer, is well served by the effective Boing/Airbus duopoly. You want a medium-to-long-haul medium capacity airliner? Well you’ll be going for the B767 (or its newer replacement) or the A330 (or its newer replacement). While it is true there is fierce competition between the two manufacturers, there is almost no other company competing for that market, or for the large-capacity airliner market anywhere in the world. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t think Ilyushin or Tupolev will get many orders from the West any time soon.

Other American manufacturers like McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed used to be in the large civil airliner business too before they were bought up by Boeing, or gave up the passenger transport game respectively.

There are some pesky little irritants like Brazil’s Embraer who are just about competing with the A320 and B737 series at the larger end of their E-Jet series, and have had some success attracting airlines like LOT Polish, but they are very much at the periphery.

And there is a lot of competition between companies at the regional-jet end of the market where the big two choose not to operate.

Innovation, efficiency and customer service (for the client airlines) would all undoubtedly improve with a third or fourth competitor. In particular, efforts to make air travel less environmentally damaging could and should be massively improved. It is a shame that a new large aircraft manufacturer looks unlikely to emerge given the astoundingly difficult market entrant requirements.

However, a political prescription, and a practical policy which should emanate from this discussion, is that, given the relatively healthy market environment that these two firms operate in, there really is very little justification for the continued state support they both receive in terms of massive government contracts (although from whom else military transports could be bought is another question left unresolved) and direct grants as Airbus has had.

Boeing and Airbus are both interesting and innovative companies kept on their toes by the presence of the other. They would both be better still if their competition was broader, though.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

All such a laugh

Some politicians have a certain knack. They deftly craft out a character for themselves, or for their group, and use this to appear affable, or worse, bumbling. This veneer is often the one reported, and thus detracts from the real story.

This phenomenon may be present equally in all countries, but your author's exposure to the UK means that many British examples come to mind. One does not much care that Jeffrey Archer had sex with a prostitute. Concern does arise when this man stands for the office of Mayor of London having lied under oath, profited from suppressing this truth and is remembered for this rather than his highly questionable 'charitable' activities.

Similarly the Conservative party of the late nineties earned a reputation for not being able to keep their trousers up. Everyone enjoys a good snigger! David Mellor had an affair, Hartley Booth found his researcher irresistible! Piers Merchant suffered the same compulsion. Despite the embarassement for a party pushing moral probity, the sex helped mask what was really occurring: ministers were accepting money to influence their behaviour in the house; they were fundamentally corrupt, and again the abhorrent Jonathan Aitken tried to profit from a legal trial.

One international character comes to mind for employing similar tactics. We promised this in the first post and today is Silvio Berlusconi's turn. More accurately it is his first turn - the man has so little to commend him that there is plenty to write about.

Mr Berlusconi has recently been in the news a fair bit because of his Tory-esque inability to control his trousers. This is a further diversion from the real problem: the evidence certainly points to him being corrupt, employing his prime-ministerial powers to protect him from prosecution. The tragedy is that he is proficient at the use of his buffoonish, frank character to paint himself as the unreformed jester, rather than a man who routinely abuses his position. The Economist, describing why it was writing an open letter to Mr Burlusconi, detailed another all-too-familiar example of him using his outrageous turns-of-phrase to mask him from real criticism. A German MEP (Mr Martin Schulz) quite correctly pointed out that the thrice Italian Prime Minister had used his parliamentary powers to thwart justice. So Mr Burlusconi labelled him as acting like a concentration camp guard. Cue much overplayed shock and outrage, and the obfuscation of why the German was speaking up in the first place.

It is this manipulation of the judiciary that will be addressed in this post. The trouble with Mr Burlusconi's many trials is that they are complicated, and thus don't make for such snappy stories as, say, crass comments about earthquake victims. Fortunately several publications have gone to the effort, albeit most of these are outside Italy as Mr Burlusconi owns much of the media there. In 2003 the Economist produced a table that provides an excellent summary of the way our subject has behaved. Regrettably this content is only available for subscribers, but I hope this short extract of a very long article can be reproduced below:

It is not difficult to spot Mr Burlusconi's ability to convert guilty verdicts into aquittals, to run out the clock or to pass legislation granting him immunity. Let us take just one of these cases - the 'All Iberian' case. A company under Mr Burlusconi's control made 23 billion lire of donations to Bettino Craxi, the then head of the Italian Socialist Party. As the table shows, Mr Burlusconi was found guilty. This ruling was not overturned by either of the two appeals courts - all that was applied was the statute of limitation, so that the time to try the offence had elapsed. Three courts accepted that our man was responsible for sizeable, illegal donations, and that company records must have been falsified to hide this.

Surely this is not someone one wants to be running a country. One need not even mention the trials where Burlusconi has ensured the passage of new legislation to adjust the statutes of limitation to realise that this is a man with nothing but contempt for justice.

