28 June 2008

The European Union needs to put justice first

By Juliette Harkin

I thought the European Union were pretty fussy about who they let into their fold, after all they are giving Turkey one hell of a run for its money and time in investing in EU convergence – with only a glimmer of hope of obtaining membership. But, judging by the recent announcement in Luxemburg, Israel is seen as such a positive model state and neighbour that it got an upgrade during a recent meeting to review Israeli-European relations.

Israel had already entered into an Association Agreement in 2000 with the EU. The agreement emphasises "the importance which the Parties attach to the principles of the United Nations charter, particularly the observance of human rights and democracy, which form the very basis of the Association". Israel has blatantly ignored a series of UN resolutions in relation to the Palestinians and shows nothing but contempt for the United Nations.

Despite this, Israel now enjoys a special relationship, as if it were a member of the EU, without the responsibilities that membership should entail. The joint EU-Israeli Action Plan agreed in 2004 sets out some of the terms and benefits of the continually deepening relation between the two. Again, this plan is based on the starting principle that

"…the EU and Israel share the common values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law and basic freedoms".

Yet, until now Israel has not ratified the Council of Europe's core conventions on human rights which afford populations protection from human rights abuses and guarantee basic freedoms. Israel makes a mockery of the European attempts to ensure that member and associate states to the EU abide by international laws for all their citizens – including those under occupation in the territories and Palestinians who lead a third class existence inside Israel today. Instead the EU paints a picture of Israel that none of the millions of Palestinians living in its midst will recognise. The European Commissioner Benita Ferroro-Waldner describes Israel as a "leading partner" for the EC in its Neighbourhood Policy.

More importantly, the contrast between the way the EU has dealt with Israel on one hand and Palestine on the other is indicative of the fact that the EU is blinkered and unable to see that these two entities are grossly unequal – one is an occupier while the other has been, for decades, occupied.

There is a very good reason why Israel is avoiding entanglement in laws on the preservation of human rights; because it is in breach of them on a daily basis. It is high time that we asked of Israel more than the current minimal nod to democracy that it grants to its own citizens through regular and open elections.

So why is Israel so crucial a partner for the EU? I checked out the website of the European Commission's European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) under which this new partnership has flourished. The ENP was set up with the objective of building relations with member states and their close neighbours to avoid division and conflict.

Besides the economic ties it seems much of the focus of the ENP is on "fighting terror". The EU sees Israel as its key ally in this. If the EU were really friends to Israel it would practise some old-fashioned tough love and push Israel to radically change its policies. As Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad pleaded with the EU in the run up to the EU decision, this should begin with the urgent need to halt more settlement-building and to immediately work to improve the appalling human rights record in relation to Palestinians. There will be no peace with gross injustice and the EU has lost a rare opportunity to hold Israel to account for its actions.

As reported on the Alternative Information Centre website Adam Leach, Regional Manager for Oxfam International, said: "As Israel's pre-eminent trade partner, the EU must use the upcoming upgrade negotiations process to ensure Israel ends the ever-worsening Gaza blockade, lifts movement restrictions and halts settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem."

On the same site, Kamel Jendoubi, President of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), said: "The EU must be consistent in upholding its human rights principles in its foreign relations, and Israel cannot be an exception to this rule. A weak or ambiguous EU stance on human rights in relations with Israel sends the wrong message also to other countries in the EU Neighbourhood, who could see it as a license to ignore EU engagement with regard to their own human rights records."

I couldn't agree more.

21 June 2008

The envy of the world?

By Rupert Read

Should we or should we not give the go-ahead to polyclinics within the NHS? This is the biggest question facing health service policy. It faces us here in Norfolk and Norwich, because there is a proposal to replace the walk-in health centre in Thorpe St Andrew with a city centre polyclinic. That would apparently be a health centre grouping several GP practices with new facilities.

I want to take an indirect approach to the question that I raised, above. I am going to talk about a book which can I think put us in a much better position to maybe answer it.

The book is Alysson Pollock's magisterial NHS plc. The opening lines of its closing chapter, "The emerging health care market", make the stakes starkly evident: "The NHS is being dismantled and privatised. Very soon every part of it will have been 'unbundled' and commodified... a new business dynamic is taking charge of the ways in which services are provided and patients are responded to. The dramatic costs involved - in terms of loss of equal access and universal standards, as well as of money - are concealed by claims of commercial confidentiality."

Our Government's most brilliant achievement of spin has not been its - exposed and now failed - effort to conceal the truth over why it attacked Iraq, but its - largely successful - concealment of the destruction under its tutelage of Labour's greatest ever achievement. It is an act of true political brilliance that the NHS is being dismantled by the Party that created it whilst successfully posing as its saviour.

