28 July 2007

Iraq: time to go?

By Liam Carroll

The number of British troops in Iraq has come down from 9,000, to just 5,500 in the Basra province. Their tasks include training Iraqi forces, securing the Iraq/Iran border, securing supply routes, conducting operations against extremist groups, and supporting the Iraqi army when requested. All this while the British army is stretched to the limit in Afghanistan and peacekeeping operations elsewhere.

But could a timetable or immediate withdrawal of British troops be dangerous for Britain and for Iraq?

The Iraq Commission is an independent, cross-party body that has produced recommendations on the future of Britain's role in Iraq and ways to stabilise the region. The Commission was brought together by the Foreign Policy Centre. Its final report was featured on Channel 4 on July 14. Its hearings and its full final report can be heard and read on the Channel 4 website.

Withdrawals depend on the prevailing security situation, and the key risk is that insurgents could intensify attacks on UK troops, and hasten, delay or disrupt their departure when UK withdrawal is signaled.

The report says the UK should run down security operations and focus on completing the training of the Iraqi forces to lower this risk. Once they demonstrate competence, security responsibility should be handed over to them. UK forces should act only in self defence or on request of Iraqi authorities. Forces involved only in training then could be withdrawn as it is completed.

The UK has a more important role, in the UN Security Council and the EU. We have diplomatic relations with all Iraq's neighbours, a historical involvement with the region and expertise through the Northern Ireland peace process. The report suggests that the UK could use its influence to form a Contact Group under the UN, to manage peace negotiations with Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the EU and USA. A wider circle must include the Arab League, Gulf Co-operation Council, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, also China, India and Russia.

They should press all Iraqi factions to participate, and confirm that al Q'aida serves no Iraqi interest. The aim should be establishment of a regional organisation of Iraq and its neighbour states, legal commitments to non-interference, economic co-operation and confidence-building, and an international treaty recognising the territorial integrity of Iraq. Participants need to make clear that none, including the US, seek a permanent military presence in Iraq.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown could also seek appointment of a high level UN envoy to ensure Iraqis make rapid political progress on federal-regional relations, fair sharing of oil revenues, disarmament of militias, minority rights and human rights. The envoy would report to the Secretary General, in partnership with the Iraqi government, based on the existing democratic constitution of Iraq.

Will this restore stability to Iraq and the Middle East? As the economy improved in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, unemployment fell, and violence abated. James Wolfensohn (former president of the World Bank) told the Iraq Commission the long term answer to conflict is giving young people of Iraq hope and the opportunity to work.

The UN recognises that the security situation is not uniform across Iraq, and that some areas are much more accessible than others for humanitarian aid. The UK already could sponsor a trade mission to Kurdish provinces of Iraq, now pacified.

The UK should increase funding to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to address the humanitarian needs of 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, which such countries cannot support. We should also provide more funding to Unicef, who need $42 million to support vulnerable women and children in Iraq, Jordan and Syria, with education, health, water and sanitation. Further, Britain must accept a significant number of refugees from Iraq who face death threats for working for UK forces.

Once order is restored in Iraq, the economic benefits of peace can take root. Progress on national reconciliation, security, health and education systems of the poorest regions may depend on fair distribution of oil revenues - Iraq's primary national resource.

Government should take the commission and its report seriously. It could offer Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Gordon Brown, at least a starting place, for developing a much needed strategy for complete withdrawal from Iraq as Britain moves on from the Blair era.

David Roberts of Norwich United Nations Association (UNA) helped with valuable research for this column.

21 July 2007

We need nature and nature needs us

By Jacqui McCarney

These days, everything comes with a 'green' label - green housing, green holidays, green businesses, green transport, green electricity, green communities, green fashion, everything will soon have a green tag. Everything, except our minds; this very private, inner environment – the world of personal anxieties, sorrow and joy is separate and autonomous. Well not any more! Psychology too is going green. Ecopsychology is a new, rapidly growing field, including therapeutic practitioners, which dramatically opens up our concept of the mind and allows the world, and especially the natural world in.

The natural world is a vast subject, literally, bigger than the earth encompassing the whole universe, and despite human illusions of a separate man made world, everything, even our apparently artificial, technologically saturated urban areas have been built from the earth’s resources. Ecopsychology has the potential to be endlessly wide ranging, but at its core, is the idea that we humans have an inherent empathetic attachment to the natural world.

This love of nature is expressed most clearly by our landscape artists and nature poets. But more ordinarily, it is expressed by the countless rambling groups, and campers - perhaps more evocatively by the ordinary people, united in battles against developers to protect some of the last magical natural corners in their communities. From these small grassroots groups to those trying to protect worldwide tropical rainforests, the environmental movement has come to be the largest, most densely organised political cause in human history.