It is easy to be angry at Italians for electing this man to three non-consecutive prime-ministerships. However he owns much of the media in Italy, and what he does not own he attempt to smear or restrict the business of. Nonetheless, Italians do not (yet) live in a third-world country, so must shoulder some of the blame for electing a man who extends Italy's image of long entwinement with corruption. Further, the European Union is too interrelated to ignore the fact that this man runs the fourth most populous country in the Union. Time for other leaders to speak out, and for the centralised anti-corruption laws to be given another polish.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

We're back. And the Swiss are for it this time.

Er, sorry about that.

It is, by my calculation, six months to the day that we last posted to WATM. At least it was last Tuesday when I should have posted this message. Slothfulness is, I suppose, tricky to shake. So while we slogged our self-important – and in the case of one of us, substantial – guts out to build an audience of 7, we have probably lost them in the intervening time. But as we wrote in post 1, we will plough on nonetheless. Not for us the grandeur of having anyone actually read our musings.

Part of the reason for our long respite was that working on the second of two posts on moral relativism has been taking its toll. Rest assured that that post is on its way (we have been receiving complaints) along with a post on Berlusconi: The Early Years, courtesy of m’colleague.

But today we turn our attention to the Swiss, or to give them their correct name, the Bloody Swiss.

In terms of international relations the Swiss deserve a reputation, not as doughty, independently-minded, peace-loving eccentrics, but rather as self-interested, isolationist, ostrich-like refusniks.

Neutrality, when it comes to important matters of international diplomacy, or more importantly, the defence of human rights around the world, is not a virtue, but is paraded as such by the Swiss. Their refusal even to join the United Nations until 2002 shows how seriously they take international co-operation. Even the North Koreans, not known for their internationalist views, joined in 1991. Switzerland's isolationism makes it all the more surprising that a very large number of international bodies are based in the country. Even the UN has its European HQ in Geneva. Before 2002 literally almost anywhere else on earth would have been somewhere which was at least a member of the UN.

The Swiss constitution outlines some very laudable aims. But there appears to be no real willingness to engage with its European neighbours, or countries around the world, to achieve them. So much so that the map of the EU looks as though it will have a Swiss-shaped hole in its mid-riff for some time to come.

This is selfish and silly. The Swiss have a lot to gain from EU membership, as does the EU. And in terms of international relations it is our view that all Western, liberal, rich nations like Switzerland should contribute to important issues around the globe. Someone should tell the Swiss that there's a situation brewing in Afghanistan if they feel like getting off their ample, chocolate-laden arses.

Not that the Swiss nation need concern themselves with their own national security too much given that they are almost entirely surrounded by NATO allies and benefit from their protection without having to contribute a single solider to the collective security alliance.

Let us get this straight. Switzerland is not a bad country. That is to say there are far worse to which we should, in all honesty, be turning our attention. However, too few people, in our experience treat Switzerland with the small amount of disdain we believe it deserves. Maybe those 7 readers of ours now will. Take that, Switzerland!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Someone else's meltdown

As the new year begins and further stories of economic downturn abound it is interesting to take stock of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and how the world's reaction has differed to today's problems.

South Korea is an excellent case in point. The stock exchange fell by 11% over two days. This is certainly of a similar magnitude to the falls felt by the FTSE this year. The solution proposed for South Korea and the other affected countries (Indonesia & Thailand being especially hit) was very simple: allow insolvent banks and financial institutions to fail.

This stands in stark contrast to the principles applied in the UK and the US. Insolvent bank after insolvent bank has been propped up by the state. From companies that were unheard of to the average UK household twelve months ago (Lehman Brothers) to firms that were seen as bread and butter British institutions (HBOS, Lloyds TSB) public money was showered on banks. After Northern Rock, which itself was nationalised a little less than a year ago, no bank was to be allowed to fail - the government effectively underwrote all deposits, although the nominal government limit was £50,000.

Interest rates offer another sharp contrast. On January 8th 2008 the Bank of England cut interest rates to a record low. Cho and West provide a fascinating study of the efficacy of this policy, but for those who do not wish to examine page 11 interest rates about 10% were common in South Korea, Philippines and Thailand , and above 20% more frequent than one might hope. This rather contrasts with the 1.5% in the UK. As an International Monetary Fund (IMF) press release notes, "Interest rates will be kept high for some time".

The South East Asian crisis was not the same as the current crisis. Many countries had currencies pegged (that is fixed in value) to the US dollar, but structural weaknesses made it increasingly hard for states to maintain this pegging, and when released the currencies fell sharply. There is some logic in increasing interest rates (and thus making owning the currency more enviable) to counter a currency devaluation.

However, one cannot help but feel that what was prescribed for Johnny Foreigner with some gusto by the IMF is not what is being required of today those who, in 1997, were most vocal in setting the direction for the South East Asian economies. The striking difference in the philosophy of what do do with 'bad' banks amply underlines this point. While it was, supposedly, the prudent course of action to allow them to fail in South East Asia, they are, it is reported, 'Too Big to Fail' when they occur a little closer to home.

