29 March 2008

The danger of making war appear normal

By Juliette Harkin

I was in Amman a few summers ago during the Israeli military strikes on Gaza. I was deeply disturbed in switching to Sky News to hear attempts to reassure viewers that the Israeli missiles being launched would not do a lot of harm. More disturbingly the reporter suggested that violence was the norm for the Middle East and so we shouldn't be alarmed.

As viewers we need, sadly, to be more alert than ever. The journalist in this instance singularly failed to give us the basic facts: namely that these Israeli military strikes were on a densely-populated civilian area and that there were civilian casualties and deaths. If he did not yet have figures for deaths, he should not have reverted to misleading generalities about "how things are in the Middle East".

Once again, recent media coverage of the Israeli military strikes on Gaza and the West Bank and the rocket strikes from Gaza raises fundamental questions about the ways in which journalists are reporting an ongoing military occupation and the resistance to it.

Central to any reasoned debate about the performance of the media, particularly in covering conflict, should surely be a clear understanding of what exactly the role of the journalist is in a democratic society.

Journalists have traditionally been the ears and eyes of the people. Bearing witness and bringing first-hand accounts of new events has been the stock-in trade of the reporter. Journalism at its best has exposed the worst excesses of those we have elected to hold power and office as our representatives.

As Media Lens recently reported, the BBC's Jeremy Bowen attempted to counter its findings that "Israeli deaths matter more" in BBC coverage of deaths of Palestinians and Israelis, by stating that the BBC would not "be a cheerleader for anyone" and simply reported "with balance" both sides of the conflict. Balanced reporting is fine in theory, but journalists need to be more aware of the dangers of using the language put out by slick and well-funded government and military press operations.

One difficulty in reporting the Israel / Palestine conflict is that, as Khalid Hroub said at Oxford University in March, we have come to accept the Israeli domination and occupation of Palestinians as "normal" and necessary because of the "fruits of anti-Arab propaganda" over a period of time. Factual reporting is thus passed over by time-pressed (and sometimes military-embedded) journalists in favour of old clich├ęs about Arab "terrorism", "extremism", "anger", "violence", "rebellion" and "recalcitrance".

In the UK, studies such as that by the Glasgow University Media Group (Bad News from Israel) have illustrated how TV news in the UK uses different language to cover Israeli and Palestinian victims of violence (be it state or non-state) to the detriment of our understanding of the Palestinians living under occupation.

Israeli journalist Yonatan Mendel writing in the London Review of Books this month has very carefully set out how Israeli journalists and the media community in Israel have created what David Grossman called a "new vocabulary" that no longer "describes reality, but attempts, instead to conceal it".

The Israeli media never reports "killings" or "murders" of Palestinian activists or civilians but talk only about "targets" and "assassinations". The Israeli media has earned a good reputation of highlighting corruption and injustice on the domestic front. But when it comes to looking at its neighbours in Palestine its critical faculties fail and the media become "actors within the Zionist movement, not as critical outsiders" according to Tamar Liebes, the director of Smart Institute of Communication at the Hebrew University.

When the Israeli and indeed western media reports a Palestinian death or injury it is often put as a "claim" or "allegation" whereas when the Israeli army announces a death or injury it is cited as a "confirmation" or "statement" - as if the Palestinian party to this conflict is inherently untrustworthy and suspicious and the Israeli army is an authoritative source. This is not about splitting hairs on the use of words in the media and it is not about taking sides.

I don't necessarily agree with the Media Lens conclusion that the BBC is merely spouting Israeli propaganda, but I believe that for a number of reasons the BBC and other British domestic coverage of the conflict is skewed against Palestine and in line with Establishment, and therefore pro-Israeli, positions on the conflict. If the Israeli people, the Americans and we all had access to the facts, we would no longer think that what Israel is doing is 'normal' or acceptable.

22 March 2008

CND; right then, right now

By Liam Carroll

The last time Britain threatened to use it's nuclear weapons was just before the invasion of Iraq, when the Secretary of Defence declared that in the face of a WMD attack on British troops, we would be prepared to use the nuclear 'deterrent' in response. Deterrent theory tells us that an enemy will not escalate a military confrontation if they believe the response would be an overwhelming nuclear attack that would cause their destruction. Had Iraqi forces actually had some tins of gas to lob at British troops, what would the Secretary have done? Flattened Baghdad with nuclear weapons? It seems unlikely for it's own sakes, but in addition it is hard to imagine that the Americans would have approved.