But, as Pollock predicted, this PR success too is unravelling. The NHS is in serious financial trouble, and for the first time ever, more citizens now trust the Tories (heaven help us!) with the NHS than New Labour. This is the backdrop to the Government’s announcement of the polyclinic initiative.

Now, the NHS was never perfect. Indeed, Pollock herself details how it was perhaps fatally compromised by primary care (i.e. doctors' surgeries) never being nationalised. One could add to that something that Pollock neglects to address: the deep importance of prevention, and how ultimately what we need is not only to defend the NHS, but to transform it into a national wellness service, with a smaller budget for its big hospitals.

But the NHS was incredible value for money; it was the envy of the world in countries from Moscow and Havana to Berlin and Washington. And I've started speaking in the past tense since, for now, the NHS is half-abolished. It is dying; or rather, being killed, because of dogmatic beliefs that private solutions must trump public ones. It is on the way to becoming little more than a kite-mark for numerous outsourced profit-making operations.

If one wants to understand how the NHS has been cherry-picked, cream-skimmed, and bled dry financially by the private sector, at the bidding of the party that once upon a time created it, then there is one thing above all that one needs to do: read Allysson Pollock's book.

And then, I think, a potential answer to our question emerges. Polyclinics could be a very fine thing. Why shouldn'’t people have easy access, in the city centre, to a ser of facilities where they can be treated for a wide variety of ills? Since the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was so foolishly moved out to the edge of the city, we have lacked anything like this. Polyclinics could be a new form of community hospitals, in effect, but with simple walk-in access.

Just two things: (1) This had better not be at the expense of existing well-functioning facilities, such as that in Thorpe, and such as various good doctor's surgeries around the city. There is a very real worry that polyclinics would in effect compete with existing doctors, and drive them into the ground.

And (2) It had better not be a trojan horse for privatisation. Pollock points out how the Government is trying to engineer more and more private involvement in the NHS. And the big worry about polyclinics is that they will, on the Government's current plans, be open to private companies to run. That is very bad news indeed.

If we are to have polyclinics, then let them be run by the NHS. Not, as could happen under the current proposals, by the likes of Tesco…

14 June 2008

A line in the sand

By Liam Carroll

The West has been talking tough to Iran for some time now; it has drawn a line in the sand over Tehran's plans to enrich uranium, it has tried to prevent Iranian 'meddling' in Iraq, and it has pursued a policy of trying to neutralise the Iranian backed Islamic resistance, Hizbullah, in Lebanon. Increasingly though, the tough talk is starting to look like a series of bad judgments as Iran gets its way on issue after issue.

The most significant failure of Western policy in recent weeks has been the resolution of the power struggle in Lebanon which has seen the Iranian backed resistance movement, Hizbullah, effectively demonstrate their superior strength to the Western backed government. When the Lebanese government recently attempted to degrade the organisation's capabilities, the plan back-fired and Hizbullah quickly neutralized opposing militia's on the streets of Beirut, demonstrating the government's impotency on the ground. While the end of the political deadlock in Lebanon was widely welcomed, everyone recognizes that the final agreement has increased the power of Iranian backed Hizbullah, not the Western backed government.

The struggle for influence in Iraq appears to be following a similar trend. Hardly mentioned in the press last week was the news that Iran and Iraq have signed a defence co-operation pact. Details are thin, but according to the Iranian press agency that released the news, the pact is largely concerned with mine clearance from the Iran-Iraq war. None-the-less it is another sign that Iraqi-Iranian relations are warming, as many predicted they would.

In contrast, the US plans for maintaining a military presence in Iraq are looking increasingly shaky. Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki has asked the Security Council not to renew the UN mandate that authorizes the presence of multi-national forces in the country, due to expire later this year, and the US-Iraqi bilateral security arrangement has just been rejected by the Iraqi parliament. Washington's plans for multiple enduring bases in Iraq are opposed by important sections of Iraqi society and officials are conceding that final negotiations for maintaining US forces in Iraq may not be achieved by the current Bush administration.

The other big issue between the West and Iran, does of course concern Iran's uranium enrichment project, which the West has vowed to try and prevent. International efforts are looking increasingly unlikely to succeed though, and not only is Iran continuing to make progress in the development of it's enrichment facilities, it is also drawing a harder line with the inspectors, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This appears to be a demonstration of increased Iranian confidence in the long-term success of the project, which is probably more likely to fail through technical difficulties (enrichment involves huge engineering challenges) than through Western diplomatic efforts.