Perhaps it will be the South Koreans who, having been treated like naughty children, have the last laugh. South Korea's economy, and remarkably Thailand's given its appalling governmental troubles, have been strong since the crisis. Both have suffered in the current downturn, but it is entirely possible that the western contemporary edict requiring massive debt to be accepted, large bail outs provided to failing industries and the protection of almost any bank will not work as effectively. Countries that set the agenda for the South East Asian crisis may yet wish they had listened a little more carefully to their own advice.

Friday, 9 January 2009

A lament to failure and regret

As the age of Bush comes to its inevitable democratic end it is perhaps worth our while reflecting a little.

The one thing that Mr Bush and his officials would like the world to remember him/them for is the 'War on Terror[ism]'. We are not about to scoff at the importance of that focus, although, we would be among the very first to categorise its execution as a shambles almost from beginning to end. However, it is important to remember how inept and incompetent the administration was at attempting to prevent the September 11 attacks and how uninterested in counter-terrorism White House and administration figures seemed, including the president himself.

Richard (Dick) Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, gives the reader the insider scoop on the Cold War-mentality of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, tells how Clarke's role as the counter-terrorism 'czar' was downgraded under Bush, and that he was able to secure only one meeting with Cabinet-level officals on counter-terrorism before the September attacks in 2001.

Bush's lack of interest is shown, in Clarke's book, in sharp contrast to Bill Clinton's frenetic activity on the topic. He is described as engaged and focused on getting al-Qaeda in general and bin Laden in particular. He chaired counter-terrorism meetings and asked probing questions of his staff and he risked the inevitable accusations of 'wagging the dog' when he took decisive action during the Lewinsky affair.

That's odd. The Democrat was more interested in tackling terrorism than the Republican? Something doesn't quite compute. We've spent the last seven years being told Democrats and liberals are to a man are weak, wet, lily-livered, pathetic, un-patriotic, pacifist, terrorist-excusers. Well, not the WATM duo, my friends, and not the vast majority of the US Democratic Party.

Clarke was attacked, naturally, after the publication of his book, for being a partisan and for trying to influence the outcome of the 2004 US presidential election, during which it was published. In a particularly enjoyable Abbott and Costello-esque pairing Mr Cheney and Ms Rice excused themselves from Clarke's criticism by concurrently stating that Clarke was a) out of the loop on counter-terrorism (Cheney) and b) was so much in the loop that any failings were his (Rice). They also neglected to point out that he'd worked for every president since Reagan.

And yet perhaps Bush will be remembered in the history books as the 'War on Terror[ism]' President. Perhaps that is more testament to their ability to spin, deflect criticism and create their own reality, than on the accomplishments of the presidency. I think so, anyway.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Human Rights Council

Your correspondent has touched upon absolute moral standards before and will do so again. As part of this today's post looks at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) - a body tasked with strengthening human rights around the world.

Few can doubt the value of such a mission, and for all the UN's detractors this is something in which it has some good form: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is one of the most powerful documents created by man and a clear demonstration that fundamental rights are not to be picked or chosen by different cultures, but are innate for all citizens.

Since the declaration events have not gone as well for the UN's human rights efforts. The predecessor body to the HRC was the UN Commission on Human Rights. Ironically the trouble with this body boiled down to one of democracy - commission members were elected from any UN state, and inevitably this led to some countries that, to say the least, were unqualified to promote human rights. At the time of the commission's abolition (2005) China, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland were all members - not bastions of human rights support.

Thus the HRC was born. While it still features elected members, the process for election is supposed to require applicants to demonstrate high standards of respect for the body's ideals, and each member must individually be elected by the UN General Assembly. This, clearly, assumes that the majority of the world's countries support the application of human rights, something Freedom House, a organisation monitoring world freedoms, would disagree with. As if to prove this point many of the members of this new council are the same states as before, who don't appear to have cleaned their act up as part of the initiation process.

One mechanism, the universal periodic review, may boost the body's standing above that of its forerunner. Every UN state will be audited on its human rights standards, theoretically preventing the worst abusers from avoiding criticism simply by having enough friends to divert attention elsewhere. This could force those who have previously shown no interest in mending their ways to at least be subject to public scrutiny, although all the council can do is make recommendations to its parent, the general assembly.

So far the signs are mixed - the council made some of the right noises over Congo, but has veered into a familiar trap in its preparations for a 2009 anti-racism conference with some countries singling out Israel as the only country worthy of significant attention.

Scepticism is warranted, but support for the body is essential - the audit of every country is certainly a good idea; it cleverly ensures that the unacceptable activities of countries that should be leading lights of the human rights movement are reported, and thus prevents the worst abusers from deploying moral equivalence as their defensive weapon. The council is, perhaps necessarily, rather toothless. The way that the General Assembly responds to recommendations from the HRC will say a lot about the council's worth. Unfortunately, while those who are the persistent rights offenders carry significant clout democracy amongst members will not be enough. Countries who are serious about Eleanor Roosevelt's work will need to put their morals where their mouth in when the council starts to report on some of the less savoury states.