Therein lies the rub with nuclear weapons; does deterrent theory really work, or is it merely wishful thinking on behalf of politicians that if they have some pretty devastating weapons in the arsenal, foreign powers will more readily acquiesce to their demands when conflict arises? The haste with which Britain sought to build it's own nuclear weapons in defiance of American wishes in 1946, suggests that our leaders certainly believed that the atomic bomb was indeed endowed with such powers.

It was assumed then, at the time, that a nuclear bomb would save massively on conventional forces and allow Britain to project power around the world whilst reducing the military budget. In 1952 Britain conducted it's first nuclear test and by 1953 the RAF was able to deploy its first weapons. In 1956 the Egyptian nationalist Abdel Nasser, defeated the British, the French and the Israelis in the infamous Suez Canal Crisis, in an edifying display of how impotent Britain's bomb was in practice.

The pursuit of Britain's independent nuclear weapon also led to the disastrous Windscale fire of 1957 which is officially estimated to have accounted for some 240 odd cases of cancer from the radioactive materials that managed to get through the filter in the cooling chimney. The weapons-dedicated reactor had only been fitted with a filter at all at the last moment, thanks to one man's insistence (it was called Cockcroft's Folly, but it probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives). Also, the concrete reactor housing had been on the verge of collapse before the fire was extinguished by water; an action which some thought might lead to a hydrogen explosion, but fortunately didn't. All told then, the country got off lightly.

Although Britain had developed it's own processes for making nuclear weapons material, it was also keen to collaborate with it's European partners, France and Germany to develop further dual-use technologies (dual-use meaning that the technologies have both civilian and military purposes). Thus, in 1970, Urenco was founded as a collaborative consortium, which unfortunately then proceeded to leak vitally important information to a variety of spies. Dr A Q Khan, from Pakistan stole designs that led to the building of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and subsequently to the Iranian enrichment plant that is currently the object of so much international consternation. North Korea, Libya, Iraq and Brazil also acquired the designs.

Britain's nuclear weapons did however manage to get us a seat at the disarmament negotiating table in the 1963 Test Ban talks. President Kennedy was, though, quite particular about which seat the British should have, it was to be the back seat. Indeed, that pretty much set the pattern for subsequent disarmament negotiations which, apart from the five yearly non-proliferation conference, are almost exclusively conducted bi-laterally between the US and the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia. It is doubtful that Britain’s bomb really had any bearing on the Cold War, however, some may argue that it was Britain's duty to keep our end up, although if that really were the case, it might have been easier just to send a cheque (to the Americans).

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)has been calling for unilateral disarmament for fifty years now and on Easter Monday they will surround the nuclear research facilities at Aldermaston as a call to the country to forego the next multi-billion pound weapons project which we are about to embark on. Returning to Iraq, we might consider other reasons why this might be sensible. While the Secretary of Defence was working out his deterrence theory for the non-existent WMD in Iraq, there were other defensive issues, like the shortage of body armour and other forms of force protection that were worryingly absent. Nuclear weapons; more bang for the buck, or just wishful thinking?

15 March 2008

Investing in women the smart thing to do

By Marguerite Finn

Investing in Women and Girls was the theme of this year's International Women's Day, which several Norwich women's groups celebrated enthusiastically at the Friends Meeting House last Saturday.

On March 6, in New York, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, reminded the international community that "in women, the world has at its disposal the most significant and yet largely untapped potential for development and peace" and he called on governments and the private sector to "dramatically" increase investment in women and girls, stressing that it is not "only the right thing to do - it is the smart thing to do".

One famous entrepreneur, at least, was quick to answer his call. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just joined forces with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in a project to empower rural West African women with diesel-driven machines to reduce their workload and boost their incomes. The machine, called a multi-functional platform (MFP), is a diesel-run engine mounted on a chassis to which a variety of processing equipment can be attached, including a cereal mill, husker, battery charger, and joinery and carpentry equipment. According to UNDP, the MFP takes domestic tasks such as milling and husking sorghum, millet, maize and other grains, normally done manually with a mortar and pestle or a grinding stone, and mechanises them.

The machines, which can also generate electricity for lighting, refrigeration and water pumps, will be distributed in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal.

UNDP Administrator, Kemal Dervis, outlined the benefits for the women when he launched the project: "By investing in this simple power source for rural communities, women no longer need to spend all their time grinding grains or pumping water. They have more hours in the day to develop profitable activities that could boost their productivity, enabling them to sell better quality products and increase their income using low-cost, effective technology".

