28 August 2004
"Not a lot of people know that", Michael Caine might have said about the 'refusenik' situation in Israel. Little information about their plight appears in our newspapers in the UK. However, in Norfolk we 'do different' and should acquaint ourselves with the principled refusal of a growing number of Israelis to serve in the occupied territories of Palestine and the effect that this is having on the Jewish community in Israel and abroad.
A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems further away than ever when set against the worsening cycle of violence, death and destruction in Gaza, where Palestinian homes are reduced to rubble, families made homeless and innocent civilians and Israeli soldiers killed .
Ariel Sharon's plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza has failed to gain majority support within his own Likud party and over the past year Israel has embarked on a large building programme in the West Bank where a minimum of 3,700 homes are being built with tacit US approval. This development has reinforced the fears of all those who want peace, that the intention to "retain in perpetuity" major Jewish settlements on the West Bank (illegal in International Law) will make any solution virtually impossible. Under the terms of the 'Road Map' endorsed by the Israeli Cabinet, Israel was asked to freeze all settlement activity and to dismantle 51 out-posts. The exact opposite appears to be happening.
It is against this background that the 'refusenik' movement is gathering momentum.
Currently at the forefront of the movement are five young men who chose to go to prison rather than serve with the Israeli Defence Forces in the Occupied Territories. Noam , Haggi , Matan, Shimri and Adam are ordinary young people, typical of their generation .Their protest began while they were at High School. They were amongst 300 signatories of the "High School Seniors Letter" in which teenagers shortly to be conscripted wrote to Prime Minister Sharon stating that they would not take part in the oppression of the Palestinian people by serving in the Israeli army. They are to be released from jail on 15 September - but they may be re-arrested if the army demands they serve or face further imprisonment. This movement of youthful refuseniks is called Shministim and, when combined with other groups like Yesh Gvul ('there is a limit'), Seruv, and Courage to Refuse, whose reserve officers published the "Combatants Letter" which now has over 500 signatures, brings the total number of refuseniks to around 1000.
Powerful and moving statements have been made by refuseniks of all ages and reflect a common realisation that - as 19 year old Daniel Tsal put it - "in the 37 years of occupation we have become gradually more violent, disdainful and racist towards Arab culture - I did not understand that the majority of the Palestinian people know only a life full of check-points, bulldozers, the uprooting of trees, humiliation and killings." The harsh sentences meted out to the young refuseniks and the refusal to grant them Conscious Objector status, reflect the Government's anxiety that their refusal will encourage others. They have good reason to be worried. The Israeli public generally are not yet sympathetic to refuseniks, but the fact that 344 faculty members from a number of Israeli universities have signed a declaration of support for their students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories, indicates a move away from the militarised culture. Bereaved Israeli parents have recently formed a group to campaign against conscription. Things are slowly changing in Israel thanks to the courage of the refuseniks.
Outside of Israel there is support too: Last October, 60 members of the European Parliament expressed "solidarity with the group of Israeli Air Force pilots who declared they would refuse to fly missions that could endanger civilians in the West Bank and Gaza".
Michael Ben Yair, a former Israeli Attorney General says of the situation: "Israel's security can not be based only on the sword; it must rather be based on our principles of moral justice and on peace with our neighbours - an occupation regime undermines those principles of moral justice and prevents the attainment of peace. Thus, that regime endangers Israel's existence. It is against this background that one must view the refusal of IDF reservist officers and soldiers to serve in the territories - their refusal to serve is an act of conscience that is justified and recognised in every democratic regime. History's verdict will be: their refusal was the act that restored our moral backbone."
I am grateful to Mrs Jean Davis & Norfolk Jewish Peace Group for their input and encouragement.
21 August 2004
From throwing a cup of Ribena from the high chair, to finding how tall a lego tower can grow before it collapses, to marvelling at a jam jar of minnows, young children display all the attributes of a natural scientist. It is no surprise that primary school science is often the most popular subject on the curriculum. The awe and wonder of discovering eyes on the end of antennae on the garden snail and the hush surrounding the incubator as a class of six and seven year olds watch a tiny beak emerge from an egg means that this subject also becomes closely associated with a sense of reverence.
Reverence and intimacy with the natural world go hand in hand. Many scientists describe having deeply profound spiritual experience through their work. Einstein wrote, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed"
We could happily place our trust and the care of our eco-system in the safe hands of such respectful souls. However, nearly 200 years ago Mary Shelley warned against the dangers of complacency - 'Frankenstein' dramatically spelt out the horrors resulting from the clever scientist whose sole pursuit is a blinkered obsession with knowledge. Today, public trust in science is at an all time low. From nanotechnology, animal experimentation to GM's, the public has grown suspicious and cynical. When scientists seem divorced from the effects of what they do it is not surprising that the public become distrustful.