And now, Harvard zoologist, E O Wilson, has come up with a scientific explanation that lends weight to ecopsychologists and the environmentalists. He raised the possibility that humans possess a capacity called 'biophilia' defined as "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms". His hypothesis has generated considerable behavioural research and, if true, it will become an integral part of mental health and all healing therapies will need to include ecotherapy.

If biophilia is a fundamental human need, what are the effects on children, who within two generations are increasingly alienated from nature? Richard Louw spent ten years interviewing parents and children and pairs these anecdotes with a growing body of research that shows that children given early and ongoing positive exposure to nature thrive in intellectual, spiritual and physical ways that "shut in peers" do not. His book, Last Child in the Woods argues that children desperately need to play outdoors in woods and that our sterile rejection of nature is harming them physically and psychologically. He blames many of the new childhood maladies including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) on the drastic reduction of free imaginative play in nature and suggests that today's children suffer from 'nature deficit disorder' that is "increased feelings of stress, trouble paying attention, feelings of not being rooted in the world".

Louw believes that it is not just children who suffer from this disorder, but that families too can show symptoms, he says - "so can communities, so can whole cities. Really what I’m talking about is a disorder of society – and children are victimised by it".

Its looks very much like, we humans, need regular, ongoing contact with the natural world if we are to be healthy, happy and sane - but instead of nature therapy, we give ourselves 'retail therapy'. Al Gore says that we are addicted to the consumption of the earth itself.

In our 'throw–away' society we have yet to understand that there is no 'away' – plastics and chemicals end up in the human foetus, breast milk, and circulating in our bodies as well as in the bodies of polar bears and blackbirds. Our high consumption habit is destroying our habitat and the crisis of global warming might be our ultimate blow against nature.

The practising alcoholic holds up appearances at all costs and pretends that everything is normal. Similarly, our society's 'business as usual' stance enables the car industry to keep churning out polluting cars, television to run adverts for them and for us to continue to buy them.

While we know that our behaviour is potentially suicidal we seem unable to stop. Environmentalists attack our 'greed', but the ecopsychologist's diagnosis is a more complex one of addiction - looking at the underlying pathologies of addiction and how to heal them.

Ecopsychologist Mary-Jane Rust, originally from Alysham, says "acknowledging our addiction is the first step in healing. Ecopsychology is also the study of nature as healer – spending time in wild places as well as gardens and parks brings us back into balance again making us realise the important things in life".

14 July 2007

Bombs and the deaths of civilians

By Rupert Read

Keiko Ogura was eight when the US Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and dropped the uranium bomb that vaporised and incinerated 70,000 residents of the city. "I was curious. I wanted to see what the city looked like. I climbed up the hill, near our house, and I saw. I was astonished - all the city was flattened", she told the BBC in a survivor testimony. The death toll of innocents continues, with hundreds of thousands dying in the months and years after of their injuries, radiation poisoning and cancers.

Historians continue to disagree about whether the use of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was strategically and militarily a reasonable decision. There were strong critics even within the US military and government, challenging the use of the atom bomb on a civilian population. Meanwhile, Albert Einstein, the very scientist whose work made nuclear weapons first possible, made it clear that he felt the "…decision was political rather than military or scientific."

The United Nations, established in 1945, set out to provide an international framework for intervening in conflicts to prevent war and the subsequent massive (and often politically-motivated) human suffering of civilians. In its first meeting in January 1946 the UN General Assembly drew up a resolution to tackle the problems posed by the discovery of atomic energy. The resolution sought the elimination of all atomic weapons and indeed of all weapons able to cause mass destruction (of which nuclear weapons are by far the most potent). Subsequent conventions, such as the Convention on certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), have further protected civilians in international law.

When President Truman sent the atom-bombers to Hiroshima (rather than at the very least dropping the bomb on some uninhabited Japanese island instead) he discounted humanitarian concerns and, like many subsequent governments in the USA, acted out of pure narrow self-interest, showing off his military might to the Soviets, and in the process conducting a gruesome large-scale human experiment to see how nuclear weapons actually work. Resort to nuclear and other weapons that indiscriminately attack civilian populations (eg napalm, white phosphorus, landmines and cluster bombs) is a tragic indication of the failure of governments to seek out and strive for alternative ways to resolve disputes. In 1945 Japan was already licking its wounds and sending out diplomatic missives seeking surrender in return for the retention of its Emperor.

Cluster bomb victimLakenheath is a nuclear weapons base. It stores up to 110 nuclear B61 bombs at any one time. The base is being used as a storage centre and launching pad for the deployment of cluster bombs that have been used by 'us' in Iraq and by Israel in Lebanon. Cluster bombs are extremely dangerous for civilian populations (to see why, click here).

It is more than ever down to the public, you and me, to ensure that checks remain in place on governments of the day to not abuse their positions of power. As a result of an incident in October 2006, eight protesters (six of them East Anglians, including four from Norwich) have been charged with entering Lakenheath USAF base to secure evidence of war crimes.

