30 September 2006

The people are needed for democracy

By Jacqui McCarney

The Labour party conference has been a strange spectacle. Once the party of the people, it now seems to be a media circus at which cabinet ministers fight and jostle for position. We are left wondering what it has got to do with us – in truth not a lot.

At the start of the conference last weekend, thirty thousand people demonstrated outside the Manchester conference hall against Mr Blair's foreign policy and his determination to leave this country a legacy of another generation of nuclear weapons. Inside, there was no debate allowed on the renewal of Trident, nor on the position of our armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

People want democracy from their government, and activists want democracy from their party. That democracy would be a good thing. Yet, poll after poll bears witness to an electorate disillusioned and cynical about politics and politicians. So where's the problem?

Democracy requires the devolvement of power from centralised governments to the people - from its Greek origins, Democracy – "rule by the people" to Abraham Lincoln's – "government of the people, by the people, for the people". People power is where our elected politicians and the electorate part company.

The political economist Joseph Schumpeter defines the roles of people and leader: "Voters must understand that once they have elected an individual, political action is his business and not theirs. This means that they must refrain from instructing him about what he is to do". This well describes the mess of our current system and the erosion of democracy under the premiership of Tony Blair.

When elected dictator Tony has said "Trust Me", he's known that he will do what he wants anyway – sadly this is far from "rule of the people".

The hole left by voiceless people has been quickly filled by business interests. Large donations to political parties ensure that politicians are beholding to corporate interests.

In Labour's case, the immoral Iraq adventure left powerless party members tearing up their membership cards en masse, party democracy destroyed. The resulting financial crisis, and desperation to win a third term, whether your party is with you or not, lead to seeking out rich donors and the ensuing 'Peerages for Loans' scandal.

Jon Cruddas MP launched his bid on Wednesday for deputy leadership against this trend. He highlighted that "the lack of a Trident debate is symptomatic of a general malaise in the party about policy development, and the role of the party". And, of course, it was Blair's likely successor Gordon Brown who had so casually indicated his support for Trident. We can expect Brown will be little different from Blair. As Cruddas added, Brown's reckless statement preceding any debate was "emblematic" of the party's problem.

It is difficult, then, to believe that Brown's talk of "empowerment and strengthening of local councils and local communities" means much as this government plans to railroad new nuclear power stations through the planning system and commit the nation to further nuclear weapons. Brown may have thrown the dog a bone in saying that he would provide "local budgets for local community facilities [that] can be voted on by local people". But the dog is hungry for more – for real parliamentary debate on the big issues where our elected representatives can represent our view.

In fact local democracy is about all that's left. There are active, engaged and informed people saving our local schools, stopping Tesco's from destroying local high streets, or protecting our children from the incineration toxins.

The good news is that this democratic urge isn't going away - many still hold to the belief that they should have a say.

This obstinacy was demonstrated recently at Mildenhall when the peace camp showed people around the world – and it was widely reported - that ordinary people did not agree with our country being used as a refuelling point for planes shipping weapons to be used against the people of Lebanon.

It is apparent around the globe when poor local people stand up against corporate interest trammelling over their lives. It sweeps the globe when people refuse to eat GMs.

Before western governments attempt to export democracy abroad, they need to take another look at its true meaning, learn from real local democracy, understand that it is a choice made by an empowered people, and allow that empowerment to seep upwards.

The UK malaise could be turned around by senior politicians actually taking the risk to really listen to the people about the big issues. They need to learn how to do this at home rather than trying to bomb other nations into 'democracy'.

23 September 2006

Shall there be womanly times?

By Marguerite Finn

Shall there be womanly times or shall we die? / Are there men unafraid of gentleness? / Can we have strength without aggression, / Without disgust, / Strength to bring feeling to the intellect? / Shall we change or shall we die? (Ian Mc Ewan)
I recently watched a quiet revolution in progress in the leafy confines of Greenwich University. For five days in September the UK section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) hosted the WILPF International Executive Meeting (8-12 September 2006).

But this was no ordinary meeting – there were over a hundred women from 25 different countries, covering all five continents. Not the Rev John Knox's 'monstrous regiment of women' - but modern peace activists from across the globe, some of whom had personally encountered degrees of state oppression. The International Vice-President from Sri Lanka had even received death threats. Yet, undeterred, they had made their way to London in one great coming together of women power.

