27 December 2008

Right versus might

By Nicola Pratt

You cannot help but be curious about the amount of public interest surrounding Muntadhar al-Zaidi—the Iraqi journalist who will undoubtedly go down in the annals of history for throwing his shoes at George Bush during a press conference in Baghdad a couple of weeks ago. In response to the US president's claim that the war "is decisively on its way to being won", al-Zaidi took off each of his shoes, hurling them towards George Bush and shouting, "This is a goodbye kiss, you dog … and this one's for all the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq!". The journalist was immediately arrested and is awaiting trial, on charges of conducting an act of aggression against a foreign head of state, which could carry up to 15 years imprisonment.

The Iraqi government clearly did not want to condone the shoe hurling incident in any way. It has recently concluded a very controversial agreement with the US to extend the presence of US troops in Iraq beyond the UN mandate that expires at the end of this year. Yet whilst al-Zaidi faces criminal charges at the hands of the Iraqi authorities, he is being feted throughout the Middle East. In Iraq, the anti-occupation Sadrist movement has led demonstrations across the country in support of al-Zaidi. An Egyptian pop star, known for his satirical songs, is soon to release a tune with the lyrics, "Bush, you're over, no one wants you any more. May a thousand shoes see you out the door". In Jordan, hundreds of people held a sit-in last week at the Professional Associations Complex calling for al-Zaidi's release. In Libya, the daughter of Muammar Qaddafi has honoured al-Zaidi with a bravery award. A shoe manufacturer in Turkey is claiming to have made the famous shoes and, in an interview, the sales representative claimed that, "we have received orders totalling 370,000 pairs" since the shoe-throwing event, whereas the company only usually sells 15,000 pairs of that particular style in a year.

The consensus appears to be that the man is a hero. Since arriving in Jordan last week, I have heard more than one person tell me that Muntadhar al-Zaidi did what no other Arab government has dared to do—that is, to stand up to the US. The throwing of shoes is generally a huge insult in the Middle East. However, this particular shoe throwing was far more symbolic than one individual insulting another. This incident symbolized the opposition of ordinary people against the military might of the US and its allies. This is the opposition not only of the Iraqi people, who have directly borne the misery of US occupation, but also of the Palestinian people, who have suffered Israeli occupation—illegal according to international law but indirectly supported by the US—for more than 40 years, not to mention the humanitarian catastrophe that has befallen the residents of the Gaza Strip living under international siege since June 2007. These sentiments are shared by a great number (if not the majority) of the Arab world, who feel that the international system clearly operates in the favour of the US and its allies and against anyone who begs to differ.

The Western media likes to talk about the 'Arab street' — as though the Middle East consists of US-hating hordes, waiting for any excuse to swarm into the streets and burn some effigies of George Bush. Rarely are we asked to consider the patience and calm of the vast majority of Arab citizens who find their sovereignty and human rights often ignored in the name of a combination of US 'security interests' and Western oil needs, making the Middle East region possibly the most frequent global victim of foreign intervention. In the face of some pretty awful transgressions of international law by the US and its allies—including, illegal invasions and occupations, violations of the Geneva Convention, unimaginable numbers of civilian casualties, torture and 'extraordinary' rendition—the international community has proved itself to be toothless and, in some cases, complicit. Meanwhile, protests against these transgressions are either ignored by those responsible or they are criminalized, as demonstrated by the case of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, as well as many other cases, including East Anglia's own Lakenheath 8. It is a world turned upside down when certain governments can, in practice, act with impunity, whilst those who protest their injustices face prison sentences. Therefore, whilst I do not think that shoe throwing is a solution to the world’s injustices, I have to support the right of Muntadhar al-Zaidi to voice his protest against the leader of the world’s most powerful military might.

20 December 2008

Why bombs protesters felt compelled to act

By Liam Carroll

At the crack of dawn in October 2006, eight intrepid peace activists snipped their way through the fence at RAF Lakenheath, the Suffolk home to the United States Air Force 48th Fighter Wing, and made their way to an area where they believed they had seen stacks of cluster bombs. They chained themselves to the surrounding gate and then called the Ministry of Defence police to alert them to the presence of the bombs that the world has only recently clarified as illegal weapons of war.

More than two years later, seven members of the group appeared at Ipswich Crown Court charged with criminal damage and a breach of the serious organised crime and police act. The four-day trial, which was complicated and unprecedented according to the prosecution, led the judge to conclude that the group had correctly identified the presence of cluster munitions and had attempted sincerely to disrupt the deployment of the weapons.

The defendants were, none-the-less, found guilty of breaching the designated area and damaging the fence on the grounds that their action could not have prevented the continued operations of the military base. The defendants' case, therefore, that they were preventing war crimes was not dismissed on the grounds that war crimes were not committed but on the grounds that their action was insufficient to the task that they had set themselves.

The reason that only seven members of the group appeared in court is because Margaret Moss, who undertook the action in a neck brace and in considerable discomfort, had since died from cancer. Although Margaret was a tireless worker on behalf of the unions and was a founder-member of Norwich Campaign Against The Arms Trade, in this case she had decided to act more directly to try to save people's lives, knowing that her remaining time on this Earth was short.

At the same time as the trial, the heads of state from more than 100 countries, including the UK, gathered in Oslo to sign a worldwide ban on the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs. Campaigners have long maintained that the weapons breach the Geneva conventions because, as the Oslo treaty states:

    "Cluster munition remnants kill or maim civilians, including women and children, obstruct economic and social development, including through the loss of livelihood, impede post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction and have other severe consequences that can persist for many years after use."

The brave band of activists, who undertook the action at some considerable risk to themselves, had originally been alerted to the possible presence of the bombs during the dramatic events of the summer of 2006. This was at the time of a near transatlantic crisis over the shipping of weapons and "hazardous material" to Israel during that country's attempts to defeat the Lebanese militia known as Hezbollah and retrieve captive Israeli soldiers.

The strong support given to Israel by the US and its determination to speed up the transfer of weapons to their ally caused considerable consternation in this country when UK airfields were used as a transit and refuelling stop for the weapons shipments. At the time, Britain's foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, criticised the US for ignoring procedure, but further splits were revealed when the weapons shipments were allegedly diverted to RAF Mildenhall, in Suffolk, a base leased to the US.

Marguerite Finn and Peter Lanyon had been the first local activists to react to the news and were soon at the gate of RAF Mildenhall with their banners, and answering questions from the press. Mell Harrison, local co-ordinator for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, soon sprung into action also and quickly set up a peace camp right by the airfield to monitor the kinds of planes coming into the base. The EDP also ran a story on its front page in which Nick Heath reported that the Foreign Office believed it should have been notified about any transfer of weapons, whilst US officials declared that they were "not bound" to inform UK authorities about weapons landing in Britain.

As the peace camp drew local interest and many visitors dropped by, it transpired that cargo planes had also been seen landing at nearby Lakenheath. It was during a subsequent reconnaissance of the base, after the activists had spent some considerable time learning what different types of munition looked like, that suspicions were raised about cluster bombs being stored at Lakenheath. Mell explained that, "when we saw cluster bombs at Lakenheath at a time when we knew the planes were destined for Iraq, we knew we had to take action."

13 December 2008

Are NATO and the UN comfortable bedfellows?

By Marguerite Finn

A few days ago I received some information that I found disturbing. It was a copy of a document that has only just now appeared in the public domain. It is a Joint Declaration on Cooperation between the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation signed by the Secretary-Generals of the two bodies, in September this year.

The Declaration covers five sections aimed at showing how both organizations could work together for the greater common good.

This could be seen as a good thing: the coming together of two vast organizations to jointly tackle the world's problems. Both the UN and NATO have agreed that their cooperation will be guided by the UN Charter and by internationally recognised humanitarian principles and guidelines. They intend to focus on 'issues of common interest' including information-sharing on the protection of civilian populations, training and exercises, planning and support for contingencies, taking into account each organization’s specific mandate, expertise, procedures and capabilities. The intention is to improve international coordination in response to global challenges. Could this joint declaration strengthen the arm of the United Nations – so mercilessly criticised for its ineffectual responses in certain situations? Would this information-sharing and interactive diplomacy rein in the more provocative and aggressive expansionist policies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?

