25 June 2005

Why we need World Refugee Day

By Marguerite Finn

"On World Refugee Day we honour the indomitable spirit and courage of the world's millions of refugees. Many endure enormous suffering without losing hope and find the strength to overcome despair and start a new life against seemingly overwhelming odds"

(Kofi Annan - UN Secretary General - 20 June 2005 )

In 2000, the United Nations passed a resolution designating 20 June as World Refugee Day, to encourage everyone to pause and reflect on the 50 million people uprooted and driven from their homes since 1945.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1950 - its primary purpose to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. They rely on the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. This key legal document defines who are refugees, their rights and the legal obligations of states - and that is where things start to get seriously complicated.

The UN defines refugees as "persons who are outside their country and can not return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group".

Things have moved on since then. Today, the majority of those forced to flee their homes do so because of internal civil wars and environmental disasters - making them "Internally Displaced People". The UN classifies them as "People of Concern" rather than "refugees" and at the end of 2004 they numbered 19.2 million.

Statistically, the global refugee population has fallen by 24% over a four-year period; yet while on paper the number of refugees is decreasing, there has been an increase in the numbers of 'People of Concern'. In addition, some 4 million Palestinian refugees - the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) - are not included in the figures.

Where are these 'people of concern'? A glance at the daily UN News Bulletins confirms that they are everywhere - across all five continents. Statistic-lovers can find out about global refugee trends from UNHCR website. Thinking about the human tide of displaced people sloshing constantly back and forth across the face of the earth reminds me of a flight of starlings - the way they curve and flow and turn as one, in mid-flight.

There are many reasons why refugees flee from places they would rather not leave. Take the example of Svetlana the Russian maternity nurse in Tajikistan where civil war raged between 'Pamir Tajiks'and 'Kulyab Tajiks', where neighbour killed neighbour and where Russians born and bred in Tajikistan were no longer welcome. For Svetlana the breaking point came as she delivered a baby in the local hospital.

Just as the child was born, armed men burst into the ward demanding drugs and alcohol. On seeing the baby they asked whether it was "Pamir or Kulyab". Not waiting for an answer from the terrified mother and nurse, they grabbed the infant and threw it out of the window. It never even had a name. Svetlana and her family fled. They went to Chernobyl. The settled in the ghost town and were left in peace - with only the radiation for company. As Svetlana's mother said: "We came to Chernobyl because no one's going to chase us out of here. No one will kick us off this land". The family, having lost their homeland, preferred peace and possible cancer from irradiated soil - to the irrationality and hell of civil war.

In our quest for 'progress' and economic growth, we inflict misery on millions of our fellow human beings

The news is not all bad. In 2004 alone some 30,000 refugees were resettled with UNHCR assistance and 1.5 million were repatriated voluntarily to their country of origin. In May 2005, refugees from Myanmar were settled successfully in Sheffield as part of a UK-UNHCR resettlement initiative. British people are encouraged to participate in the joint UK/UN Gateway Scheme, but this week Amnesty International (UK) has challenged our Government's increasing use of Immigration Act powers to detain asylum seekers at some point during the asylum process. They expressed concern at the lack of statistics on the numbers held in detention and the length of time they are detained.

It is only through increasing public awareness that we can learn to welcome asylum seekers and the variety of ways by which they enrich our society. That is why we need to set aside at least one day in the year to consider the victims of persecution, war and environmental degredation - and resolve to do something positive about it.

Further information is available from NEAD, 38, Exchange Street Norwich (01603-610993), http://www.nead.org.uk/ or Refugee Council: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/.

18 June 2005

The UN, the US, the UK - and Uzbekistan

By Rupert Read

Uzbekistan is on the boil. Its President blames Islamic extremists. This easy allegation of 'terrorism' goes down well with Western governments. It also comforts Moscow, as Putin fears Islamic militants in Chechnya and elsewhere.

But Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan since before his country declared independence from Russia in 1991, is himself an extremist. Political opponents have been gaoled or assassinated; widespread nepotism, corruption, and medieval torture are sponsored under his rule. Karimov is in fact a state-terrorist, continuing the very worse of the excesses of Soviet-style rule.

Uzbekistan held presidential elections in December 1991, at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Karimov, the then president, was re-elected by an overwhelming majority of the vote. Because, as in former days, most political groups were simply not allowed even to field candidates!

Ever since, Karimov has bolstered his authoritarian rule. His government crushes political debate, by banning all genuine opposition parties. His puppet parliament has amended the constitution, so that (like Mugabe) he can be re-elected again and again. Any opposition now is fragmented and frustrated. Karimov claims that he did not order troops to fire when peaceful anti-government demonstrators bravely took to the streets in Andijan, last month. But the evidence already, despite very strict government censorship, is that over 500 people died that day, mercilessly cut down by Karimov's government troops.