This would undoubtedly benefit the women, although my own feeling is that it should be less about boosting incomes, developing profitable activities and selling better quality products and more about improving the quality of life and providing more time for social activities, education and recreation. Phrases about 'boosting productivity' suggest to me that the women are being regarded as programmed units!

Nevertheless, this investment will be welcome in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa, where the status of women is very low and where anything that takes the appalling drudgery out of their daily lives is to be applauded (indeed, where would we be without our washing machines!).

The four-year grant from the Gates Foundation, totalling $19m, will help establish 600 new sustainable, rural agro-enterprises based on these machines - at least 24 of which will be bio-fuel based.

For the Gates project to work, the women must own the machines in a co-operative way, including the training in servicing and maintenance of the machines - so that they can share them with women in the surrounding villages.

The Gender Co-ordinator of the International Service Burkina Faso Programme in Ouagadougou said recently that she thought the MFP project was a good thing and that all appropriate training would be included. She also suggested that some form of a micro-finance scheme, which would enable the women who were the co-owners of the machinery to care for it, would be both creative and useful.

There are, of course, cultural issues to be taken into account. The men of the community would need to be made aware of the potential benefits of the women's project - otherwise, they would want to take control of it themselves! Given that cultural traditions in many rural societies restrict the roles of women in various ways, such developments need to be carefully introduced, with benefits accruing to men too - as a 'win-win' proposition. This being the case, the Gates/UNDP project could provide increased income and also encourage sustainable, organic food production in those areas where it is most needed.

So, will investing in women and girls lead us into a saner world? Yes, because women will always put human security and survival first - but as the UN General Assembly president, Srgjan Kerim, said: "Women will only be truly empowered, when globally we muster the necessary political will to fully implement existing commitments and make available the appropriate human, financial and educational resources that have been promised. But more fundamentally than these efforts, it is increasingly clear that we need to change our attitudes towards the role and status of women in society"

8 March 2008

Why is our oil in another country?

By Liam Carroll

"Why does our oil have to be in other people's countrys?" read one of the placards on the historic anti-war march that took place in February 2003 shortly before the invasion of Iraq on March 19. The implication of the placard was clear enough – that the war was being launched to seize control of the oil resources in Iraq – but it left the sordid details to the imagination.

Well, you couldn't have asked for a better account of exactly how the horror of the security situation in Iraq was being exploited to force through the privatization of the world’s second largest oil reserves, than the one delivered to an attentive audience in St Gregory's Centre for the Arts, Norwich, last Sunday night.

Hassan Juma'a, President of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, on a speaking tour of the country to alert people to their struggle in Iraq and seek support for the anti-war demonstration in London next Saturday (15th March), gave us his first hand account of how his country's oil was being liberated, not its people.

"Some Iraqi's" he explained "expected the removal of Saddam Hussein to be the turning over of a new leaf for the country", but "were soon disappointed as chaos followed and important infrastructure was destroyed, except for that of the heavily protected Oil Ministry" giving an early indication of the invaders priorities. The ministry was important because it contained the maps and figures that documented the countries oil resources.

Paul Bremer, the first proconsul of Iraq, was then quick to demand the preservation of Saddam's hated Law 150 that restricted the activities of unions and free expression, only a few months into the occupation.

Understanding that the country needed the income from oil production, which represented more than 70% of the country's GDP, the indigenous oil workers worked hard to overcome enforced stoppages, severe material shortages and other US obstructions, to maintain a production level of 2½ million barrels per day compared to a pre-war level of 4.

This undermines the American claim, Hassan told us, that only the multinationals can develop and run the Iraqi oil industry, which had actually been nationalized and run by the Iraqi's since 1973.

"If the Americans had come to liberate us, there would have been at least some benefits," he said "but the democracy has brought only pain and destruction with 4 million people dispersed from their homes." He complained that there was no reconstruction and that the foreign troops only huddled in their military bunkers while Iraqis suffered.

"How do the occupying forces cover their failures?" he asked, "by divide and rule, by blaming terrorists, by exaggerating the sectarian strife. It is painful for me that I am always asked about sectarian differences wherever I go, but I am a Shia, and my wife is Sunni, and according to all these people she should be at my throat!"

"Then the US designed the Oil Law" we were told, "even though Iraqis are quite capable of making our own oil policies. For George W Bush the Oil Law, if it is ever passed, will be a gold plated trophy for him to bring back from Iraq. That is why the first person to congratulate the cabinet, when they approved the Oil Law, was Condoleeza Rice! But we, the Iraqi oil workers, were the first to oppose it. We have succeeded so far (Iraq's Parliament has been under pressure to pass the law for over a year now, but has not done so), thanks to the help of the Stop the War Coalition and all the people who have publicized our struggle on the internet."