Iranian confidence has no doubt been severely boosted by the still rising price of oil, which has made Western economies extremely fearful of further potential interruptions to the flow of oil out of the Gulf region, which Iran is well placed to disrupt. It could well also be that the West has made a big blunder in drawing a line in the sand over which they insisted Iran must not step. The West could have allowed Iran to exercise it's legal right to enrich uranium on condition that they signed up to a strict set of monitoring and inspection criteria (known as Additional Protocols). Now, not only does it look like Iran will build their facilities, but they also look set to withdraw from signing up to the Additional Protocols, which would have given the IAEA important and wide-ranging oversight of Iranian facilities. As the hand of the West weakens, it is starting to look like the IAEA may not even achieve that minimal objective.

Fears of an actual Iranian bomb are however overstated; even if they do master the technology and were to secretly divert materials without IAEA knowledge, the supreme leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, has issued a religious decree, declaring that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic. While officials in London and Washington tend to mock such decrees, in Iran they are taken very seriously and Westerners often overlook the fact that the dominant power in Iran is still the conservative religious clergy, not the firebrand President, Ahmadinejad.

The West could have chosen a more realistic line with Iran and recognized that the regime is here to stay and will inevitably play a large role in the Middle East. By trying to drive Iran from the field, so to speak, the West has not demonstrated it's strengths, it has, on the contrary, simply demonstrated it's weaknesses.

7 June 2008

Don't mess with the UN

By Marguerite Finn

Have you ever thought about doing away with the United Nations and replacing it with something else? American academic Robert Kagan has just written a book about doing precisely that. In his book entitled The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Kagan proposes the establishment of a "league of democracies" which would bind the European Union, Japan, India, Brazil and Australia to the USA. These states would then work together to keep Russia, China and Iran in check, along with other states not wishing to embrace the 'Western' (market-driven and corporation-led) way of life.

However, the main reason for the establishment of a league of democracies is to by-pass the United Nations.

I am a member of the local branch of the United Nations Association (UNA), which exists to support the UN. This year the branch is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding in 1948 when Norwich was emerging from the horrors of World War II and its citizens were determined to prevent such a catastrophe happening ever again. Today, our branch meets regularly to continue its work of supporting the UN and its agencies. It does so because the pulling together of the 192 states which make up the United Nations and the safeguards built into the framework of international law, mean that for all its faults, the UN remains mankind's best hope for justice and peace. The publication of Robert Kagan's book, coinciding with our 60th anniversary, is a reminder of just how important it is to keep the benefits of the UN in the public eye. Kagan is foreign policy advisor to Senator John Mc Cain, who may well be the next President of the US. Senator McCain has stated that if he becomes President, he will set up the league of democracies within his first year in office.

What is behind all this? For Kagan, McCain and those seeking world domination by the US, the 'Age of Diplomacy' is over and the 'War Without End' has begun. The insidious intent behind the rhetoric is to move away from the idea of sovereign states being protected from outside aggression by international law, to a blanket permission for the so-called democratic league to intervene wherever it wishes in order to impose 'democracy' in the furtherance of its own interests. But who is the enemy? Russia is in the frame again, along with China and any fledgling "autocracies" who might be tempted to see them as models. Kagan says: "the new era, rather than being a time of 'universal values' will be one of growing tensions and sometimes confrontation between the forces of democracy and the forces of autocracy". If they have learnt one lesson from the failure of the Iraq war and loss of US legitimacy in the world's eyes, it seems to be that in order to continue their policies of intervention and pre-emption, the US needs an alliance with like-minded friends acting in concert, in a world viewed as being full of potential aggressors needing to be attacked. This will be of great comfort to the military industrial complex. It causes horror and despair in the rest of us.

This new institution would set up a division in the world between Russia, China, Vietnam, some Middle Eastern countries and others, on the one hand and the league of democracies on the other. It would have no claim to international legality should it become a basis for action and not just a talking shop. The current East-West and North-South divides would widen into chasms threatening to engulf all states on the periphery.

Is this what the world needs? The international community is concentrating on finding ways of coping with climate change, food crises, water shortages, petrol rationing, mass migrations, redundant nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. Any move to circumvent the existing institutions and laws of the United Nations would be suicidal for humanity. The infrastructure is there. It does not have to be reinvented at huge cost – it just needs to be reformed and updated.

One of the strongest challenges to the concept a league of democracies has come from Shashi Tharoor, former UN Under-Secretary General – and in my view, possibly the best Secretary General the UN never had. He says: "One doesn't have to be a starry-eyed devotee of the UN to ask everybody to take a deep breath before the runaway popularity of this idea becomes consensual in Washington. No one disagrees that our international institutions need reform to make them reflect the realities of a post-American world, but that's not where the advocates of an alternative are coming from".