I don't think so. The fact is that NATO and the UN do not make comfortable bedfellows. NATO is a nuclear-armed alliance of 26 member states and stands for over 70 percent of the world's military expenditure. It was founded in 1949 ostensibly as a defensive organisation. In response, the 'Warsaw Pact' was founded by the Soviet Union and its allies. At the end of the Cold War, The Warsaw Pact was dissolved, but NATO was not. Rather than scaling back its global military presence, the US advanced to fill the positions vacated by its previous rival. This indicated that NATO considered itself no longer restricted to its own territory and therefore free to consider military intervention anywhere in the world. Nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than by the continuing US-driven eastward expansion of NATO, currently looking greedily at the Ukraine and Georgia. The US sees NATO as a solution for what the United Nations cannot offer them: a military alliance which restores world order on their terms, without having to take other countries with fundamentally different interests into account. NATO's nuclear policies also conflict with the legal obligations of the signatories to the UN-backed nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Articles 1 & 2 of the NPT forbid the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon states, but US/NATO nuclear weapons in Europe are located in non-nuclear weapons states. As stated by former UK Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, in 2005: "a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons would be incompatible with our and NATO's doctrine of deterrence". Yet to be prepared to sanction the first use of nuclear weapons inevitably condemns to oblivion a huge number of civilians the UN is pledged to protect from the scourge of war.

The United Nations is a global, non-partisan organization of 192 member states. The UN Charter's preamble states that war shall be abolished. More specifically, Article 1 states that peace shall be brought about by peaceful means. Why have other regional organisations that work with civilian means – like the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) - not been offered a similar cooperative status with NATO? It is to be feared that a UN Secretary-General who believes that the UN and NATO have the same goals will be unable to perform his role as defender of the UN Charter. To say the least, the UN/NATO Declaration should have raised a few eyebrows but Western mainstream media have hardly mentioned it. It ought to have been impossible for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to sign such a document with any military alliance, let alone to do so without the consent of all the member states of the United Nations. And what about the non-NATO members like Russia, China? Are they likely to be reassured by this new direction in the policy of the world body?

The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, who provided me with the information on the Declaration, believes that it is high time to stimulate a public debate on UN-NATO cooperation. I shall be writing to my MP about this and I think that other MPs need to be asked to address it too.

6 December 2008

The hawk in dove’s feathers lands in Britain

By Juliette Harkin

There has been much talk by our leaders of British values in recent times and there are many traditions in this country of which we should be rightfully proud. From Vietnam, to the anti-Apartheid movement and the opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain has been home to some of the strongest movements for peace and justice in the world. But only a fortnight ago, those of us who believe in these values would have been left confused if not outraged to witness our most prominent institutions falling over themselves to honour a man who has come to represent the worst injustices in the Middle East.

While the besieged families of Gaza were being bombed and starved, the British establishment was showering the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, with honours usually only reserved for statesmen who have made genuine contributions to peace and justice in our world. Last month, Peres was welcomed to Britain on an official visit during which he spoke to both Houses of Parliament, began a lecture series in his name at Oxford University and was even given the rare privilege of being knighted by the Queen, all the more unique for a non-Commonwealth citizen.

Such treatment would have rightly been lauded by the British public if granted to a fellow Noble Peace Prize winner such as Desmond Tutu, who devoted his life to the cause of ending apartheid. But while Tutu was confronting injustice in South Africa, Peres as Israeli Defence Minister was responsible for breaking the embargo and making Israel a major arms supplier of the apartheid regime. For the millions of us in Britain who supported the South African anti-apartheid movement we would be justified in feeling that this tradition of solidarity with the oppressed was betrayed when the red carpet was rolled out for Peres.

Many South Africans themselves felt the same, with politicians, academics and ordinary workers expressing their opposition to the honouring of the Israeli President. In a letter to Oxford University protesting Peres' invitation, the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, representing 1.7 million workers wrote that "as South Africans whose oppression was fuelled by the Israeli state, and certainly Peres himself, we stand in solidarity with Palestinians who, for more that 60 years have lived under Israeli Apartheid".

Leading academics from South Africa described the invitation as "an acceptance of the disregard of the United Nations (which Israel has consistently ignored and defied), an acceptance of the disregard for the International Court of Justice (which ruled that the 700km long wall that Israel continues to build is illegal), and an act of complicity in the dispossession of the largest refugee population of the 20th century."

While the Israeli President has been very eloquent in talking about peace the reality of his record turns the very meaning of the word on its head. In 1948 it was Peres was responsible for purchasing weapons for the Haganah militia which drove out Palestinians from their homes. It was Peres after all who brought nuclear arms to the Middle East as the architect of Israel's nuclear programme. And it was Peres who as Prime Minister in 1996 was responsible for the massacre in Qana when Israel intentionally bombed a known UN site killing over one hundred civilians.

Today Israel practices what the former UN Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights, John Dugard described as "forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law". Many brave Palestinians and Israelis have stood side by side in the struggle against these unjust policies. Any number deserves praise and celebration but their daily courageous struggle was simply ignored by the government in favour of the man that represents all the oppression they are standing against.

Last month it was left to ordinary men and women in Britain to stand up for the values of peace and fairness, and the best of this country's traditions. In London and Oxford, people wrote letters, gathered in the streets and protested the rewarding of an apartheid regime that was being carried out in our name. Today our admiration should be with the families of Gaza, who for months have been subjected to a brutal blockade which has cut off their access to the most basic of human necessities. Desmond Tutu has described the Israeli siege as an ‘abomination’ but our leaders have chosen to bestow upon the man responsible some of the highest honours this country has to offer.

I am grateful to Omar Shweiki for his work on this column.

29 November 2008

Think of the children

By Rupert Read

It is less than a month now to Christmas. Metaphorically-speaking, that's the time of year when we hope that a child of hope will be born into this world, and the days will start to become lighter again, and the future brighter...

My biggest memory of 2008 will be this: that, back when the days were still long, in July of this year, in Norwich Quaker Meeting House, I got married.

It was of course lovely to see lots of my family and friends there: old people, young people, babes in arms. It was especially good to see those who will still be here after I am gone.

Everyone wants their kids to be OK. And their kids. And their kids too… Think about this. You never want this to stop. Would it be OK if after you were gone your great-great-grandchildren all lived short miserable lives and died excruciating or terrifying deaths? Of course it wouldn't.

And so now I have to mention, what we don't tend to like to think about… The way we as a species live right now, the size of our ecological and carbon footprint, stamping down on the Earth… We are living off the future. Off our childrens' inheritances.

When corporations rape and pillage the Earth's natural treasures; when we as a species play Russian Roulette with our very atmosphere; when our governments leave nuclear waste for our children's children to have to deal with (under conditions that may be far trickier than our's)… then collectively we aren't showing care for our own descendants. We aren't showing enough care for our own.

The dash for (highly-polluting) coal; the resistance to meaningful restrictions now on greenhouse-gas emissions; the mining of fish, hoovering them up until there are none left; the extinction of one or more species every single day… We aren't showing enough care for our own…

Now, it's easy enough to fool oneself. To go into denial. To pretend that our impacts aren't really harming anyone (much…). To think that one is behaving entirely decently – when one isn't.

Because you can't see their faces. You can’t see the faces of the kids-yet-to-come. If you could, then you would surely do more, now, to save them. To help them. To love them.

We can't see their faces: So we need to think of these children.

George Orwell, in 1984, wrote of the future of the human race as likely to be: a boot stamping on a face, endlessly. Sometimes, I worry that that is in effect what our children may have to suffer. For we are in denial about what we as a civilisation are doing to our children and our children's children. We don't want to believe that we are hurting them – so we stop ourselves from even thinking deeply of them – and we instead get angry with those who keep what we think we deserve / need / must have from being our's.

Now, what kind of behaviour is that? Childish behaviour. How ironic that we act childishly, demanding the right to go on having more stuff now, when it is that attitude that is – right now – harming the children of the future…

At this time in human history, we need to grow up as a species. We need maturity. If we are to take care of those who are utterly powerless, those who are in our hands. Our children’s children, and their children… Let's take care of our own.

When I saw the children scattered around the Meeting House on the day of my wedding, I was happy. But that isn't enough. They need to be happy, too. They and all their children. They need to be able to live, and not be in terror for themselves or their children, in terror of a human-induced collapse in the fabric of civilisation, the kind of collapse that isolated places such as Easter Island suffered in the past, and that the whole Earth might suffer in the future, if we don’t start taking care of this one world of our’s, our one and only planetary home…

We can make a better quality of life - a safe and secure world, a liveable planet for our children’s children, a secure and fulfilling society. We can also make it impossible…

We can really think about them; or we can be the kind of people who just didn't think enough.

Now think: which of these things would Jesus do?

Or again: which of those things would you like the children to think, of you?