Today, scientists may invent or discover thing that are capable of wiping out the human race and it is only after the work is completed that we attempt to put restrictions on their use. By this time it is often too late, the "Pandora's Box" of nuclear and biological weapons, human cloning, GM's and climate change are a constant threat.
It is essential that we sacrifice some areas of knowledge as too abhorrent to research - science does not need to always be expanding. As Einstein again said "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction". If the rule of science is that knowledge is all, without ethical or environmental considerations, then it is time we changed the rule.
Science for Global Responsibility (SGR) has done just that. It is an organization of about 600 UK scientists supported by many eminent names, most famously, Prof Stephen Hawking, whose aim is to promote "principles of openness, accountability, peace, social justice and environmental sustainability". They publish advice on ethical careers in science and offer support for those scientists who wish to retain their integrity and independence. Their work involves research, education and lobbying.
It is a depressing reflection on our education system that somewhere between the ages of 6 and 26 a student of science acquires a huge number of facts but loses a sense of reverence. An absence of a mature morality may go unnoticed by an examining board but may be very costly to humanity. It is incumbent on us to provide a richer more holistic education for our young scientists and to ensure that the integrity of both life and the scientific process is protected.
Political and commercial interests are a great threat to this integrity and are in danger of plucking the soul out of science. The level (estimated at 80%) at which scientific research is funded by big corporations, driven by the desire for profits and out of control economic growth, is becoming quite frightening. Dr David Kelly's tragic death illustrates the problems faced by scientists involved in work with high political and commercial stakes.
We need scientists who can see the moral and ethical issues, and are not prepared to accept funding from industries which are trying to grow to quickly at the expense of ethics.
There is no shortage of challenging and essential work from the global to the local. As the government's Chief Scientist has said several times climate change needs to be urgently tackled. But don't forget, we need sustainable and wholesome ways of ending world hunger - and not by GMs produced by greedy companies - we need new clean energy technologies, and we need to decommission our nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations.
14 August 2004
By Ian Sinclair
The profoundly horrifying images of torture in Abu Ghraib shocked many in the UK - could people from our own nation be involved in similar brutalities?
History actually shows that torture often goes hand in hand with warfare, as does rape and other horrors. These awful acts manifest themselves in most military forces. We know that American forces are culpable in Iraq.
But let's look honestly at our own part of this legacy. The 100 men holding out against 3,000 Zulus at Rorke's Drift in 1879 is portrayed as a glorious military victory, in films such 'Zulu'. However 'Zulu Victory', published last year, written by two retired British officers, shows that after the battle, senior British officers and enlisted men of a force sent to relieve the garrison killed hundreds of wounded Zulu prisoners in revenge. Some were bayoneted, some hanged and others buried alive in mass graves.
Our national conscience has many similar "scars" - in the 1950s Malaya independence struggle, there was vicious conduct by the British forces, who routinely beat up Chinese squatters. There were cases of bodies of dead guerrillas being exhibited in public, and in 1952 a photograph of a Marine Commando holding two guerrillas' heads caused a public outcry.
In Kenya, British forces inflicted brutalities including slicing off ears, boring holes in eardrums, flogging until death, pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight and burning eardrums with lit cigarettes. Former members of the Mau Mau independence movement are currently trying to sue the British government for these human rights abuses from the 1950s.
Last year, the journalist Natasha Walter, citing medical and police records, reported that 650 Kenyan women say they have been raped by British soldiers on exercise in the region over the past thirty years. Their nature and number suggest these rapes were not simply committed by a few soldiers -one woman said that she was caught up in an attack in which at least twelve soldiers raped six women.
Then Iraq - torture by British soldiers has been extensively documented by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International.
A notorious case occurred in September 2003, when British soldiers arrested seven hotel employees in Basra. Driven to a military base, Kifah Taha said "they started beating us as soon as we arrived." The British soldiers gave the prisoners footballers' names and made them dance. Taha explained, "They said if we didn't remember our names they would increase the beating." One of the prisoners, Baha Mousa, died in British custody, as a result of being "kickboxed". Taha himself was so badly beaten that the British military medical report noted, "it appears he was assaulted… and sustained severe bruising to his upper abdomen, right side of chest, left forearm and left upper inner thigh."
Baha Mousa's family was recently in London, presenting their case to the High Court. His family's lawyer, Phil Shiner, is also helping Iraqis pursue 26 other reports of unlawful killings, eight of torture and two of serious injury. The Ministry of Defence has investigated 93 allegations of abuse by British soldiers in Iraq. Further, the allegations made last week by three Britons held at Guantanamo Bay, suggest that British officials were complicit in human rights abuses including beatings, sexual humiliation and holding a gun to a detainee's head during interrogation.