A vital part of the meeting was the International Seminar entitled - Women's Unfinished Agenda -where the keynote speaker was a WILPF International Vice President, Annelise Ebbe, from Denmark. Annelise spoke of the need to change the patriarchal nature of our society, to eliminate gender-based violence and to move from the militaristic culture of war to a culture of peace.

WILPF members from Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, who managed to overcome all manner of obstacles to get to the meeting in Greenwich, heartily endorsed these sentiments - they appeared together on the platform to tell their harrowing stories and to appeal to WILPF members and to the whole of civil society to do something to bring about peace in the Middle East - an appeal WILPF members and civil society at large cannot afford to ignore.

The audience heard at first hand about the situation in Lebanon, where more than 1,000 people were killed (more than 35pc of them innocent women and children) and where more will die from the unexploded cluster bombs that mercilessly rained down on their villages and fields.

The head of an Israeli Defence Force unit told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that Israel fired more than a million cluster bombs in Lebanon. He said: "What we did was insane and monstrous; we covered entire towns in cluster bombs". His admission is somewhat at odds with the statement of Israeli Ambassador, Arkady Milman, which "Reports of the Israeli army using cluster munitions is an obvious propaganda of Hezbollah and other organizations who do not know what is actually going on."

This remote continuation of the war after the 'ceasefire', means that the casualty figures will rise sharply next month as Lebanese villagers begin to gather in the harvest, picking olives from trees whose leaves and branches hide bombs that explode at the smallest movement – leaving the farmers on the horns of a deadly dilemma: whether to risk collecting the harvest, on which they depend, or leaving the olives to rot in the fields – a dilemma of which the military planners in Israel would have been well aware.

By inconceivably bad timing there has been a decrease in funding for land-mine clearance. This was revealed in a report recently published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines – even though more land was de-mined in 2005 than ever before!

WILPF members also heard about the intolerable situation in Gaza and the increasingly harsh discriminatory legislation and conditions now being imposed on Arab citizens of Israel. One heartening thing was the report from the Israeli WILPF section outlining their work with other joint Palestinian-Israeli women's groups to highlight the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people. The meeting also heard about the on-going work of WILPF in Africa, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Scandinavia, Europe and elsewhere – and of new branches opening up, like the one in Norwich.

Greenwich University Campus fairly buzzed with the sound of women working together for peace, economic justice and human rights: decisions were taken, resolutions passed, future plans made - Neil Diamond would have called it A Beautiful Noise!

In 2000, WILPF – with other NGOs - pressed the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1325: Women, Peace and Security. Today WILPF women continue to work for the participation of women in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution.

We cannot afford to fail, otherwise we will have failed as human beings and we will not be able to live with ourselves as a species; so, following Ian Mc Ewan’s words: "There will be womanly times – we will not die".

16 September 2006

The War on Error

By Liam Carroll

The last week or so has been notable for the number of reflections on the terrible attacks on the twin towers in New York on September 11th. It has also been notable for the number of attempts to assess the 'War on Terror'. It now appears that many of the views and statements that have issued forth from our leaders and commentators over the last few years have turned out to be grossly inaccurate, or just plain wrong. Here are a few examples of inaccuracies that should be remembered in what could be described, perhaps badly, as the War on Error.

One of the most enduring inaccuracies persists in the minds of those you would have hoped would be better informed: the soldiers on the front line in Iraq. Get this: when asked, in a recent survey, to explain their presence in Iraq, 85 per cent of American soldiers said that the "main mission" was "to retaliate for Saddam's role" in the September 11 attacks. Where did they get that idea from? Interestingly, a US Senate committee report has just been released, confirming the long understood belief that there was no evidence of formal links between Al Qaeda and the government of Iraq. Before the beginning of the war that is.

Another interesting error, now rapidly being repackaged, is that 'Operation Iraqi Freedom', was part of the War on Terror. Not many people now hold the view that the invasion actually struck much of a blow against terrorism. Indeed the US National Intelligence Council early last year said that Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills". One month before the invasion George Bush had said; "Instead of threatening its neighbours and harbouring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both."

Tony Blair, having finally shrugged off the debate about the never found weapons of mass destruction, is now also trying to move on from the War on Terror. In a speech in Los Angeles recently he said, "We are fighting a war, but not just against terrorism, but about how the world should govern itself, in the 21st century, about global values". Instead of mentioning the War on Terror, he used a new phrase to describe the threat to "our values" and it came in the form of "the arc of extremism". This recalls George Bush’s 'axis of evil' which was made up of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Iran is of course still part of the arc/axis, but North Korea, once a worthy member of the 'axis of evil' doesn't make the 'arc of extremism'. To make the arc of extremism, you have to be Islamic.