In November 2006, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said: "I have repeatedly called upon States to comply fully with international humanitarian law [notably, the CCW]. Recent events show that the atrocious, inhumane effects of these [cluster] weapons - both at the time of their use and after conflict ends - must be addressed immediately, so that civilian populations can start rebuilding their lives."

One year on from the Israeli attack on Lebanon last summer, in which Israel dropped about two million cluster weapons, the International Committee for the Red Cross are still monitoring efforts to remove the huge numbers of these lethal bomblets so that Lebanese farmers can return to their land and tend their much-needed crops.

Nuclear bombs and cluster bombs. The two are linked by the civilian deaths they inevitably cause - it is the inability of these bombs to discriminate between combatants and civilians which makes them war-criminal.

They are also linked by their presence close to us, at Lakenheath. As Hiroshima Day approaches, here's a date for your diaries: August 4, 7pm, for an interfaith commemoration of Hiroshima Day at the Quaker meeting house in Norwich. Which, as it happens, is my place of worship, along with one of the Lakenheath 8, who is a dear friend of mine. All are welcome.

Thanks to Juliette Harkin for invaluable help preparing this column.

7 July 2007

The architecture of oppression

By Marguerite Finn

A fierce debate is raging about the role of architects and planners in the oppression of the Palestinian people. It was sparked off by the publication of a petition organised by the London-based organisation Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) – an independent, international pressure group of architects and design professionals. The Petition asserts that the actions of Israeli architects and planners working in conjunction with the Israeli Government's policy of building illegal settlements on Palestinian land are unethical and contravene professional codes of conduct and the principles of the International Union of Architects.

Published in The Times to coincide with the 40th anniversary, on 5 June this year, of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the petition has been signed by more than 260 architects and planners from around the world, among them some of Britain's most famous architects, a number of Israeli architects and human rights activists.

Architects and planners have produced some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings of both the ancient and modern world – the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, the Alhambra Palace, to name but a few – but there is a complex and enduring relationship between architecture and violence. The extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau are just one case in point.

Within the last decade, architecture is being used increasingly as an implement of oppression and humiliation. It is as if the talents of architecture and planning, once intended to nurture culture, are now being used to erase it. I remember the shock of hearing that the ancient city of Babylon (dating from 2000BC) and part of the 'cradle of our civilisation' had been chosen as the site for a US military base in April 2003, during the invasion of Iraq. Such destruction of architectural heritage is the (often deliberate) attempt at the destruction of memory, the very hallmark of identity. When buildings and villages are razed to the ground, so too is a part of the culture that produced them.

Destruction is not the only act using the physical environment to rewrite history. Planning and building can have the same effect – nowhere more clearly than in Israel today where the Separation Wall loops at will across Palestinian farmlands and villages. Originally intended only as a means of security, the wall has become a tool for annexation of Palestinian land. An abomination of concrete slabs up to 8m in height and 3m in width, the Wall is already over 220 miles long and planned to extend for 450 miles, creating 'facts on the ground' designed to prevent the realisation of a viable, self-sufficient Palestinian State.

These facts, according to the recently released Amnesty International Report Enduring occupation: Palestinians under siege in the West Bank reveal that more than three-quarters of the Wall is built on Palestinian land and when completed it will have created a 'land grab' amounting to 10 percent of the West Bank. The Israeli Government's manipulation of space in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem – through checkpoints, settlements, demolitions, annexations and reconstructions – appears to be a deliberate policy to erase all traces of the indigenous Palestinian culture.

So what can APJP do about this? They call on fellow architects and planners not to co-operate with the Israeli planning authority on three of their current projects:
  1. expansion of the illegal settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim;

  2. demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes in Silwan in East Jerusalem:

  3. a plan to build luxury homes on the remains of the 4000 year-old Palestinian village of Lifta – whose inhabitants, driven out in 1948, are forbidden to return. It is planned to construct 300, luxury homes, a hotel and shopping centre, turning the once prosperous Arab village into an expensive and exclusively Jewish resort.
Jack Pringle, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who signed the Petition in his own right (as did four previous RIBA presidents), commented: "One can not but protest at the destruction of a nation".

There is much to protest about: Israel's defiance of international humanitarian law, Geneva Conventions, the International Court of Justice and various UN resolutions condemning settlement expansion.

The situation in East Jerusalem deserves examination in a future column but I will leave you with an example of how ordinary people can make a difference: the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) and Irish trade union representatives have succeeded in forcing the Irish transport organisation, Veolia, to cancel a contract to train Israeli drivers for a light railway system in East Jerusalem. The railway, designed to link several Israeli settlements between East and West Jerusalem, is being built illegally on occupied Palestinian territory.

Who said protest is pointless?