30 June 2007

The quiet heroism of Margaret Moss

By Liam Carroll

If ever there was one person in Norfolk who typified the values of this column, which she helped pioneer, it was the late Margaret Moss. Margaret was a person who worked persistently for solidarity with her fellow human beings the world over, never failing to pursue any course of action that might bring relief to the suffering and the oppressed. As secretary for Norwich and District Trades Union Council, an active UNISON member and participant in numerous peace and social solidarity movements, she was one of the most prolific campaigners in Norfolk, as well as being a mother of two. It is a great tragedy that she has been taken from us, not only because she was much loved, but also because she tirelessly demonstrated a way to work for a better world.

It is often easier to see the faults of other countries than it is to recognise those of our own. Elsewhere in the world we have no trouble identifying rogue states and corrupt regimes. Take China and the Darfur crisis in the Sudan for example. Here we can see a large and powerful country ignoring gross human rights violations in order to secure oil supplies for Chinese oil companies and also supplying the same country with armaments that exacerbate state sponsored crimes whilst also fanning the flames of more localised conflict. To add fuel to the fire one could accuse the Chinese of burning huge quantities of coal that help feeds the climate change that bears most heavily on fragile farming communities such as those in Sudan where scarce water resources are increasingly under threat.

It would be unfair though to single out the Chinese as sole perpetrators of such crimes, for the pattern is a familiar one throughout history. The Chinese might be the latest government to seek out new resource and commodity supplies for its rapidly expanding economy, but what advanced industrialised country has not done likewise? That is why it is down to the domestic population to promote humanitarian concerns both in government and in society at large.

Margaret Moss worked with an amazingly large number of organisations that sought to do just that. Her trade unionism went beyond simply protecting the membership and her work for Unison and the Trades Council never failed to incorporate aspects of international solidarity. Whether through financial, legal or political support the labour movement has always sought to support social organisation in other countries. Whether it is in Zimbabwe or the Sudan, people have to find ways to organise a functioning society outside of central government, which frequently has nothing to offer, or indeed simply takes from, the wider population. Margaret never failed to support this vital aspect of the labour movement, which also included her activities on the TUC's Women's Rights Committee and her work with the fair trade organisation Banana Link.

Britain, like China, does not have an impressive record when it comes to arms supply either. Amongst many other cases, selling weapons to Robert Mugabe during his 1999 invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in one of the worst-ever African conflicts, is hardly a source of national pride, and more recent exposures of our intimate ties with Saudi Arabia through the arms trade should also be a cause for concern. Margaret was an important member of Norwich Campaign Against the Arms Trade that sought to end such practices.

It is also a little known fact that the partly British owned Urenco allowed A Q Khan, the Pakistani scientist, to obtain the know how for uranium enrichment from the plant where he was working. Given Dr Khan’s role in nuclear weapons proliferation across Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, this ought to be another source of national shame. Margaret was an active member of CND that sought to prevent nuclear proliferation and went on to demonstrate her deep commitment to nuclear disarmament by physically blockading the UK nuclear missile base at Faslane in her final months.

Margaret vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq, she joined the peace camp in Suffolk when some of the worst weapons were being flown out of RAF Mildenhall for use in the Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon, and she entered the US base in Lakenheath to prevent the deployment of cluster munitions in Iraq. The latest of these activities were all conducted as cancer grew in her shoulder and increasingly affected her mobility. She exemplified the humanity that exists within all of us and lived it on a daily basis, we can only hope that in her passing many more will step up to follow her example.

23 June 2007

Let Lebanon create its own destiny

By Jacqui McCarney

Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. Its elegant restaurants, vibrant nightlife, popular beaches, cosmopolitan feel, and 6,000 years of history made it a huge attraction for visitors. That was before the dark days of Lebanon's long civil war from 1975.

Like all places it is the people themselves that matter, and no where is this truer than Lebanon. Even today, an anonymous poem posted on the Internet I Love Beirut perfectly captures the indomitable spirit of the Lebanese people, a people who have seen their city destroyed seven times and seven times they have rebuilt it.

The poem celebrates a city where East meets West. On the streets you see women in mini skirt or 'Tchador'. Christians call their Muslim friends on Ramadan and Muslims call Christian friends at Easter. There are Sunni, Shia and Druze and Christian in fact Lebanon recognises around 17 religious communities.

The vibrancy and colour of this mix is Lebanon's appeal, but it also makes Lebanon a playground for the broadly competing outside interests of Israel / America / Saudi on the one hand and Syria / Iran on the other. Events in the Middle East are almost inevitably played out in this beautiful city and its southern supported Hizbollah suburbs and Palestinian refugee camps.