The "arc of extremism", Tony Blair explains "is what I call reactionary Islam", and the way to fight it, apparently, is "to empower moderate, mainstream Islam to defeat reactionary Islam". One wonders though if it really is up to 'moderate Islam' to win this struggle, and whether or not it isn't actually 'moderate Anglo-Saxons' that have a larger role to play. Assessing the nature of reality is not, after all, so easy and can of course be disastrously wrong, as Christopher Hitchen's early appraisal, in 2001 demonstrates: when talking of the capture of Kabul in Afghanistan, the first stage in the War on Terror he wrote, "It was also obvious that defeat was impossible. The Taliban will soon be history". That was five years ago.

The real world is surely more complex than the sound bites about global struggles and recipes to defeat them suggest. One of the main architects of the War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld, was once widely ridiculed for one of his statements about the nature of the struggle. Personally I think it was one of the more sensible and truly honest moments in a long list of appalling predictions and gross inaccuracies: "We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know". If the statements of our leaders and commentators are anything to go by, there are indeed many more unknowns than they appear to have known about. A little less 'knowing' and a little more understanding, might represent a step forward in what could be called, probably inaccurately, The War on Error.

9 September 2006

Vicious weapons should be banned

By Andrew Boswell

The UN estimates that around 120,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance litter southern Lebanon - the vast majority cluster bomblets. These are one of the most vicious weapons ever to come out of man’s imagination.

As Kate Gilmore, executive deputy secretary general of Amnesty, said last week: "The use of cluster bombs in the heart of where people live clearly violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks and is therefore a grave violation of international humanitarian law."

Cluster bombs been dropped in large areas of Lebanon: close to homes and on farmland, where they will remain for many months, possibly years. Every day, these crude weapons kill and maim people. Since the ceasefire, they have already killed 13 people and wounded almost 50. They also affect people's livelihoods by killing and wounding animals - hundreds of Lebanese sheep have already been killed - and preventing farmers from working their fields.

Israeli has not provided maps of the cluster bombed areas, causing severe danger to civilians, particularly children. Jan Egeland, UN Humanitarian Affairs chief, said last week "What's shocking and completely immoral is 90 percent of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution".

Israel agreed in 1976, when US cluster-bomb sales to Israel started, to only use the munitions against organised Arab armies and clearly defined military targets. After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the US Congress found it guilty of using cluster bombs in civilian areas and Washington halted cluster-bomb sales to Israel for six months. Now, the US State Department is investigating, once again, whether Israel’s use of these weapons breaks agreements Israel made with the US when buying the weapons.

The losers of the Israel - Hezbollah conflict are civilians on both sides. The war, following Israeli's disproportionate attack, has no winners. Now there is a fragile ceasefire, the disproportionate suffering and legacy in Lebanon goes largely unreported, as the 5-second concentration span media has turned its attention elsewhere. In Lebanon, there are over 1300 people dead, a third of them children, more than 4,000 wounded, and over a million citizens displaced.

This is the human cost of the 'War on Terror' rhetoric, supported by the UK and US, that allowed Israel to proceed without international restraint. This crude strategy is leading to ever greater conflict and terrorism worldwide, as it destroys innocent civilians, through indiscriminate destruction including cluster bombs.

We have rules of War, like the Geneva conventions that are meant to protect civilian lives – yet these are now flagrantly broken, and broken more often, in the 'War on Terror'. Breaking these rules constitutes war crimes, yet, in recent years governments and their military have mostly avoided any legal retribution.

Now momentum is building for Israeli ministers and military to face trials for war crimes against civilians in this summer’s mad rampage.

In Lebanon itself, parliament member Ghassan Moukheiber, an attorney and a member of the parliament’s human rights committee has recently spoken of how Lebanese and international civil society organisations, are collecting data and establishing a network of lawyers, to do this (See website tinyurl.com/q3sld).

Action will be taken in several ways. Dual nationality Lebanese can sue the Israeli authorities within national domestic laws of their countries. Lebanese from Canada, America, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Brazil and Kuwait who have suffered injury or loss are planning this.

And not only Lebanese citizens – remember the appalling day of attacks on a UN post in Southern Lebanon that killed 4 peacemaker soldiers? Now the wife of a Canadian United Nations peacekeeper is suing Israel in Canada.

