27 November 2004

Women who walk into doors

By Marguerite Finn

"None of the doctors looked at me. I didn't exist. They stared at the bruises for a split second, then away ... there was nothing there. I could go to the shops ... and no one saw me. I could smile and say Hello ... they could see the mouth that spoke the words. But they couldn't see me. The woman who wasn't there; The woman who had nothing wrong with her. The woman who walked into doors."

In 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors', Roddy Doyle perceptively charts his heroine's gradual loss of identity, self-esteem and slide into alcoholism, trapped in a violent marriage. Women will understand - men may have to read it twice.

In the time it took to read the quotation, two more incidents of domestic violence will have been reported to the UK police. In Britain, on average 2 women per week are killed by a male partner or former partner and 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime.

Amnesty International is currently running 16 days of activism to highlight its "Stop Violence Against Women" Campaign. Amnesty aims to raise awareness of a global human rights scandal that has yet to be fully acknowledged - and to challenge the attitudes, laws and practices that sustain it. Amongst the issues highlighted will be:
  • Violence to women in the family (e.g. battering by partners, sexual abuse of female children, genital mutilation and marital rape);
  • Violence to women in the community (e.g. sexual harassment, rape, forcible psychiatric treatment to 're-orientate' lesbian women, violence by officials against refugee women).
  • Violence to women perpetuated or condoned by the state (e.g. rape by government forces during armed conflict, torture in custody, trafficking, forced labour and prostitution);
  • Violence against women is not confined to any particular political or economic system.
It cuts across boundaries of wealth, race and culture. For 25 years, women's rights activists worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of the issue. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979 was their first major success. A further breakthrough came in 1993 when violence against women - in public and private - was declared a human rights violation. The subsequent UN 'Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women' obliged states to take responsibility for ending violence against women. The major challenge has been - and still is - to ensure that the commitments made by governments are translated into action. It hasn't happened yet.

Despite comprising more than 50% of the world's population, women remain under-represented as problem-solvers, decision-makers, elected officials or leaders. The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) promotes women's efforts around the world to participate in the political and economic life of their countries, but the task is enormous and their resources are finite. Amnesty International's worldwide campaign is a contribution to these efforts - It aims to mobilise both men and women to counter violence against women. The main underlying cause of such violence is gender discrimination - the denial of women's equality with men in all areas of life. The structures within society that perpetuate gender-based violence are patriarchal, deep-rooted and intransigent. What divine right have men to under-privilege half the human population ?

Violence against women is neither 'natural' nor 'inevitable'. It persists only because society allows it to.

Violence against women during armed conflicts has reached epidemic proportions. It is used as a weapon of war to dehumanise the women themselves and to persecute their community. Wars are no longer fought on remote battlefields but in our homes, schools, communities. Post-conflict situations have accelerated the growth in trafficking of women and children. Trafficking is modern day slave trading. There is irrefutable evidence that the number of women trafficked in post-conflict zones is increased by the introduction of peacekeeping forces. This screaming paradox led to UN Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette's insistence that women are vital to resolving armed conflicts and rebuilding the peace and they must be involved at every stage. The perpetrators of violent crimes must not be able commit them with impunity. Peacekeeping forces are immune from prosecution - and it has been suggested that this makes them 'more part of the problem than the solution'.

The main thrust of Amnesty's campaign in the UK is to make people aware of the problem and to work with other relevant agencies to overcome it. You can help by joining the Norwich branch of Amnesty International and becoming involved in this campaign and/or offering your support through donations. Telephone David on 01508-538353; http://www.amnesty.org.uk/; or http://www.problemwhatproblem.com/.

Thanks to Catherine Rowe, Norwich Amnesty, for help and inspiration.

20 November 2004

Remember the 80s

By Rupert Read

Remember the 1980s? Remember 'Neighbours', and the 'Pet Shop Boys'? Remember Kenny Dalgleish, Ian Botham?

Remember the Miners' Strike, and the Poll Tax? Remember Reagan and Gorby? Remember nuclear disarmament?

People used to talk quite a lot about nuclear disarmament. CND were big in the 1980s, and Labour believed in 'unilateral nuclear disarmament'. (That phrase meant what it said: getting rid of our nukes, our WMDs, unilaterally, without waiting for other major powers to do the same, but hoping they then would, so that the world could become nuclear-free.) Labour - good old Labour, not sickening shiny 'New' Labour - were condemned by the entire mainstream media for this, condemned as 'loony lefties' and 'appeasers'.

They believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament; everyone else believed in multilateral nuclear disarmament. What did 'multilateral nuclear disarmament' mean? It was supposed to mean that we would negotiate our nukes away. Nuclear disarmament would occur through multilateral negotiations between nuclear states.

The US and Russian governments did carry out some such negotiations, back in the 80s. Their armouries of nukes were reduced slightly. Now they can only destroy the world about 8 times over, not 18 times over… Cold comfort, really; it isn't much better to be obliterated 8 times over than 18 times over, if you are the person / city / country obliterated…

Nuclear weapons are perhaps the only true weapons of mass destruction. Of total destruction. And while Russia and America have reduced their huge nuclear arsenals somewhat, Britain has held on tight to its 200 nuclear warheads, these last twenty years. That's the equivalent of about 2000 Hiroshimas. That's about 300 million people that we can kill, at the push of a button.