22 November 2008

Peace: on our roads, too

By Rupert Read

Last Sunday, I was privileged to attend a large ecumenical memorial service at Norwich Cathedral, to honour the too-many precious men, women and children killed in road crashes. This event was part of the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims creates a link between victims of road crashes, who deserve to be alive today to fulfil their hopes and dreams instead of having been killed, prematurely and violently. Witnessing the tears during the service, and speaking with people afterwards, I got a strong sense of how the lives also of those closest to road traffic victims have been traumatically affected by their loss. One of the vital purposes of an organisation like RoadPeace is to bring together those close to those who have been killed on the roads. Because losing a loved one on the roads can bring a terrible sense of isolation. There just isn't the same kind of network of support that exists for, for instance, widows of members of the armed forces.

As part of the act of remembrance on Sunday, at one point in the service there was an opportunity to write the names of those killed in crashes on an Oak Leaf card, which was placed at the foot of the Easter Resurrection Candle. I went up and placed a card, as did all too many others in the cathedral. I was remembering several people killed or seriously injured in car-crashes, but especially my great-uncle Harold, a lovely funny old fellow, who was cruelly ripped from us and from his wife, my great-aunt Margaret, at a point when they were hugely enjoying their retirement together. He was knocked down by a van-driver while out walking to the corner shop one evening near to his home.

I feel passionately about those needlessly killed in the annual car-nage on our roads. And so I am in direct sympathy with the central suggestions that RoadPeace make: To remember and to reflect on the scale of the disaster and the ongoing suffering of victims' families.

It is vital to remember that this disaster is man-made and needs us to correct it. And we need also to raise awareness of the urgent need for improved post-care and support for the bereaved, who seem largely forgotten by the justice system and modern society. We need to commit to a culture of road safety, respect, accountability and responsibility towards every road user - and the importance of a more serious response to law-breaking on our roads. Cars are potentially deadly weapons: as with knives, their abuse should not be tolerated at all.

Should we consider for instance, as they are introducing in Spain, a strongly-enforced 50mph limit for some or all major roads where the limit is at present 60 mph? Including of course country roads where there is a 60 mph limit at present, unbelievably: as these roads present the most hazards and where walkers, cyclists and motorcyclists, the most vulnerable road users, have to face the death penalty on the roads with speed limits that are un-survivable in a collision - and which are routinely broken with widespread tolerance of speeding. So we should avoid always using terms like 'accident' or 'tragedy', which suggest something God-given or unavoidable. Too many car crashes - and their aftermaths - are the result of thoughtlessness or selfishness or sometimes even worse, on the part of both individual motorists or of the authorities.

Department of Transport statistics for 2006 show that a child is injured or killed on UK roads every 16 minutes. And that road crashes are the biggest killer of 15 to 25 year olds. Since the first ever car victim was killed in 1896, over 30 million individuals have been killed on the world's roads and countless millions more have been maimed.

World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims was initiated by RoadPeace in 1993. In November, we remember of course most famously those killed in wars. But it's important to remember those killed in 'peacetime' too. Because over the last half-century, a quarter of a million people have been killed in road crashes in Britain alone. Let's work to bring about a society less dependent upon road travel, and to bring about slower travel on those roads, so that we can bring true peace to our land. For those of us who have been badly affected by car-nage on our roads know that there will be no true peace until there is road-peace.

15 November 2008

How will the Obama presidency deal with Iran?

By Liam Carroll

The Washington foreign policy community is awash with speculation as to how president elect Barak Obama is going to, in his own words, "stop Iran's uranium enrichment programme and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons". In contrast to president Bush who initially insisted that Iran renounce its nuclear program before talks could start, Barak Obama has said that "we should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran."

Simply talking to Iran is hardly the issue though; while the Bush administration's opening diplomatic salvo may have been to put Iran on the Axis of Evil back in 2002, by 2008 the US had decided to sign up to a package of incentives that had been proposed by the Europeans and even sent a senior American envoy along to listen to the subsequent negotiations. The talks were unproductive and many have drawn the conclusion, therefore, that neither on-going anti-Iranian sanctions nor a set of incentives are likely to deter Iran from acquiring a nuclear warhead capability, sometime between late 2009 and 2015.

In this context Barak Obama, like the Bush administration, has stridently declared that "it is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy", and that "we must not rule out using military force" or indeed "the whole range of instruments of American power." If the nay-sayers of the diplomatic track are correct therefore, one cannot escape the conclusion that the great new liberal hope for the world will soon be contemplating a war with Iran; quite possibly within his first year.

There are however extremely good reasons why America has avoided the war option so far, and will continue to do so, with the prohibition on aggression even being extended, according to newspaper reports, to its middle east ally, Israel. Bloggers from Harvard's Middle East Strategy website explain: "an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program has the potential to erase many if not all of the hard-won gains in Iraq and to make the environment there and elsewhere in the region much more dangerous for US servicemen." Not just US servicemen either, British forces, Iraqi citizens and Iranians would all be caught up in any escalating conflict.

Furthermore, "this would not be a one-afternoon cakewalk as against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. This would have to be a massive and sustained air campaign the Israeli air force could not prosecute (though it is larger than the German or French air forces). And it would have to be flanked by a serious naval engagement, which only the United States can mount." Thus if the United States were to be "in on the crash", they would also "want to be in on the take-off," writes Josef Joffe.

Options for the new president appear to be somewhat limited therefore, although a few analysts, including those on the Harvard blog, have proffered some suggestions: "for the United States to successfully engage Iran, Washington will need leverage. That means consolidating its gains in Iraq while downgrading its military presence and getting the Europeans and Russia on board in imposing further sanctions on Iran."

Experienced US ambassador Dennis Ross echoes the sentiment elsewhere: "To gain the victory, Russia must join real economic sanctions against Iran and its energy sector." No small task of course, given the recent bitter exchanges over Georgia, however, as Ross and others observe, "while the Bush Administration has made developing and deploying US missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic a top priority, the next president could use these potential outposts as a bargaining chip with the Russians. After all, the Bush administration's main argument justifying the deployment of these ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe is the threat posed by Iranian missiles armed with nuclear weapons."

Chuck Freilich, another Harvard blogger, also thinks that the US could engage Russia "as a legitimate partner and address its concerns and interests, rather than trying to force it to swallow totally outdated and gratuitous acts - such as NATO expansion right on its borders and an anti-missile system that might be rendered unnecessary to begin with, were the United States to bring Russia on board the anti-Iran campaign." Additional voices for a new Russia policy include Europe's 27 foreign ministers who wrote to the president elect to express their view that the EU needs Russia as a partner. Such ruminations remain speculative for the time being, of course, but if we are going to see change, it may not be toward Iran.

8 November 2008

Positive actions in a sea of words

By Marguerite Finn

On 14 January, the Eastern Daily Press reported a talk given in Norwich, by two Congolese women, about the sexual abuse suffered by women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a result of the continuing wars in that country.

The women's testimony was heartbreaking but it had to be heard and what better year to listen to voices from Africa than 2008: the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. It is easy to forget how lucky we are in this country. On 10th December - the exact anniversary - the Right Worshipful the Lord Mayor of Norwich, Councillor Jeremy Hooke, will sign a bound copy of the Declaration of Human Rights on behalf of the citizens of Norwich, in the presence of 60 invited guests. While celebrating this life-affirming occasion, we may ponder on the fact that being a woman today in the DRC often means having your human rights violated on a daily basis.

There have been some positive initiatives nationally and internationally since that talk in January. For one thing, the United Nations Security Council - of which the UK is a permanent member – unusually got its act together in June and unanimously adopted Resolution 1820, demanding an "immediate and complete halt to acts of sexual violence against civilians in conflict zones". This is a breakthrough after years of refusing to acknowledge that rape and sexual abuse have become weapons of war. UN Special rapporteurs have been instructed to list all reported incidences of rape and sexual violence. The real test will be how universally – and quickly - UN Resolution 1820 will be applied and what measures will be taken against states that fail to adhere to it.

Film buffs will be interested to learn that as well as appearing in the film Burn After Reading, recently shown in Norwich, George Clooney is also a United Nations Messenger for Peace and he has called on the international community to step up its efforts to resolve the worsening conflict in the DRC: "The recent events in the Democratic Republic of Congo are deeply concerning, as is the international community's failure to engage in sustained, robust diplomacy to address the deadly and deteriorating conflict. In the absence of sustained attempts at peacemaking, United Nations peacekeepers have, once again, been thrust into the lead." He added that the DRC "is the site of the deadliest war since the Holocaust. It is time for the world to pay attention."