The country has been shattered by two key events: first, the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, in February 2005 and, second, last summer's assault by Israel recklessly supported by the US. More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed and the country was devastated in a war that created a surge in popular support for the resistance army, Hizbollah, whose members have since become even more powerful political players.

The Hariri family and supporters blame Syria for his murder, but the US backed government has been powerless to act. The UN Security Council has stepped in to create a special international court to try the suspects.

Now the US, wanting a finger in all pies, lacks coherent policy in Lebanon. Its serious miscalculations in Iraq mean that the US may need the help of Syria and Iran to negotiate an exit strategy from that unwinnable and unpopular war. So how far will the US support the UN process in bringing Hariri's assassins to justice when its relationship to Syria is now so sensitive? After all, Iraq is the real political crisis for America.

The US relationship with Lebanon is complicated further by the fact that it has a far greater loyalty to Lebanon’s enemy and neighbour, Israel, than to Lebanon itself.

Around 12 refugee camps in Lebanon hold up to 300,000 Palestinians and here Syria remains influential because of its support for the Palestinian cause. Until recently, the Lebanese army was forbidden from entering the camps and the Palestinians provided their own policing. Recently, the camps saw a shoot out between a group calling itself Fateh Al–Islam and the Lebanese army. Such fighting in the camps marks a new hard line from the Lebanese government and led to the deaths of 100 people, and trapped women and children for more than three weeks.

The army was supported with US military hardware and here again the US is treading a delicate path. It allows the Lebanese army hardware to defeat the 'terrorists' within, but is keen not to provide equipment sophisticated enough to pose a threat to Lebanon's enemies, but America’s friends, the Israelis.

While the Hariri camp accuses Syria of undermining the UN justice process and of backing Fateh Al-Islam to destabilize the investigation, Hizbollah adds its weight to the opposition by accusing the UN of meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. However, it is clear that in Lebanon the militants do not enjoy the support of the mainstream Palestinian factions who had been trying to mediate a settlement.

The Lebanese government's desire to take a firm line against this new 'terrorist threat' is in danger of starting to bear the hallmarks of Lebanon's neighbour, the Israeli Defence Force. The Israelis have always said that those seen to be harbouring terrorists must bear the consequences. The effect of this approach in Gaza has been increasing violence, trauma and now civil war.

Can the Lebanese people retain the optimism and spirit to rebuild their beautiful country, once again? Or will the weakened Lebanese government, in fighting America's 'war on terrorism' in its Palestinian refugee camps, fuel its own demise and leave Lebanon and its people vulnerable to dangerous forces at play from within and without.

In the words of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), Lebanese poet and philosopher "Had Lebanon not been my country, I would have chosen it to be."

I am grateful for Juliette Harkin providing background information for this column.

16 June 2007

Biofuels are displacing people

By Andrew Boswell

There are many unique cultures, thousands of human languages and a myriad of ways that people relate to others and the natural environment. We call the inheritors of these traditions indigenous peoples and there are more than 370 million of them in some 70 countries worldwide.

History is already littered with such displaced and destroyed peoples but as the 21st century brings new global, systemic problems, the home lands and cultures of indigenous peoples have never been more at threat.

Chief Deskaheh, leader of the Canadian Cayuga tribe, was an early voice from these people - in 1923, he travelled to Geneva to speak to the League of Nations for the right of his people to live under their own laws, on their own land and under their own faith. He was denied access.

He would be surprised that Aqqaluk Lynge, a leader of Greenland's Inuit community, is to speak to a UK planning enquiry against Stansted airport expansion. The Inuit people are already badly affected by climate change, catastrophic to them, and Mr Lynge asks us to take less short haul flights, and not to be callous saying "the Arctic is far away and few people live there."

The chief might be even more surprised to know that since 2002 the UN has a Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples (UNPFIP) that meets in New York for two weeks each year. Indigenous people are well represented in the Forum and have support to travel and participate effectively.

Last month's forum focused on the increasing exploitation of indigenous natural resources and starkly reported how people are displaced at the "hands of indifferent Governments and profit-hungry corporations". Rodolfo Stavenhagen from the Human Rights Council, said "One of the new trends […] is the continuous loss of indigenous lands and territories, including their loss of control over natural resources […] intensified as a result of economic globalisation, especially with increased exploitation of [energy and water] resources."