Karimov is an ill-concealed tyrant. He has looked to the Mongols for even more brutal methods of oppression. His government sanctions the cauldron, which boiled alive two of his critics in 2002. Uzbekistan is holding at least 6,000 political prisoners, who are routinely tortured. Independent economic activities, branded extremist Islamic businesses, have been eliminated. Religious practice is severely restricted. There is no free press; even the internet is censored. On Boxing Day, while the world was mesmerised by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Karimov held 'elections', which again returned his party to overwhelming power.

Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, fell out with the Foreign Office for its turning a blind eye to the Karimov regime. When Mr Murray visited Norwich a few months ago (he hails from north Norfolk), he argued that Britain was "selling its soul" by giving credence to garbage intelligence gathered by such barbaric methods. I have been fortunate enough to get to know Craig Murray personally over this last year, and I strongly recommend readers to find out more this honest man and his astonishing revelations concerning Uzbekistan and Britain: a good place to start is www.craigmurray.co.uk/weblog.html.

For the terrible truth is that our government is complicit in the Andijan massacre. How? Because the British army runs a training programme for the Uzbeki army. As revealed in Private Eye on June 10: even after hundreds of peaceful demonstrators had been murdered by that army, UK-Uzbeki military cooperation was not suspended. The MoD programme of training for Uzbek officers covers "the full spectrum of operations", including "counter-insurgency" and "peace enforcement" (sic). In other words: our taxpayers' money has financed the training of an army that has recently massacred several hundreds of its own citizens in cold blood - and yet our government has not taken action to break off support for this army!

The first sentence of the United Nations Charter affirms faith in fundamental human rights, in dignity and worth of the human person. The US and UK governments now say that they invaded Iraq so that its people could be freed from oppression, and given their human rights. Yet, in Uzbekistan, they support a government that is killing its people more openly than Saddam Hussein did, in the last years of his reign, before Bush and Blair toppled him. Is it possible that the difference between the two cases is this: Karimov is a friend to Bush and Blair, whereas Saddam openly defied them?

Perhaps it is time for the West to turn to peaceful methods of conflict-resolution, and so help to strengthen peacebuilding in the world of the 21st century. If the US and the UK worked to strengthen the UN, and if they pressured their friends such as Karimov to stop being butchers, then perhaps countries like Uzbekistan would start to know happier times, and perhaps the 21st century would be a period that we could look forward to living in - rather than a time to be ashamed of our own government.

My heartfelt thanks to David Roberts of Norwich and District United Nations Association for assistance with the writing and research on this article.

11 June 2005

Where is the frank and open debate on animal testing?

By Jacqui McCarney

Open debate and animal testing are not natural bedfellows. Polarised accusations abound in the media - 'terrorist' (campaigner) or 'monster' (scientists). This plays into public fears - the subject has become such a hot potato that few politicians are brave enough to tackle it.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has listened to experts on all sides and thrown some much needed light on the subject, via a two-year study and report (just published) on the ethics of animal experimentation. They call for all sides to improve the quality of the discussions, introduce more openness about research on animal testing, and engage in a more democratic debate.

Would anybody want to cause unnecessary suffering to animals? Most people feel very deeply about this issue. In the UK public concern led to the runaway success of companies like The Body Shop whose cosmetics were free from animal testing. The Government followed suit with a ban on animal testing for cosmetics, alcohol and tobacco.

Unfortunately, the law is not without loopholes. Most crucially, the Government has not banned the importation of cosmetics, alcohol and tobacco products that have been tested on animals. Another example is that botox, intended for cosmetic, anti-wrinkle treatment is tested on animals, is also a medicine, and in production no distinction is made between batches destined for cosmetic as opposed to pharmaceutical use. In these tests, mice are subject to toxicity tests, described by the UK Government as a "severe procedure", outlawed in 1999 except in "exceptional scientific grounds", as the mice involved suffocate as their diaphragms are paralysed.

Whilst it is commonly argued that animal testing is essential for research into disease and cancer, recent Home Office statistics indicate that the growth in animal testing is for household products (75% annually).

Each 'New' 'Improved' 'Mountain Fresh' product, whether it is washing powder or bathroom cleaner is tested on animals - sprayed into eyes, ingested, and douched on skin. The competition between companies means that results of experiments are not shared and experiments are duplicated many times. Yet, these companies could use combinations of the thousands of ingredients for which safety data already exists - it is surely unnecessary to continue these 'new' product developments.

What about medical research? A frightened public confronted with cancer and other ills are often willing to accept animal experimentation as 'a necessary evil'. Perhaps the real question is how effective is animal testing in medical research?

Evidence, over the years, shows that animal models in medical research are an unreliable predictor of how humans will respond to the same drugs, giving both false 'negatives' and 'positives'. This has led to both huge number deaths and injuries due to undiscovered toxicity, and the unnecessary delay in successful treatments which showed problems in animals.

Perhaps the most famous false negative is Thalidomide - no animal tests detected it. Dogs failed to predict the heart problems caused by encainade and fiecainide which led to an estimated 3,000 deaths in the USA. Asbestosis was denied for decades because asbestos had no adverse effect on animals. Conversely, benign to humans, aspirin and insulin cause birth defects in primates.