That's abhorrent.

Now, Britain is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires that its signatories disarm, multilaterally or unilaterally. But what has Britain actually done, since the 1980s, to rid itself of nukes? In fact: can you remember the last time that you heard any 'mainstream' politician talking about British nuclear disarmament?

Funny, isn't it; it seems like all those advocates of 'multilateral disarmament' stopped talking about it, as soon as the 'threat' of the unilateralists' popularity receded. As soon as the 'loony leftie' unilateralists were buried by Thatcherism and the right-wing press, and Labour gave up the ambition of unilateral nuclear disarmament so it could be 'electable', then all talk of Britain playing a part in multilateral nuclear disarmament … just evaporated away.

So: what did the words, 'multilateral nuclear disarmament' mean, in practice? That we would achieve nuclear disarmament - ridding the world of these worst-of-all weapons - multilaterally? Or: that we in Britain would have a label for our nuclear weapons policy that made it sound as if we were in favour of real peace (not endless war or threat of war), while in fact we intended no such thing? Is the meaning, in practice, of 'multilateralism' simply this: deterring any efforts to make Britain or Europe or the Earth nuclear-free, and then, once your efforts to deter unilateral nuclear disarmament have succeeded, no longer talking about nuclear disarmament at all?! Is that what Kinnock, Steel, Owen and Thatcher (remember the 80s!) meant by 'multilateral nuclear disarmament': i.e. no disarmament, except disarming the unilateralists of their arguments and their popularity, and saying disarmingly to the British people, "We too are in favour of disarmament", for as long as it took until campaigners had despaired of getting the government to relinquish its nukes?

Luckily, we haven't despaired. I served last month as spokesperson for 'Theatre of War' and 'Trident Ploughshares' - anti-war activists dramatizing the need for Britain to beat its Trident nuclear missiles into ploughshares - in their successful 5-hour blockade of Downing Street. And a fortnight ago I was in court supporting fellow members of the 'Peace Police' (who back in June cut into Burghfield nuclear base) as they presented arguments from international law to explain why they had acted to try to prevent a greater crime - the crime of nuclear blackmail (most recently applied by Geoff Hoon to Iraq).

The inheritors of the Greenham generation are still here.

So: Remember the 1980s. Remember and weep. Many were fooled by the government and media then. Fooled into thinking that 'multilateral disarmament' was anything more than an excuse for doing nothing, an excuse for holding on to our illegal WMDs. We've been fooled again, recently, by our government, which invaded Iraq pretending that it (Iraq) had WMDs.

Let's never be fooled again. As our international treaty obligations require, as any basic human decency or morality requires, let us get rid of our WMDs, our nukes, now. Unilaterally. Without excuses.

Without lies.

13 November 2004

I believe, therefore I'm right

By Jacqui McCarney

At UEA, on the day of the US elections, I spoke with a young American student who had voted for George Bush. Why? First, he made her feel "safe", and, second, "moral issues". Familiar enough, as they had become the mantra of the Republican Party.

It was, nevertheless, shocking to hear someone admit that their feeling of safety is worth 100,000 lives, and the failure to see that this huge loss of lives is in itself, a major moral issue. Protecting American sensibilities is clearly very expensive for the rest of the world, and understanding their narrow view of morality very confusing.

Few outsiders have missed the irony of George Bush being re-elected on a 'moral ticket', not just the vote of ill-educated floating voters, but the beliefs of many educated Americans, as illustrated by my friend above.

George Bush, born-again Christian and devout church-goer, does not just believe in God, but is convinced that God believes in him. Indeed, a great part of America share this view - it is after all 'God's Own Country'.

President Woodrow Wilson, wrote "I cannot be deprived of the hope that we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the nations of the world how they shall walk in the path of liberty".

Now, strident ideas of chosen nationhood, and religious based self certainty, unite with "full spectrum military dominance" of the Project for the New American Century.

The Judeo Roman version of Christianity, used by the Roman Emperors to build Empire, is a dangerous excuse for oppression and despotism, then and now. Introduced to the western world by Emperor Constantine, this promoted the notion of self-righteous conquest in the name of the Christ

In holding 'belief' as the defining truth, Christian Neo-conservatism has little concern about empirical evidence, human rights and compassion. It is increasingly common here too, witness our Prime Minister clinging to his convictions, despite a growing mountain of evidence to the contrary, with words like "I believe I am right".

When 'belief' excuses cruel barbaric acts, it has gone beyond religion to ideology. Fundamentalism, Fascism and Communism have been condemned when they have abused human rights. Neither can the criminality of 100,000 killed in Iraq, families torn apart by grief, young men shockingly abused, hundreds incarcerated in Guatanamo Bay be waved aside under a Christian, 'liberating' agenda.