Vulnerable groups are routinely dispossessed of their ancestral lands for mining and logging, even though there are often laws that are supposed to protect them from just such abuse, leading to marginalisation, poverty, disease, violence especially against women.

It was reported that native peoples in South-East Asia and Africa faced military build-ups on their territories and the loss of lands as a result of commercial plantation growth and the construction of 'mega-projects' that have substantial environmental and social impacts.

A startling revelation came from Forum chair Victoria Tauli-Corpuz when she described an emerging biofuel refugee crisis. In her words "Indigenous people are being pushed off their lands to make way for an expansion of biofuel crops around the world, threatening to destroy their cultures by forcing them into big cities". She said that the clearing of forests to make room for these new crops is putting at particular risk the 60 million indigenous people who depend on forests almost entirely for their survival.

A report identified the fact that some of the native people most at risk live in Indonesia and Malaysia where palm oil is grown to make biodiesel including 5 million in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Subsequently Christian Aid have reported that paramilitary seizure of swathes of land in Colombia for Palm Oil production is causing a huge internal refugee problem.

These people from the tropics are no more unconnected from our actions than the northerly Inuit especially as the EU is very keen on biofuels and plans to massively expand their use about six fold by 2010.

This EU policy denies motorists of any chance of avoiding contributing to this human disaster, except by giving up their car or getting an electric vehicle, as it will be impossible to know what is in your fuel tank. The Branson 'biodiesel train' shows the difficulty – it ran on a blend of rape, soya and palm oils – sourced from at least three continents. Similar blending occurs with most available biodiesel for cars with the exact blending ratios driven by commodity price fluctuations. It will simply be impossible to select a fuel that one can be sure doesn't displace people and cause deforestation.

The EU commission is culpable, as it knowingly forced through this aggressive biofuels target without considering sustainability first, and with a blind eye to social and human rights issues.

It is European policy makers who must wake up to the unaddressed concerns about biofuels production. They have let the commercial genie out of the bottle, and only a policy U-turn that scraps the ridiculously aggressive targets and imposes a moratorium for ‘rethinking time’ can avoid a major ecological and human disaster.

9 June 2007

A better deal for women?

By Marguerite Finn

The next G8 summit will soon be upon us. The leaders of the world's richest countries will meet in Germany between 6th and 8th June 2007 to plan the world’s priorities for the forthcoming year.

The communiqué on world poverty issued after the Gleneagles meeting in 2005 was a welcome development, but it failed to mention discrimination against women in the global South. Yet, according to a new book by Norwich-based author Geraldine Terry, widespread and deep-rooted discrimination against women in developing countries plays a big part in creating and perpetuating world poverty. It acts as a major brake on development in the world’s poorest regions: South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. According to Geraldine's book, changing this status quo must be at the heart of the G8's deliberations.

Not convinced that women's rights are being denied all over the world? Then ponder some shocking facts and figures showing that even women's right to life itself is being denied on a huge scale.

It is particularly sobering that discrimination can start before birth and deprive a child of life purely because of her sex. Up to 100 million females are 'missing' from the global population, victims of sex-selective abortion and infant neglect in countries including India and China.

In some rural areas, the resulting demographic imbalances are already giving rise to social problems, with young men unable to find themselves a bride. At a later stage in life, poor women are at risk giving birth. A woman dies every minute as a result of problems in pregnancy and childbirth, due to non-existent or inadequate government health services.

Violence against women is also a huge cause of death and disability across the world, yet in some countries domestic violence is not even against the law. Because of such deep-rooted injustices many campaigners see tackling discrimination against women as a key ingredient of international development. After all, what does 'development' really mean, if it is not about promoting people’s rights, including women’s rights, to enjoy decent lives?

One notable achievement of the Gleneagles summit, with a beneficial impact on women's rights, was debt relief. For instance, debt relief enabled the Ugandan government to abolish primary school fees so that thousands of girls to go to school for the first time. In Bolivia, the government used the funds freed up by debt relief to provide birth attendants, reducing maternal mortality.

What could G8 2007 achieve? Probably, the single most useful initiative would be to channel more development aid into educating girls. The right to education was first set out in the universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, yet here we are almost 60 years later with an estimated 62 million school-age girls who have never seen the inside of a classroom. This is a tragedy both for the girls themselves and for their communities, because even a few years’ education can be an effective way of reducing poverty. A recent study found that doubling the proportion of girls educated at secondary school can reduce infant mortality by more than half. From an economic point of view, countries with gaps between the numbers of girls and boys attending school do less well than countries where roughly equal numbers are enrolled. Gender discrimination is not good for economic growth. Policies on economic growth and international trade are key areas where the G8 governments must change their stance.