He is right. The world needs to grasp the true scale of this crisis and not be cajoled into thinking that it is just a local spat between groups of armed militias, which the force of 17,000 UN Peace Keepers currently in the DRC should be well able to sort out. The DRC is as big as Europe. The UN force is scattered throughout the country. Only 5,000 UN peacekeepers are deployed in North Kivu where the fighting is taking place. When the soldiers of the Congolese army fled in disarray at the approach of the rebels, the UN force of just 1,700 stationed in the capital, Goma, was stretched to its limit attempting to protect the million-strong civilian population. So far, the UN's request for reinforcements has fallen on deaf ears. The Security Council will discuss it next month – but women and children are dying today. The European Union may cobble something together… sometime. Meanwhile up to 100,000 people – 60 percent of whom are children – have fled their homes in the past week. The UN World Food Programme is struggling to get together enough food to feed 135,000 in six camps dotted around Goma. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is trying to locate thousands of displaced people who fled from three camps that were destroyed. Imagine the chaos, the fear, the hunger, the despair – in one of the most minerally-rich countries in the world; a country where women and children have suffered disproportionately from illegal mining and resource-wars lasting decades. Their human rights have been sacrificed on the altars of unregulated multinational greed and the unceasing desire for gold, copper and coltan underpinning our lifestyle.

Today, in London, African women will speak at a seminar entitled Voices of African Women. They will tell their listeners that there will be no peace in the DRC – or elsewhere – without economic justice and that neither can be achieved without women’s participation and empowerment. African women at grassroots level must be heard because only they have the intimate knowledge of their lives and needs – and because they hold the key to the daily survival of families and communities.

1 November 2008

A New Deal for the world's troubled economy?

By Juliette Harkin

The news this past week has made me pretty angry. As the Bank of England publishes its gloomy bi-annual financial stability report, our prime minister pleads with China and oil-rich countries to help the International Monetary Fund prop up the countries worst hit by the economic downturn. Presumably the IMF will then take these new funds and serve up its medicine in the form of demands for suffering countries to introduce the very economic policies that are failing us today.

I won't delay you with the back story as I think it is safe to say we are all feeling the credit crunch in our lives, as pension funds are slashed and food and energy prices rise. The BBC reported that global taxpayers like me and you have been presented with a £5 trillion bill to help bail out the world's banks as panic sets in and once rich pickings for credit dry up. According to the BBC's business editor £600 billion of tax money has so far gone towards helping British banks. These sums become meaningful when you put them against, say, the NHS budget for 2007 which was around £90 billion.

Bank of England governor Mervyn King is, not surprisingly calling for "a little more boredom" in the banking sector and a major rethink about how we manage financial risk. He is a day late and a dollar short though, the damage has been done. We need a radical alternative. We are now seeing the repercussions in the oil-rich markets that Gordon Brown is seeking help from. At the beginning of last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the Kuwaiti Central Bank had to put together a deal to bail out one of Kuwait's largest banks. Gulf financial markets in Saudi, Qatar, Kuwait and Dubai have also have suffered a drop in share values and the Emirates is seeing signs of a down turn in the real estate market in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Huge injections from oil revenues have helped the Gulf countries to weather the storm now and to continue with major investments projects, such as the UAE-Saudi highway. But, economic diversification to meet the challenge of peak oil has meant tying themselves more into the international markets that are now suffering from the credit crunch.

As BP announces record profits for the last quarter of this year it doesn't seem too worried by the global crisis upon us, with its chief executive announcing that he thinks the "current turmoil may in fact create opportunities for us". This attitude is all part of the wider problem of 'business as usual' despite the very real and painful impacts that our economic system can have on ordinary people. It really is not enough if we see a recovery in the stock markets as was recently reported. What about the damage that has been done as we mortgage finite resources up to the hilt to fuel lifestyles that are unsustainable? We need to have an alternative that is sustainable and pro-poor. Al-Jazeera English just reported the latest UN figures about the levels of poverty and inequality around the globe, including some of America's poorest neighbourhoods.

The New Economics Foundation appears to be one of the few think tanks that are coming up with urgently needed new thinking. One of their goals is "to expose the problems with the international finance and economic systems and create appropriate remedies". One of the remedies it has already set out seeks to meet the current global crisis we are facing:

    "The global economy is facing a 'triple crunch': a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil".
The launch of proposals for a Green New Deal was drawn up by a group of financial, energy and environmental voices including the Guardian's economics editor Larry Elliott. Presented to the government in July 2008, it set out ideas about how the government can tackle the biggest threats facing us today – climate chaos, financial meltdown and peak oil. An emphasis is placed on reigning in the financial markets and making massive investments in renewable energy. Some of their ideas, they suggest, could easily be funded by windfall taxes on energy, such as the likes of BP who must surely now come under pressure to rise to the challenge of real corporate social responsibility.

25 October 2008

The Good Old Days

By Nicola Pratt

The majority of this year's intake of university first-year undergraduates was born in the same year that I started my own university degree. It certainly makes me feel old(er). When I was at university, there were no mobile phones, no internet and no email. I kept in touch with friends and relatives in other cities and countries by snail mail, whilst my day-to-day social life was carefully organized in advance using the pay phone on my corridor or by leaving hand-written messages in people’s university pigeon holes. Once, after graduation, I went to live in Egypt, it was at least a year before I got an email account and, during that time, I continued to write and receive letters by post. My mum still only handwrites letters. Having lived the majority of her life happily without computers or mobile phones, she is not in the slightest bit interested in them now.

Most of my students cannot begin to imagine a life without all the gadgets and applications that make it so easy to keep in touch with friends and relatives—wherever they may be. Perhaps, if email, texting and Facebook had been around when I was at university, I would not have fallen out of touch with some of the people who I remember fondly but who weren't so good at putting pen to paper. I'm happy that some of the people with whom I lost touch have found me again on Facebook. However, increasingly I have begun to admire my mum's steadfast position against new technology and I, like many other workers, often even resent the constant communication barrage.

What should be a positive development in life—that is, the ability to keep in touch more easily - has turned into one of life's necessary evils. New technology creates new expectations on the part of work colleagues and managers that often become new pressures. Supposedly, new technology enables us to do everything faster and, therefore, to do more of it. It also, supposedly, allows us to do it more flexibly. However, research demonstrates that new technology can contribute to work intensification, longer working hours and the erosion of a home life separate from work life. British workers, on average, work more than 40 hours per week and have the longest working hours in Europe. This is despite the fact that it is well over a century since the British labour movement campaigned to limit the working week to forty hours. It appears that new communication technology is creating more work rather than facilitating the work that we were already doing. This is good news for company bosses but not for those workers who spend their days checking and sending emails from work computers and/or Blackberrys. After our intense work days, sometimes made even longer by commuting, we may resort to using technology such as texting or 'Facebooking' friends and families because we simply don't have the energy for a full-blown conversation.

Perhaps we are willing to put up with the extra hours because of the financial and material benefits or even for the love of it? The first few decades following World War II witnessed a radical improvement of living conditions for the majority of the population. However, now we see that the gap between rich and poor is widening, social mobility is declining, job security is declining and British children are among the unhappiest and unhealthiest in the world.

The looming world recession brings into question all that we've worked for and all that we've sacrificed in terms of quality of life and relationships. I look at my mum's life and it is not obvious that my generation is better off. Certainly, in comparison to my mum, I have benefitted from increased access to education and increased opportunities for women in the workplace. However, the ideology of 'technology-driven efficiency' and the associated 'flexibility' and 'intensification' of work is not the cause. Rather, I can thank the labour and women's movements for campaigning throughout the twentieth century for the rights of ordinary men and women. The increasing marginalisation of those movements today (for a variety of reasons that we could debate) is helping to turn us into slaves of new technology, rather than empowering us to use it to enhance the quality of our lives. My mum's hostility to email and mobile phones cannot merely be labelled as an older person's inability to adapt to change. Rather, in a context where ideological alternatives to "technologically-driven hyper-efficiency" are difficult to come by in the mainstream media, her resistance to technology is maybe her individual resistance to the current state of British society.

18 October 2008

Confronting our thirst for oil

By Liam Carroll

"Soaring oil prices and loss of wealth in 2008 to the tune of $1.2-$1.9 billion each and every working day, depending on the price of crude, not only helped pop the US mortgage bubble but have also helped create the economic conditions that brought the US economy to its current dire straits", explains Gal Luft an energy analyst on a web-based discussion forum called Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH). The "dire straits" refer to the current financial crisis, but the general topic of discussion at MESH, which "brings together some of the most original strategic thinkers in academe, research centers, and government", is US strategy in the Middle East, of which the role of oil is a significant topic.