Some Americans choose moral issues that allow them dollops of self-righteousness - abortion, homosexuality and family values. While they abhor the loss of life of the unborn at home, they accept the loss of life of thousands of Iraqi babies and children as collateral damage. While they condemn homosexuality at home, they practice sexual torture of all varieties on Iraqi men and boys abroad. While they vow to protect the family at home, they wreck the family life of Iraqis abroad. These gross injustices, committed in the name of America should be profoundly humbling to those who claim the most basic of moral positions.

To their advantage, the conservative right spun the election as between God fearing Christians and non-believers, between passionate religious views and woolly political correctness. This is to deny the legitimate moral views of non-Christians and those Christians whose views are more closely aligned to the teachings of Jesus. Nascent Christianity has at its core a commitment to human rights evidenced in Jesus' rejection of vengeance, legal and penal moralities and of market place values. A philosophy which is staggeringly radical to western, consumerist view, and one most honestly adhered to by religious groups such as the Quakers.

The dilemma for Christians could not be more challenging. They must choose old testament tyranny, or new testament love and compassion. Embracing all the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus is clearly nonsensical and contradictory. Jesus came to challenge the brutal, vindictiveness expressed in parts of the Old Testament, and offer a more humane and forgiving way of life.

Ironically, it is the teachings of Jesus and not the Old Testament which Jefferson wished to embody in The Declaration of Independence. "The kingdom of God is within" is expressed when he declared, God is in the "head and heart" of every person. He was indeed determined to reject Judeo Roman Christianity, which he had seen the British use as a validation for its oppression of the American people. Human rights were the basis for all civil rights and were "self evident". When Republicans claim that George Bush expresses the Christian values embodied in their constitution, they are gravely mistaken.

6 November 2004

The enigma of remembrance

By Andrew Boswell

We are now in the season of remembrance of war past - a red poppy adorns the cover of this paper, and many of us wear them.

Thankfully, most of us do not have an authentic experience of war and its consequence. One person who does is Rose Gentle - her son Gordon was killed in Iraq, just a few months ago. Rose is a dynamic reminder of the cost of War - refusing for her loss to be in vain, she now campaigns for the withdrawal of our troops, despite the Government trying to prevent her.

The rest of us, not touched personally by war, cannot fathom the anguish. Gordon Gentle and 100 million others who died in the last hundred years cannot tell us.

However, most of us will have known survivors, who have been touched and damaged the fires of war. In my own family, a cousin was 'shell-shocked', now called post-traumatic stress disorder, in the Normandy landings. A young man, then, with life ahead, he never really healed, and suffered psychologically for the rest of his life, never being well enough to work. My grandfather was a doctor in the First World War, in Ypres and Gallipoli - he could never talk about his experiences of fixing those blown limb from limb.

And so, the enigma - within the enormous seasonal outpouring of pomp, glory and bravery, there is an immense silence of another reality - the reality that my grandfather couldn't share, and that my cousin was too traumatised to even bear. This silence - of the things which can't be talked about - is shared by many veterans, including many who will parade on Thursday.

The White Peace Poppy addresses the silence; it asks us to look beyond, touch the horror, and, like Rose Gentle, do something about it. Almost as old as the red poppy, it was launched in 1933 by the Women's Co-operative Guild - mothers, daughters and wives, who knew the loss of loved ones and the trauma of those who survived injured. Living under the cloud of an even greater European war, in the 1930s, they challenged people of the need for peace, and political leaders to find a better way to resolve conflict.

WWI was the 'War to end all Wars', yet it didn't. Neither did WWII, and since 1945, the world has continued to become an ever more violent and bloody place. Where previously warfare had essentially been conducted by armies, now civilians are increasingly becoming legitimate military targets - simply dismissed as 'necessary collateral damage'. Where clearly delineated 'wars' are being replaced by an ongoing culture of violence, revenge and retribution, and where the difference between 'war', 'civil war', 'terrorism' is being ever more blurred. In Iraq, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is breaking down with so-called 'civilian contractors' (mercenaries) actually often providing battlefield support services.

Whereas WWI soldiers knew the gruesome reality of blood and gore, now combatants and planners can play out actions with the unreality of video games. A particularly chilling item on Channel 4 news recently showed an airman 'taking out' a group of about 30 people in Fallijah, now believed to have been civilians -no harder than pressing the button on a video game. Given his response, the airman did not appear to really know psychologically, or with any humanity, that he had just killed tens of people.

The White Poppies and their message for a Culture of Peace (see http://www.whitepoppy.org.uk/) is so vital today. The familiar red poppies remind us all of the ongoing suffering of war veterans, who are often soon forgotten by Governments, and raise money for the Royal British Legion's welfare services. The white poppies remind us of war victims worldwide, not to forget their shrouded silence, and the vital need to find non-violent methods to resolve conflict in the future. Proceeds fund the Peace Pledge Union's educational work, and any additional funds raised locally in Norwich will this year go towards Medical Aid for Iraqi Children (Reg. Charity No. 1044222).

This year, I hope you will join me in wearing your poppies to remember the sacrifices made in previous conflicts and commit yourself to working for a future free from the scourge of war. During the twentieth century, more people died in wars than we can imagine. We can't change the past, but let's work together for a different kind of future that the white poppy symbolises.

I am grateful to Richard Bickle from Norwich and District Peace Council, who distribute white poppies locally, for providing research.