Currently, the USA and EU are pushing poorer countries into a form of economic globalisation that treats women as cheap labour for big trans-national businesses. They earn low wages, work long hours, endure terrible conditions, so we can buy clothes for a few pounds in the supermarket.

The world needs a different kind of globalisation, one that supports the rights of the world's poorest, most vulnerable people rather than riding roughshod over them. Even where globalised trade has created new jobs for women, they still earn less than men doing similar jobs. Such discrimination contributes to world poverty. Of the world's 550 million 'working poor', 60pc are women.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is hosting this year's G8 summit, has spoken publicly about the need for women to participate equally in political, economic and public life. So, will this year's G8 meeting in Germany mark a real watershed in attitudes to women in developing countries? Or will it be business as usual? Campaigners will be watching carefully, ready to hold world leaders to account.

Women's Rights, by Norwich author Geraldine Terry, is published by Oxfam and Pluto Press in July.

2 June 2007

Another no-win situation for the Palestinians

By Liam Carroll

For those people who follow events in the Middle East, particularly the plight of the Palestinians, the last week or so, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, has surely served up as grim a picture of despair as has been seen in the occupied territories since the second intafada (uprising) began in September 2000. The cause for despair is not the Israeli air strikes against buildings in Gaza killing scores of people, grim as though scenes are, but the reports of Hamas continuing to fire Qassam rockets at the nearest available Israeli town, Sderot. In of themselves the rockets are fairly innocuous compared to Israeli reprisals; with only two Israeli fatalities compared to fifty-odd deaths in Gaza. However it is what the rockets represent, a new low in the fortunes of Palestinian politics, that is the cause for despair.

The overwhelming victory for Hamas in last years Palestinian Authority elections was a clear signal to the international community that the Palestinian people had had enough of Western promises that their rights would finally be respected and the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank would cease. In the first elections of their kind, the Palestinians voted for the militant party, Hamas, which had combined grassroots social activism with suicide bombings since their emergence in 1987, in preference to the US favoured Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas appears to be modeled on the successful Hezbollah, which emerged out of the 1982 war in Lebanon as the new resistance, and is credited with driving the US out of Beirut in 1983 and Israel out of Lebanon in 2000. What are terrorists in the eyes of the West, represent the resistance in the eyes of the people in Lebanon and the Palestinian occupied territories. Unlike the old left-wing secular resistance groups in Lebanon and Palestine, these organizations have combined Islamic asceticism, military training and social welfare activism to produce an army that has a strict moral code of conduct and a programme for establishing a wider social order. This social discipline has made them popular in areas where criminality is a serious problem, and stands them apart from their more established Fatah rivals that are perceived by many as being corrupt.

Although nominally opposed to the existence of the state of Israel as defined by their charter, which will not recognize the right of non-Muslims to own land in Palestine, Hamas has none-the-less stated that their national goal is to establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, which is an implied recognition of Israel if not in fact an explicit one. Their refusal to renounce violence, they contend, is based on their inalienable right to resist an occupying force and point to the fact that Fatah had made such denunciations and yet had failed to achieve progress toward an Israeli withdrawal. Hamas has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate, and indeed had actually maintained a cease-fire with Israel from March 2005 until June 2006 before an Israeli shell killed several civilians on a Gaza beach.

As soon as Hamas had won the elections, though, in January 2006, Israel, the US and the EU were soon trying to undermine them, firstly by withdrawing funding for the Palestinian Authority, thus leaving the entire civilian administration without pay, and more recently by training and funding security forces from the opposing Fatah organization, which the US claims are the legitimate security forces of the President. Although the two rival groups did succeed in forming a unity government in March this year, the bitter in fighting over who controls the security forces and police within the West Bank and Gaza has remained fragile. The latest outbreak of fighting between the groups points to the deep divisions between the two organizations and the fragile nature of the Palestinian Authority which many believe is close to collapse.

The great tragedy for the Palestinians in all of this is that their internal politics are in disarray, compounding ever declining fortunes in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. The fact that Hamas have grown in popularity in proportion to Fatah's decline, indicates that Palestinian patience with negotiated settlements has virtually evaporated. This isn't to say though that Hamas would reject a political settlement, but judging by the reaction of Israel and the West so far, it does seem unlikely that they will be given much opportunity to reach one. For the time being then, open confrontation is likely to be the order of the day, delaying yet further the likely hood of any kind of political arrangement that might bring some measure of relief to the long suffering Palestinians.