Indeed, elsewhere on the MESH website, further interesting comment on the role of oil can be found under the topic heading America's Interests (a Presidential briefing). Martin Kramer, a well known analyst has this to say; "The Middle East is home to 60 per cent of the world's remaining oil; the United States has less than 2 per cent. Transferring energy from there to here - and elsewhere to people who depend on us - is our primary interest in the Middle East."

To narrow the focus yet further, and to shed light on what Washington's highest priorities are, Mr Kramer adds with some humour "And within the Middle East, Mr President, the epicenter of our interest is the Persian Gulf. The name 'Persian Gulf' is a very old one, you'll find it on every map. But it might as well be called Lake Michigan, so integral is it to the lubrication of American life. This means that the US must secure the Gulf, and can't allow any part of it to be dominated by any other power, global or regional."

After a very concise review of US involvement in the region, Mr Kramer explains that "by 2003 our grip on the Gulf was loosening", and thus when the US "finally invaded Iraq, we were in search of a foothold". The President is then advised "not to fritter away our advantage in Iraq", as, "there aren't many alternative platforms." Other MESH analysts also advise the President that the US must "maintain strong economic and political involvement to help ensure that Iraq is a moderate, pro-American force in the region", or even that "America's main investment and hope (in the Middle East) is Iraq".

Walter Laqueur, another contributor to the Presidential briefings (The first 100 days), has additional advice on the oil topic: "One issue which ought to have top priority is reducing the dependence on imported oil and finding new sources of energy. This is the Achilles' heel not only of the United States but of Europe and the developing countries." The solutions he proffers are "technological breakthroughs" for which "it will always be difficult to find the huge sums needed", but is resigned to the fact that "this is the only way to remedy a fatal weakness."

Gal Luft however, is not so optimistic, and is prepared to deliver a harder bottom line (to the President): "The reality is that neither efforts to expand petroleum supply nor those to crimp petroleum demand will be enough to materially address America's strategic vulnerability." The problem being "oil's monopoly in the global transportation sector" and "the stranglehold of OPEC over the consuming nations' economies."

Should we blame OPEC then for our economic woes then? "The problem with laying the blame for our economic calamity on OPEC is that it hides the plain truth that this crisis is about our greed, not theirs", Gal Luft concludes.

Clearly then, oil supply remains of huge importance, specifically Iraq's which is, according to Dr Salameh, director of the Oil Market Consultancy Service, "the only one of the world's biggest producing countries with enough reserves to substantially increase its flow. Production in eight of the others has peaked, while China and Saudia Arabia, the remaining two, are nearing the point of decline."

These conclusions, from credible establishment sources, tend to suggest that, sure, the Iraq invasion wasn't all about oil, but one can't avoid the obvious, it certainly wasn't all about WMD and terrorism. Should we therefore lay the blame on the Bush administration for not being up front and frank about America's real needs? The Council on Foreign Relations, an establishment think tank, in a report called Strategic Energy Policy Challenges, certainly seems to think so, "virtually every American recession since the late 1940s has been preceded by spikes in oil prices. The American people need to know about this situation and be told as well that there are no easy or quick solutions to today’s energy problems."

11 October 2008

Measuring values

By Marguerite Finn

Don't it always seem to go / that you don't know what you've got till its gone / They've paved Paradise / put up a parking lot!

So sang Joni Mitchell in the 1960s and her words are as relevant in 2008 as they were forty years ago – perhaps even more so in a world where paving over the countryside is seen as a sign of the progress essential to endless 'economic growth' and where unsought business parks are supplementing the parking lots.

On our allotment at Great Plumstead the noise of the traffic on the A47 seems to me like an endless succession of aggressive roars. To a county councillor, arguing about the planned Norwich Northern Distributor Road (NDR), much closer than the A47, it's a continuous loud rumble. To my partner, wearing a hearing aid, it is an uncomfortable and constant sibilant hiss. To avoid it, he usually takes off his hearing aid whilst working on the allotment. But then he can't hear the blackbird in the willow tree nearby.

The NDR's arrival would spell the end of any rural peace to the north east of Norwich, as the proposed 'ecotown' at Rackheath already prefigures. Rural villages would become anonymous, indistinguishable suburbs; blackbirds, if they survived, would perch on streetlights, confused by the intemperate light.

In their environmental assessments for the NDR, the planners measure road noise in decibels, and contrarily calculate that these will somehow decrease as the number of vehicles using the NDR inevitably increases! But it is impossible to reduce hearing pollution to a measurement of decibels because we all hear things differently and are not affected by them in the same way. To me, the loss of the blackbird's song isn't just a matter of decibels, nor even of political indignation. Feelings defy technical measurement, but possibly the abuse of our ears could be estimated in sighs and tears, and rural peace in the gurgles of a stream.

In today's frenetic and insecure world, humans appear to have suffered an irrevocable break from nature. Nature is just something to be measured, mapped, modelled, commodified, conserved, used. It is not felt, celebrated, enjoyed, honoured or given gifts. Nature has been neoliberalised and transformed into a spectacle.

The indigenous people of the Americas, invaded by European adventurers centuries ago, had no concept of land ownership. They and the land belonged to each other, and the one was bereft without the other. So it was with them and the sea, the animals, plants and the air; all sustained each other immeasurably. The money invaders offered them for the land was a meaningless unit, incomprehensible to the indigenes. They might as well have been offered decibels for it. So, of course, they were cheated right, left and centre. Now some of us are just beginning to realise what we might lose if those indigenous peoples disappeared, because we could not put a value on their priceless diversity.

You may not have known of it, because it was largely ignored by the mainstream press in the UK and USA, but on 13 September 2007, after twenty five years of negotiation, and despite very strong opposition from some of the most powerful countries in the world, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples.
    "Recognising the inherent rights and characteristics of indigenous peoples, especially rights to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies…"
Quite a change from the convenient concept of Terra Nullius - developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. This meant 'empty land' and it denied indigenous peoples even the status of humans, falsely entitling European settlers, states and later corporations to claim the land was theirs to use as they liked.

Now that some of the false idols of that western attitude to land, property, wealth and welfare are in disarray and meltdown - land disappearing into the sea, houses prices falling, savings disappearing into black holes, good Samaritans being kicked to death, pensioners dying of cold while footballers are exchanged for millions of pounds – have we perhaps a chance to discover other values?

From whence might come different ways to conduct ourselves that were sustainable instead of self-defeating, life affirming rather than living at someone else’s expense? If the rights of indigenous peoples are observed, we may find good examples of ways and values to help us renew our Western culture. To rediscover our spiritual inheritance, we must reconnect with nature.

Thanks to Peter Lanyon, Resurgence Magazine and the right-hand side of my brain for their input to this column.

4 October 2008

McCartney's pipes of peace cannot be heard in Palestine

By Juliette Harkin

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has said that he had not been willing to face reality during his political career and admitted that it would be necessary for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights in order to secure peace. Whilst Olmert was reflecting and stating the patently obvious to Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Sir Paul McCartney had just performed live in Tel Aviv for thousands of Israelis. Despite pleas from Palestinians to boycott Israel because of its poor human rights record, he was determined to go ahead with the concert. He told Rolling Stone that "music can help people calm down". It seems McCartney too needs to do a reality check.

His ignorance of the situation is clear in his delusion that if only he could sing everyone would stop being angry and make up. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is not a lovers spat or even a conflict between equal civilians in one country but a deeply and dangerously illegal occupation of a native people and a damaging land grab by foreign settlers. At a time when respected international aid agencies are saying that the Middle East quartet is failing to improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinians, it is offensive for McCartney to reduce the hardships of occupation to an inability to be calm. To add insult to injury, Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank cannot get through the hundreds of checkpoints and the concrete wall to hear him sing anyway.

Whilst in Israel and Palestine, McCartney told the Jerusalem Post that he was apolitical and brought a message of world peace. But he doesn't seem to realise that he cannot be apolitical if, as a world famous musician, he chooses to visit a country that is condemned as an apartheid regime.

McCartney can think what he likes but the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, is very clear about how he sees the visit. As reported in the Guardian, Prosor celebrated it as a "diplomatic success of great importance" in conversation with the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv he said:

"When one of the most admired musicians in the world not only expresses his willingness to visit Tel Aviv, but also publicly talks about the positive things he's heard about Israel, this is an Israeli diplomatic and PR success of the first order."

If McCartney wanted to remain neutral he could have deferred to international norms and law. In doing so he would have found that his Israeli friends have an abysmal record of ignoring basic international law regarding occupied peoples and an appalling record of human rights abuses that continued as McCartney was playing his pipes of peace in Tel Aviv.