As many lawsuits are prepared, the Israeli foreign ministry has been forced to issue a memorandum warning public officials to watch what they say in public for fear of being prosecuted for war crimes. The ministry is also has establishing a legal team to fight such cases.

Another possible course of action being considered by the Lebanese government is the international criminal court, ICC. Is it possible that we will see high ranking Israelis such as the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, or even the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, appear in The Hague where Milosevic went before? These people may find it difficult to travel in the future - Danish politician, Frank Aaen, tried to have Livni detained and prosecuted when she recently visited Copenhagen.

The Green MEP Caroline Lucas called for an international ban on cluster bombs during a European parliament debate on Wednesday. I support this – outlawing cluster bombs is long overdue. It is essential too to prosecute those inflicting war on civilians and children – without this justice, the future looks bleak.

2 September 2006

Deadly gas emissions must be reduced

By Andrew Boswell

A recent Christian Aid report describes how climate change is threatening development goals for billions of the world's poorest people, and that a staggering 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone could die of disease directly attributable to climate change this century. Many millions more throughout the world face death and devastation due to climate-induced floods, famine, drought and conflict.

"What can you do to make a difference?". An exhibition currently on at Norwich Anglican Cathedral asks this, and "What exactly is climate change?" and "How will it affect us?".

Two recent news stories show there is much we can do from conscientious behaviour to high finance.

28-year-old Barbara Hadrill will take a 7-week over land adventure from Wales to Australia to be a bridesmaid. To fulfil her best friend's request, she will travel to Brisbane by coach, trains and large cargo vessels: that is, she will travel without using extremely polluting air travel. Instead of creating 5.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide from flying - equivalent to that generated heating five modern houses for a year - her intrepid, eco-journey is estimated to create just 1.4 tonnes of the deadly climate gas.

At the other extreme, the World Bank announced earlier this week that European and Asian companies will pay two Chinese chemical companies $1.02 billion to reduce about 19 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. This 'carbon trading' will help China expand its renewable energy – it does, however, have a major downside that the rich Western companies can go on polluting.

In both case, carbon emissions are not completely eliminated – this is the dilemma, it is difficult to reduce them completely. Cracking this nut is the issue that the 'Changing our climate, changing ourselves' exhibition addresses – how to reduce these deadly climate gases to avoid runaway and catastrophic climate change.

Norfolk is well represented. Local company, LSI Architects, have a display on integrating renewable energy into local buildings, such as schools, and there is a display about low carbon buildings that already exist in Norfolk from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). There are photographs of Norfolk's weather beaten coastline from Pat Gowen and paintings of the devastating aftermath of coastal erosion by his wife Norma.

Local artists Peter Offord and Juliet Wimhurst explore the human and spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis through art.

Peter's apocalyptic 'Spirit of Free Enterprise' expresses the consequences of twenty-first century global power and materialism. In his words "war, energy, achievement and the exploited… who are the victims, who are the heroes and heroines, what are the hidden agendas, what does global power entail and what are its consequences?"

Juliet's 'Choose' shows our dualistic relationship with nature. In her words "either we can inhabit that side of ourselves which, having decided nature has no rights nor soul, ruthlessly pushes it aside so as to pursue our own separate path; or we can strengthen the links we have with the planet to which we belong, relish its diversity and beauty, and try to nurture and care for it as best we can."

Norfolk and Norwich Campaign against Climate Change highlight the damaging effect of cheap flights, the aviation industry, road transport, and large scale production of biofuels on the climate. These campaigners ask that we all lobby the Government to prevent the potential human catastrophe highlighted by Christian Aid.

First, the Government should enact a law legally binding the UK to cut CO2 emissions by 3% per year with progress being monitored via an annual carbon budget. The proposal is already backed by over half of MPs who have signed an early day motion, EDM 178. Now Government itself must be lobbied to include a Climate Change Bill in the 2006 Queen's Speech in November.

Second, the Government must urgently review its 2003 Aviation White Paper that announced a massive programme of airport expansion. These plans will produce huge increases in our carbon emissions just when we are trying to reduce them. The Government must deal with CO2 emissions from aviation urgently if it is serious about tackling climate change.

Both these are urgently needed steps to start putting UK emissions, which have risen in recent years, back on the crucial reduction track. As individuals, we can all take inspiration from Barbara Hadrill, a heroine of our times, and take whatever steps we can to reduce our emissions. Do visit the exhibition to find out more.

The 'Changing our climate, changing ourselves' exhibition is at Norwich Anglican Cathedral until September 16th, admission free.