This leads to the strange paradox that 50 drugs on the market, which cause cancer in laboratory animals, are allowed because it is admitted that the animal tests are 'irrelevant'.

These limitations of animal experimentation are reflected in case law. With thalidomide, despite the human cost, producers were acquitted in court after numerous experts agreed that animal tests could not be relied on for human medicine.

Medicines, tested on animals, which consequently prove to be harmful, can not be prosecuted against because, in the words of the medical expert in the 'Surgan' case, "data from animals could not be extrapolated safely to patients". Indeed 88% of doctors agree that animal experiments can be misleading "because of anatomical and physiological differences between animals and humans".

There are research organisations committed to humane methods, such as Dr Hadwen's Trust, who fund research without the use of animals. There are 450 methods that could replace animal testing from computer modelling, synthetic skin, magnetic resonance (MRI) and human volunteers.

Do 22 animals have to die every second in labs? A German doctors' congress concluded that 6% of fatal illnesses and 25% of organic illness are caused by medicines, all animal tested. The Nuffield Council concluded that alternative ways of conducting medical research should be found. This change will not only protect animals from suffering but will also protect many humans from unnecessary suffering too.

Geoffrey Thomas of the Dr Hadwen Trust is speaking at 6:30pm in the Congregation Hall at UEA, today, 11 June 2005. Entry is free.

4 June 2005

We need an open debate on energy

By Andrew Boswell

Novozybkov is a Russian city which was heavily drenched with radioactive fallout when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down in 1986. Here radiation moves ghostlike from place to place sensitive to pollutants and chemical toxins, winds dust and rain. For their safely, children and families need to use radiation monitors daily to know where the radiation is.

Although the recent election was distinguished by a lack of debate on the key issue of our time - climate change and future energy security - the future of nuclear energy in this county is now on the agenda. Now the pro-nuclear lobby is briefing fast and thick. "Please let us build just one more generation of nuclear power stations - we'll make 'em safer and create less dangerous waste."

Can the people of Novozybkov, or Norfolk, ever believe a nuclear power station can be "safe"? Can hundreds of future generations and those, now, in whose countries the waste is currently dumped agree that "waste can be less dangerous"?

Perhaps the most ironic argument is the one which calls for us all to be more "open-minded" about the nuclear option. We are asked to give up our "prejudices", born of the nightmare experience of Three Mile Island and of Chernobyl, and to give up the small step in imagination of a jet crashing into Sizewell rather than the Twin Towers.

Yes, very ironic, because the environmental movement has called for years for an open discussion on climate change - most recently during the election, when their calls were largely ignored by Westminster politicians (some waiting silently for the post-election nuclear frenzy) and by the press alike.

Still, I agree we need an open debate - and in this light of openness, let's look seriously at every option and alternative. The discussion on our future energy needs must be framed as part of a "bigger than nuclear", and bigger than any single solution, discussion including:
  • energy efficiency in industry and in buildings, rapid implementation of regulatory and tax policy to curtail inefficient energy use.
  • a national programme of grants to encourage greater domestic energy self-sufficiency through small scale wind and solar energy generation.
  • all renewable energy sources - we needs a basket of approaches. Whilst wind energy is the most exploited renewable in this country, and is beginning to make a significant contribution despite its nuclear lobby detractors, wave, tidal and biomass must be developed. Tidal power is being promoted to meet the entire needs of Auckland, capital of New Zealand with over 1million people. With many estuaries and harbours, why are we in the UK not making more of the huge potential of this safe energy source?
  • the rich nations should help the uptake of renewables in the third world - so they can increase energy security without the same cost in greenhouse gases (ghgs) emissions.
  • all forms of transport "paying their real cost". This means taxing air fuel, and stopping the subsidy of the aviation industry. It means abandoning the £30billion road building programme, and investing instead in public transport and sustainable transport policies.
  • eliminating the worst aspects of free-trading globalised economies - for example, the absurdity of flying vast amounts of food around the world. Why can I often only find apples from far flung continents - China, USA, and Chile - in most Norfolk supermarkets, when Norfolk apples are superb, different and surely the best?
Common sense ideas and technically solutions available now abound - see this pdf on the Friends of the Earth website for more information.

Beware too, the misleading propaganda that nuclear provides a "catch-all", single solution to climate change - it does no such thing. UK electricity production only contributes to ¼ of ghgs, and, of this, currently just ¼ is generated by nuclear energy - at current levels, nuclear power can make no more than 1/16th or 6% contribution to ghgs reduction in the UK. Promoting nuclear as a generic panacea is, then, an extreme deception, when we actually need to reduce ghgs by 60%-90% by 2050.

The argument now should not be about whether to go nuclear or not, but how we can achieve so much more by a joined up, sustainable approach. Yes, let's have a truly open and committed debate on the full spectrum of energy policy. Such open debate will show that further nuclear development would divert resources in investment and engineering from much more creative and ecological sound solutions. We are at a crisis time - it is no time to look at expensive, short sighted solutions. I, for one, don't want to read Norwich for Novozybkov in 2033.