His brief visit to a Bethlehem music school and the Church of the Nativity, presumably under Israeli military auspices, was a hopelessly inadequate response to Palestinians. Israel proved adept in using his visit to normalise itself in the eyes of the international community, thus undermining efforts by Palestinians and human rights groups to show Israel for what it really is: a militaristic state that has occupied the land of Palestinians since 1948.

There comes a point when a country's actions become unacceptable and where it loses any rights to be treated as a democratic state in the international system. Israel reached that point long ago. It's just that woolly liberals like McCartney have a hard time condemning a state that became home to Holocaust survivors and refugees after the war. We have to look at what is happening today. Even Olmert is willing to concede that to some extent Israel has lost its way and that the rights of the Palestinians have never been acknowledged.

Maybe, McCartney showed his true colours when speaking to Yediot Aharonot during which AFP reports he said "I was approached by different groups and political bodies who asked me not to come. I do what I think, and I have many friends who support Israel." If he supports the excesses of the military state of Israel that is his prerogative but don’t dress it up in the language of friendship and peace.

Ironically, McCartney's website highlights how he is a Patron and Goodwill Ambassador of the Adopt-A-Minefield campaign. His favoured state of Israel littered southern Lebanon with thousands of landmines and children and farmers are still paying the price.

So why did McCartney go to Israel if he is a peace loving liberal? Given the high price of the tickets for the region this must be working out as a nice little earner. But more likely, and sadly, McCartney is blinkered by the notion that music can solve a bitterly uneven conflict between the Israeli occupier and the occupied people of Palestine. John Lennon must have been turning in his grave as Paul belted out the old Beatles tunes in Tel Aviv.

27 September 2008

Sex and society

By Nicola Pratt

Chatting with Jordanian friends the other week, we were all stunned to hear about a 22 year-old American woman who planned to publicly auction her virginity. We were surprised not so much because the woman was still a virgin at 22 (although, according to surveys, this puts her in the minority of women in her age group in the US). Rather, we were shocked because she was willing to sell her virginity to the highest bidder and told a TV interviewer that she found this 'empowering'. A few days later, after having just returned to Norwich, I turned on the TV to find an advertisement for a programme called The Virgin Daughters — a documentary about American parents who are actively encouraging their daughters, one as young as six years old, to practise celibacy until marriage. According to one father interviewed, sex before marriage exposes young women to all sorts of dangers that can ruin the rest of their lives, including 'getting cervical cancer, divorce, VD'.

Coming across controversies about women's sexual behaviour twice in as many weeks reminded me that it is not only in 'other cultures' (such as, amongst Muslims) that society is concerned about with whom, when and why women have sex. The rise in the numbers and importance of Evangelical Christians in the US has put questions of morality, and especially sexual conduct, at the centre of the political stage. Even in the UK, where there is no real equivalent to the 'Religious Right', public debates about women's sexual and reproductive activities are common—from changes to abortion legislation to panics about teenage mothers.

Despite the increasing ease with which many women can enjoy sex outside of marriage—due to increased access to contraception and abortion, living away from the parental home and less strict social attitudes—nevertheless, a sexual double standard continues to exist more than 30 years after the 'sexual revolution'. For example, one of the worst insults for a woman to receive is, 'slag' or 'slut'. No equivalent term exists for a man. Dominant notions about femininity and masculinity hinge on different social attitudes to women's and men’s sexual behaviour.

Increasing access to contraception since the 1960s, and, in particular, the invention of the pill, has enabled women to enjoy sex without the worries of pregnancy, leading to great strides in women's sexual autonomy in this country. However, it seems that whilst the 1960s helped women to expand their sexual horizons, it did little to challenge society's views about the sexual double standard. The sexual revolution appears to have led to an expansion in the commercial exploitation of sex and a situation where women are more sexually available to men than before—in lad mags, 'gentlemen's clubs' and through escort agencies and other services. No longer are women supposed to be the perfect housewives. Instead, they are bombarded with magazines and books instructing them on how to achieve multiple orgasms and have 'hot sex' with their partners. The rise in teenage pregnancies is one indication that young women may be more vulnerable than ever to intimidation in the name of 'sexual freedom'. Many people of 'other cultures' look at this and ask, 'Is this what women’s liberation means?'

The sexual revolution has not completely liberated women—although it has created more choices for more people. Instead, women face pressures to conform to a new mode of sexuality that exposes them to different dangers, such as the increased likelihood of sexually transmitted infections. The backlash against this transformation in sexual habits has taken the form of a socially conservative and religious neo-puritanism that harks back to a 'golden age' where women got married, had children, families stayed together and the world was supposedly a better place. This ignores the fact that a large number of people, particularly women, were obliged to stay in unhappy marriages with unfulfilling sexual lives and limited life choices because of social pressures.

I do not want to live in a society where the choice is between watching women auction their virginity versus young girls being socially coerced into abstinence before marriage. Sexuality is at the core of human identity and, therefore, it is essential that we are able to develop healthy sexual personae. The continuing sexual double standard prevents women (and men) of all ages from being empowered to make choices about their sexual lives, free from exploitation, intimidation and risk. Whilst legislation attempts to protect people from many forms of sex discrimination (for example, in the workplace), inequalities on the basis of our sexual behaviour continue to exist with negative consequences for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

20 September 2008

Peace - one day?

By Rupert Read

This Monday, September 22nd, is 'In town without my car' day. That means that all over Britain (and indeed all over Europe) people are being encouraged to give up using their car for a day. And to try liftsharing or cycling or public transport or walking, instead. I'll be making sure for this day that I stick to my bike, and leave the car at home.

I think that 'In town without my car' day is a great idea. It gives us all a sense of what is possible. But it wouldn't be enough – it would be far from great - if that were the end of the matter. No; 'In town without my car' day needs to extend over time into something that a large number of us practice on other days of the year, too. It would be a travesty, if 'In town without my car' day became as far as we are going. This day must be more than a mere token: it must make us aware of what is possible – so that we can start to make it happen much more.

Thinking about 'In town without my car' day, and its limitations, I looked around the internet a bit and I found this: "London Play's Lottery funded Street Play project began in May 2008. Over the next three years it will facilitate 100 one-off road closures across London, giving children a rare opportunity to play out on their streets."

Who could object to that?

But, this arrangement for a yearly Saturday street party for children, with the streets made safe for that afternoon – followed by their required return to confinement in their home – sounded to me, in the way I am now thinking, just a little bit like letting political prisoners in a fascist state taste freedom for one day a year and then returning them to their cells for the next 364 days!

If we are serious about enabling children to play in the streets again, then street play mustn't just be a one-day-wonder. We need to work to change the streets, to make them less dominated by cars, so that kids can start to regularly - standardly - play in the streets again...

Similarly: one day, there will be - there must be - peace. Until that day, we have 'Peace one day', a clever UN-sponsored event that focuses all of our minds on peace for this one day.

But you will by now have guessed where I am headed with this... It would be a travesty if we spent one day thinking peace, and then did nothing else. Peace has to mean real peace on the ground. It has to mean institutions and peoples making peace. It has to mean an end to the arms trade. And so much more.

'Peace one day', as a one-day event, is only a symbol. We need to turn it into a reality. Into a 365-days-of- the-year actuality.

That is a big task… So, we had better start right away!

Tomorrow, I am speaking at a rather special event in Norwich: It is Norwich's contribution to the 'Peace one day' movement. 'Peace one day' is happening all over the world on September 21st: the event in Norwich is at 6pm at the Assembly Rooms, and I will be speaking there on my experiences in the peace movement over the years: for example, my involvement in peaceful direct action to stop the use of cluster bombs in Iraq, and to prevent nuclear war-crimes. (You can read about both of these topics in past One World Columns of mine.)

I will also be saying that what we need to do as soon as the event is over, is to work to make the promise of peace one day into a reality.

I hope that, if you can, you will join us there tomorrow evening. And that, one day, the work that will have been done by us all will mean that we no longer have to hold 'Peace one day' events – because there simply will be peace, every day…

13 September 2008

Join the fight against AIDS in Africa

By Liam Carroll

In rural South Africa the scourge of HIV/AIDS is devastating society and adding to the woes of the nation which inspired the world with its peaceful revolution a few short years ago.

Just south of Durban the municipalities of Umdoni and Vulamehlo have a population of 150,000 people and suffer the terrible distinction of being an epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic worldwide.

It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the population are infected with the virus. There is 70 per cent unemployment, severe food shortages, and virtually no government access to health care services.

In this deeply rural area of over 1000 square kilometres an estimated 6,500 children have been orphaned by AIDS. There are numerous cases of child headed families: where both parents have died leaving an elder sibling to protect and raise their younger brothers and sisters.