As lawyer, Mr Shiner says "This case involves issues which are not only important to the victims and their families and their right to redress … but significant in … ensuring that future conflicts, occupation and peacekeeping operations are subject to human rights law."
Given this serious evidence, we must demand that our armed forces put in place a culture which totally and finally eliminates these breaches in international law.
Internal military inquiries will solve little: Amnesty International notes Royal Military Police investigations are "shrouded in secrecy and lack the level of public scrutiny required by international standards."
A systematic ('top-down') review of the military should be undertaken with the objective of developing totally new approaches to their training, command structures and operational procedures so that torture ever being used by British forces again is precluded. Further the armed forces should be under continual external scrutiny, under British law, by external agencies, including human rights and legal experts.
Concerning the events at Rorke's Drift in 1879, the authors of 'Zulu Victory' note "the British government and public thought it was better to sweep it under the carpet." We must not "sweep under the carpet" recent events of brutality by the British soldiers in Iraq.
7 August 2004
6th August 1945: the innocuous sounding 'Little Boy' drops on Hiroshima - a huge flash like the sun falling to earth, a mushroom cloud, vaporized bodies, a flattened city - 66,000 people die instantly. 9th August 1945 : 'Fat Man' drops on Nagasaki. A fireball kills 39,000 people instantly. Clouds of radioactive filth engulf both cities - radioactive diseases, leukemia and cancers linger for years - combined death toll by 1950 is 350,000. People still die from it.
Not military targets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cities filled with men and women and children and animals who had no idea they were about to die. Gandhi said "The soul of Japan may recover", and asked "what will happen to the soul of America?". From Hiroshima, Vietnam, numerous proxy wars to Iraq, we see that war breeds war - the unequivocal lesson of America history. Nearly 60 years later, America is still dropping bombs on civilian populations, increasing the likelihood of terrorist attack, and increasing the feeling of fear and isolation among its citizens.
It is impossible to justify modern warfare when the target is largely innocent men, woman and children. At the beginning of the last century 90% of war casualties were military. By its end, 95% of war casualties were civilian. Eleven thousand is a conservative estimate of those Iraqis killed since the beginning of hostilities but who will count the numbers who continue to die from the increased childhood and adult cancers as a result of the use of depleted uranium.
The great achievements of many international treaties, painstakingly negotiated, show what can and MUST be accomplished - 1907: Hague Conventions; 1945: the UN Charter; 1948: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 1949 & 1977: Geneva Conventions; and 1946: Nuremberg Principles. These make it illegal to cause unnecessary suffering, exercise a disproportionate use of military force, use weapons that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, and create long-term damage to the environment.
Britain has signed up to all of them, but as our government ignores them, they are the basis for challenging it to cease its hypocrisy, and begin to fulfill its pledges and commitments towards a war-free and nuclear-free world. But Geoff Hoon recently announced plans to make 'defence' even more hi-tech - so the dominant can inflict great damage from a distance. Modern warfare has become a cowardly unequal battle increasingly favouring the richer nations.
On nuclear weapons specifically: the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commits its signatories to work 'in good faith' for the abolition of nuclear weapons; and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear test explosions. Britain has ratified both of these treaties, but has done nothing to comply with the NPT pledge to work for nuclear disarmament - we have in fact joined in with US in efforts to undermine it while loudly claiming to be in support. And along with the US we are planning to circumvent the CTBT by building testing facilities at Aldermaston which will give the necessary information without actual explosions.
The 60th anniversary of the bombings on Japan is an important year. Nearly 190 States will meet at UN Headquarters to consider developments affecting the NPT Treaty at its 2005 Review Conference. Issues affecting the purpose, operation and implementation of the Treaty and strengthening measures must be approved and agreed.
If the US carries on with its strategy of world dominance, terrorism will continue to escalate and we the people of the world can look forward to a 21st century in which our TV screens will continue to satellite images of endless - brutality, bloodshed, violence and human suffering.
Where lies the hope? The 75 million who signed Manifesto 2000 for a peaceful 21st century, and the millions of voices raised on February 15th 2003 from London to Sydney calling for another way. Behind these millions are 500 organizations in the UK alone working for peace. The internet has energized these groups and allowed communication links across the world. This is the "other Superpower" - people who can threaten to topple any government that takes its people into unnecessary war, as the people of Spain did in a magnificent show of true democracy in action.
People everywhere must work to stop their governments developing further nuclear weapons, and to really meet the NPT treaties objectives. These themes are currently explored further in the Norwich Cathedral "Hiroshima to World Peace" exhibition, remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I am grateful to Davida Higgin and Jean Davis for inspiration and research materials.