The Oil Law, as it currently stands, envisages long term contracts known as Production Sharing Agreements that would guarantee a rock bottom price per barrel of oil be paid to Iraq over 30-40 years, while an estimated 75% of the profits would remain with the international oil companies that want to develop the fields. These arrangements are very unusual in the industry, and normally only used when the field size is unproven or the oil hard to extract. Iraq has some of the most accessible fields in the world, most of which are proven and are of the highest quality.

"Therefore we want to bring an end to the five years of occupation and ask you to demonstrate in London as it will do us a great service, and then one day, hopefully we'll meet in Basra after the foreign mercenaries have left. Thank you so much for letting me speak."

Coaches leave 8.00 am from Theatre Royal, 15th March 2006. Tickets; £12/£8 from The Greenhouse, Bethel Street, Norwich.

1 March 2008

Balkans will make or break the European Security Strategy

By Liam Carroll

Violence in the Western Balkans seems to have been extinguished for the time being, given that the inflammatory declaration of independence by Kosovo and it's recognition by major powers has passed off with only a few skirmishes and a couple of embassy fires, so far.

The European Union has made peace and stability in the Balkans the linchpin of the European Security Strategy (ESS), and to this end both Kosovo and Bosnia have been under virtual occupation by UN, NATO and EU forces for a number of years now in an attempt to make violence unthinkable in the region.

Increasingly the burdens of maintaining security in the Balkans are being transferred almost exclusively into Europe's hands which has boldly declared that "the credibility of our foreign policy depends on the consolidation of our achievements there" (ESS).

Serbia, deeply embittered by the loss of the historically important region would no doubt like to cause more trouble than they are able, but know only too well that the balance of power, both militarily and economic, is heavily weighted against them.

Russia has of course been quick to capitalize on the situation by sending a delegation to the Serbian capital to sign a gas pipeline deal as a demonstration of its outrage. Unfortunately for Serbia, their powerful ally also bought up the Serbian state oil company for a bargain price at the same time, which goes some way to explaining why, despite everything, a majority of Serbians still prefer to see their future lying in Europe rather than in an alliance with Russia.

There has only been a tremor of volatility in Bosnia where the Bosnian Serb assembly has voiced support for the idea of breaking away from Bosnia-Herzegovina proper and joining Serbia, but would face a daunting rebuttal from the international community in attempting to do so.

Stability having essentially been imposed on the region then, the European Union now has to manage the transition of the western Balkans from virtual occupation to a region ready to undergo accession to the European Union which is the ultimate ambition of both the local populations and the EU member states.

Slovenia is already a member and Croatia is well on the way with Macedonia and Montenegro not far behind. Bosnia continues to make slow progress toward the various European benchmarks whereas Serbia, not surprisingly, has held back from signing the next agreement on the road to europeanisation. In the long run however it is expected that economic gravity will draw Serbia into the European fold one way or the other, and in line with the preferences of the population who just recently voted their pro-European President Boris Tadic, back into office. Kosovo had been part of the Serbian process of course, but will now be negotiating its own entry into Europe.

The success, or otherwise, of the Balkan project will determine the level of engagement with the next stage of the European Security Strategy which is already looking toward a number of intractable conflicts in the Black Sea region, the Middle East and Africa as the next challenge.

The development of this policy is based on the notion that civilian crisis management and reconstruction capabilities, as developed in the Balkans, can be used to restore order and provide humanitarian assistance to weak, conflict torn or failing states elsewhere. The EU has declared that the collapse of civil society in a number of states in the wider region represents one of the main threats to European stability, citing mass illegal immigration as one of the principle concerns.

To be sure, the threat of social collapse in certain countries is real enough and to this end EU missions in Georgia, Chad, DR Congo, Lebanon, and Gaza represent the early manifestations of a trend that could be set to increase.

These efforts are at an early stage though and it remains far from clear how effective these missions are, or indeed whether they have public support. Furthermore, it is not clear that European political leaders have the will to see these missions through given that both governments and populations remain suspicious of EU foreign policy encroaching on their own areas of national sovereignty.

That is not to say though that attempts at crisis management and reconstruction are unworthy tasks and indeed the pacification of the Balkans is not an inconsiderable achievement, given the volatility and lawlessness of the area.

If the European Union is successful in nurturing self-governance in Kosovo and Bosnia it would indeed be encouraging, for reconstruction efforts in general have a pretty sorry history, how refreshing it would be then to see one that actually worked.