One small NGO is working in Umdoni and Vulamehlo. Established in 2002 in response to the lack of healthcare access for this forgotten population, the Umdoni and Vulamehlo HIV/AIDS Association (UVHAA) is battling AIDS and poverty, day in and day out.

Set up and run by experienced retired health care professionals, UVHAA have three vehicles which deliver teams of trained nurses deep into the hills and valleys, identifying and supporting people who would otherwise often be condemned to a slow, painful and isolated death.

UVHAA's multiple projects aim to save lives, to prevent new infections through education, and to help those who die to die with dignity.

New statistics released in May 2008 show the scale of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa to be even worse than previously estimated: 7.6 million South Africans are now believed to be infected, including 27 per cent of the population aged between 20 and 64. It is estimated that 3.7 million South Africans have died from the disease since 2000.

Norfolk man Tom Potter has been supporting UVHAA since 2004, helping the Association to raise funds. He is appealing to EDP readers to become supporters of UVHAA, in order to assist their essential work.

Tom (34) was born in South Africa and spent a month visiting UVHAA projects this year, in order to gain a deeper insight into the reality on the ground.

During the trip, Tom met numerous people living with AIDS, including eight year old Mkhize who hospital staff believed was too ill to recover, yet after only one week on anti-AIDS (ARV) medication, miraculously Mkhize had transformed from shocking thinness to vigour. As both his parents have died from the virus, Mkhize is now cared for by his aunt. His living and transport costs are covered by UVHAA.

Tom met Innocent, a 28 year old illiterate man living with AIDS who had not eaten for three days and was wasting away. Tom gave Innocent £5 to cover transport costs to the hospital, and explains: "it is possible that this chance opportunity to give such a small sum actually saved this young man's life. It is shocking to realise that the line between life and death can be so thin."

Tom emphasised that it is an honour to be part of an organisation working for these disadvantaged communities: "UVHAA are saving lives, ensuring orphans survive and remain in education, putting pressure on the government to do more in these areas, teaching people better ways to grow crops, and ensuring that there is some support for the people of Umdoni and Vulamehlo. Against all odds, hope exists."

Tom met many inspiring people, including Mrs Ntakka who feeds 45 children each day in her own home. A short video of Tom talking to her can be seen at www.justgiving.com/uvhaa (where one-off donations can be made online).

UVHAA are appealing for individual supporters who can make a regular monthly donation. This is more useful than one off amounts as it enables the Association to plan for the future.

Small amounts of money can make a real difference. £5 per month can pay for transport fees which ensure that a vulnerable child living with AIDS can continue to collect life saving medication.

If you would like to support UVHAA, please email Tom at tompotter1@gmail.com and he will email or send you a donations form. To learn more about UVHAA's work, please visit http://www.uvhaa.com/.

Tom finished his talk with us by emphasising two very important points: Firstly, getting a person onto ARV medication will give 80 per cent of people a healthy and productive life for 10–15 years.

Secondly: in that 10-15 year period, if a cure for AIDS is found: that person's life will truly have been saved.

If you would like to support this small yet dynamic and inspiring organisation, please email Tom at the address above or call 01953 497060.

6 September 2008

Life after people?

By Marguerite Finn

Towards the end of August I watched a thought-provoking programme on television entitled: Life after people, wherein geologists, climatologists and archaeologists all gave their predictions about what planet Earth might be like after the human race had left it.

Much of it was entirely predictable: Nature would take over cities, trees would grow up through concrete buildings – which would eventually fall down – and so-called 'wild' animals would roam the former streets. A glance through my bedroom window at a piece of ivy inching its way slowly across the glass pane and, finding itself unchecked and getting bolder by the minute, confirmed the general thesis of the programme.

But one thing puzzled me – how did the entire human race vanish at one go? Did they line up to board a fleet of Virgin space shuttles? Did they wipe themselves out in a nuclear war? Were there no pockets of survivors, such as indigenous tribes unaware of the great evacuation?

Although it was not the programme's intention to explain the absence of humans but merely to suggest how life on earth might continue after their intervention and subsequent disappearance, one thing that clearly came out of the programme was the vulnerability of our existence on this planet. It demonstrated that without maintenance by humans, the machines, which are integral to our way of life in the built environment, would fail with disastrous consequences. We were shown spectacular images of bridges cracking and falling into the rivers below. And what about our nuclear legacy? With the inevitable degradation of the materials used to build the power stations, their radioactive components would leak into ground water systems and the atmosphere, affecting any life extant at the time.

But the real effect of the programme on me was its own inherent armchair complacency – although its simplistic nature gave me a jolt. Compared with the severity of what we face, from the way we carelessly presume to manage the planet, our current economic recession is just a minor blip! But does a 'recession' not also offer an opportunity? At the moment, our stewardship of the Earth is being called into question. We are so obsessed with our culture of consumerism that we have forgotten we share this planet with millions of other species. Every day a new example of our carelessness is highlighted. One of the latest – and quite close to home – is the pollution of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea ecosystem could collapse unless states bordering it find common ground on ways to decrease maritime pollution, according to a new report from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which accuses governments of failing to take responsibility for working to improve the situation. Vast algal blooms, such as those that threatened to disrupt watersports during the Beijing Olympics, cover large parts of the Baltic Sea, killing off large swathes of the seabed as oxygen fails to spread throughout the water - a process known as eutrophication. The build-up of plant growth is caused by an increase in the volume of nutrients in the water as a result of sewage, shipping pollution or agricultural run-off. Seven of the world's ten largest "dead zones" are found in the Baltic Sea, making it the world's most damaged, according to WWF.

In Stockholm, in August, experts from around the world warned that global food wastage must be halved by 2025 to meet the challenges of feeding the rapidly-growing population and preserving global water supplies. Their report was presented during World Water Week and it warned that "tremendous quantities of food are discarded in processing, transport, supermarkets and people's kitchens", adding: "This wasted food is also wasted water." In the US, up to 30% of food, worth some $48.3 billion, is thrown away each year, it notes, pointing to similar levels of waste in Europe.

Next week, a group of small islands' leaders, desperate due to accelerating sea level rise, plan to take the unprecedented step of putting a resolution before the United Nations calling upon the Security Council to address climate change.

Faraway from the escapism of the television programme, this crisis is for real. The window of opportunity to restore natural balance to the world is closing fast but it is not shut yet. People are becoming more aware that the problems we created for the planet like climate change, overpopulation, the built environment, and chronic water shortages arising from rampant, wasteful consumerism, mean that we have been using the planet rather as we use a toilet. I am reminded of the polite notice often seen in cloakrooms: please leave this place as you would like to find it.

30 August 2008

Roads to Damascus

By Juliette Harkin

Damascus is currently in the limelight not just because of its political position but also as the Arab 'capital of culture' for 2008. The regional and international machinations of the big powers take place on a level that has little to do with the everyday lived experience of Syrians. Damascus in 2008 is a melange of cultures, people and perspectives and host to international jazz concerts in the old Citadel, famous Lebanese singer Fairuz and Palestinian dance troupes and much much more.

It is hard to paint a picture in words as the colours are so very varied. Taking a break from my Arabic studies I visited the new sports centre near my apartment in the affluent suburb of Mazraa. The women's only session at the pool was just a taste of the cultural complexities of this noble city.

To my left in the bright sunshine was a sylph-like 'super-model', Syrian style. Revealing an itsy-bitsy bikini and long hair reaching down to her golden waist chain as she took off her pink chiffon trousers she epitomised one part of modern Damascus. Confident and comfortable, the new Syria.

To my right I glimpsed a young mother in head-to-toe modest white robes as she prayed by the poolside. After praying by the side of the pool she changed back into her swimsuit, and started sunbathing and playing with her children. The naturalness of religious adherence is just another facet of ordinary and modern Damascus. Personal religious beliefs do not mean the rejection of a modern life. Given the skewed media coverage of Muslim countries here in the UK it may come as a surprise that observant Muslims embrace the trappings of modern life just as we do!

Perhaps we all have more in common than we imagine when we hear about places such as Syria in the news. Talk here too is of the rising cost of living and of climate chaos. It is quite something to experience a true heatwave and then torrential downpours during the usually dry and already hot high summer. With gradual cuts in subsidies and the massive impact of Iraqi refugees (see my column Let the refugees in), the economy is going through a difficult time of transition. It remains to be seen to what extent economic reforms will impact on the (much-contested) percentage of the population living in poverty (the Syrian government claims a figure for absolute poverty of less than 10% whereas United Nations figures put it much higher) and the large numbers of unemployed youth.

The young boy in dirty clothes who knocked on our door the other morning asking for money is a reminder of what lies beyond the jasmine-lined streets. If our own free market experience is used as a measure then the rich-poor divide already seen here means that Syria is attaining the features of the free market with its gross social inequalities.

The much hoped for and much debated press freedoms have been forfeited by a fast-paced marketisation of the media in Syria. Money from big name advertising is central to the success of any of the private media players. Meanwhile the state-run media continues to be subsidised by the government, presumably at a great loss. One has to wonder how such an economically-inefficient media can possibly be sustained in the long term. But, the West no longer can claim to have the ideal model for how the media should be controlled and organised. The cases of Italy and the USA show that control by big business is not necessarily more desirable than control by the government.

Syria is grappling with these issues and claims to be taking another road in reforming the economy – one that factors in the effects of reforms on the most vulnerable. This means a continuing central role for the state along side market liberalisation. The future role of the state is an important part of the reform equation in Syria as the state-led model has been seen as bloated and corrupt. But we have learned the hard way here in the UK that state control of health and other essential services can be a good thing, not to be given up lightly. In 2008 we seem to have an obsession with minimising the role of the state assuming that the state is bad and the free market is good. Perhaps Syria has the opportunity to take a different path. The politics of the region, transformed forever as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, could present the Syrian government with a reason for stalling at the crossroads, but there seems little doubt that change is afoot, here in Damascus.

23 August 2008

Holiday in a conflict zone

By Nicola Pratt

I am spending the summer in Jordan — mainly for reasons of work but also for pleasure. The Norwich taxi driver that took me to the airport was rather bemused by the latter idea. After all, Jordan has borders with Iraq to the north east and with Israel and the Occupied Palestinian West Bank to the west—thereby sandwiching the relatively small country of 6 million between the two major regional conflicts. In addition, it shares a border with Syria (a target of US and Israeli hostility) in the north. Yet, Jordan is one of the safest places to visit in the Middle East.

It is impressive what the country has achieved given its geographical location and its limited natural resources, including being one of the only countries in the region not to possess oil reserves. In the past, Jordan, alongside other Arab states, fought wars against Israel (in 1948, 1967 and 1973). The wars of 1948 and 1967 led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into Jordan, making up approximately half of the country's population. At the time, the strain on the country was enormous, with families living in tents, without any infrastructure, and imagining that they would soon return to their lands. Gradually, as it became clear that a deal with Israel that would allow for the return of the refugees would not be imminent, tents were replaced by concrete houses in densely-built refugee camps, cared for by a dedicated UN agency. Today, 13 refugee camps, home to 280,000 people, remain. The vast majority of Palestinians, unlike their compatriots who fled to other Arab countries, were granted Jordanian citizenship, enabling them to re-establish their lives. The majority have been able to move out of the camps and to escape poverty. Peace with Israel in 1994 promised to bring great economic dividends. Yet, people have told me that the benefits have not materialised due to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which makes cooperation almost impossible.

It is the war raging beyond Jordan's north-eastern border since 2003 that seems to be uppermost in the minds of most Jordanian citizens. Not because of the violence, which spilled into Jordan only once when al-Qaeda in Iraq members set off bombs at several major hotels in the capital, tragically killing 60 people. Rather it is the economic impact of the war that is crippling Jordanians. You only need to step into a taxi to hear about the increasing cost of living and the difficulties of making ends meet. The war signalled the end of subsidised fuel from Iraq at a time of rising international oil prices. Jordanian farmers are exporting food to Iraq, whose agricultural sector has been damaged by the conflict. The shortfall in food in the Jordanian market is being met by more expensive imports from the international market. The rising cost of food and fuel prices meant that inflation increased from 1.6% in 2003 to 6.25% in 2006 with dramatic results for ordinary Jordanians—particularly those living outside Amman who have not benefitted from increased expenditure by some wealthy Iraqis escaping the conflict at home. Jordan is haven to possibly over half a million Iraqis—not only a result of the 2003 war but also as a result of dictatorship and sanctions previously. However, exact figures are difficult to come by since the Jordanian government treats Iraqis as guests and not refugees. Earlier this year it was reported that there were only 160,000 Iraqis in Jordan and it is possible that the government has overestimated numbers in order to attract international aid to meet the additional costs of hosting them. Whilst some Iraqis residing in Jordan come from the richer sections of society and have bought apartments in posh West Amman as well as frequenting upmarket restaurants and bars, significant numbers of Iraqis are living in poverty, unable to work. Their 'guest' status has made their plight invisible.

Despite the wars and conflicts that wage on Jordan's doorstep and the often negative spill-over effects of these on the lives of Jordanians, the country is undoubtedly a pleasure to visit. It is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Petra, the 'Red Rose City' carved out of rocks by the Nabateans over 2 millennia ago, and Jerash, one of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East. Only yesterday I was visiting Wadi Rum, a national park with breathtaking scenery. It is this image of Jordan that the government is keen to emphasise in order to increase tourism revenues. However, only a real and lasting regional peace will help to bring prosperity to the country.

16 August 2008

Tough choice over Sudanese President

By Liam Carroll

The United Nations has been raising the alarm about the multiple conflicts in and around Sudan for some time now, but a recent attempt to indict the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes has raised new concerns about how these conflicts may be resolved. The multiple hostilities, which include two high casualty conflicts in Sudan and related conflicts in Chad and Uganda, all involve the Sudanese President and his attempts to hold Africa’s largest country together through military force.

A fierce debate is now raging through the international community about whether the pursuit of the Sudanese President for war crimes will help resolve the inter-connected conflicts in the region, or whether antagonism to the process will see the Sudanese government withdraw from several important negotiations. President Bashir is of course infuriated by the charges and has threatened to withdraw co-operation in the peace process with the Darfurian rebel groups in west Sudan unless the charges are dropped, and he also warned that the peace process with south Sudan could also collapse if the indictment is pursued.

The conflict in Darfur, however, is nowhere close to resolution and some international diplomats are arguing that the threat to withdraw co-operation is hollow given that the Sudanese government has demonstrated little commitment to the process anyway. Also, Bashir's government in the north of Sudan has failed to fulfill its obligations in the peace process with the breakaway southern Sudanese. The recently renewed fighting over disputed territory between the north and south has come in the wake of Bashir's failure to implement a number of important measures from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which was signed by the two sides in 2005. In this context some diplomats feel that Bashir cannot be trusted to be part of the solution, while others point out that he retains the power to force both conflicts to deteriorate further should he so choose.

The war with the south Sudanese has also drawn in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) from Uganda who have been attacking vulnerable communities in south Sudan, allegedly with assistance from Bashir. The Ugandan government, which is trying to bring its own internal conflict with the LRA to an end, has charged Bashir's government with allowing the LRA to find refuge in Sudan instead of forcing them to leave. The peace process in Uganda then, which came about through the defeat of the LRA in Uganda, has now stalled, due partly to the LRA's ability to find refuge in Sudan, with alleged complicity from Bashir and the Sudanese government.

A similar scenario is playing itself out between the Sudanese government and another neighbour, Chad. In recent months the capital of Chad, N'djamena, has been attacked by rebel groups seeking to overthrow the government there. The government of Chad has blamed Sudan for supporting the rebels, although by way of a counter charge Sudan has blamed Chad for supporting rebels in Darfur. By way of confirmation a cease-fire was recently brokered when representatives from Chad and Sudan recently met in Libya, although reports from the region suggest that the situation remains fragile.

The decision to pursue the prosecution of President Bashir is still being considered by the International Criminal Court, although if it does proceed the UN Security Council retains the power to indefinitely postpone prosecution should it so choose. The big question for diplomats at the UN, therefore, rests on whether or not they believe Bashir can be a viable partner in the pursuit of peace. The manner in which he has pursued a divide and rule strategy in Darfur however, by offering stolen land and privilege to the more powerful rebel leaders in return for power-sharing arrangements, suggest that if any peace is achieved in Darfur, it is unlikely to be a just one.

Additionally, to allow Bashir to escape accountability for some of the worst atrocities committed anywhere in recent years would seriously degrade efforts to hold others to account for similar crimes elsewhere. The opponents of the process have also failed to take into account Bashir’s weak political standing. Sudanese political commentators have suggested that the NCP may find it expedient to ditch Bashir if they feel his divide and rule strategy has run its course. Despite years of conflict, and with much blood shed, the strategy is failing to hold Sudan together and the NCP may decide that the non-violent political process may offer better prospects for achieving national unity. There is then much to be gained from pursuing the ICC prosecution, but there are serious risks involved; let us hope that fate in Sudan will, for a change, come down on the side of justice.