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.

9 August 2008

Secrets, lies and anniversaries

By Marguerite Finn

On a calm summer's evening almost exactly sixty-three years ago, boy scouts encamped above a small Welsh town heard the bells peal out joyously down in the valley. Telling his troop to get on with preparing the supper, the scoutmaster went off on a bicycle to investigate. Over two hours later, he tumbled off his bike into the camp to tell his astonished charges the war against Japan had been ended by a miraculous new weapon. Then he disappeared into his tent. He re-appeared again the next morning with a very sore head!

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the bells in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were silent, their tongues immobilised by a thick coating of radioactive dust and debris, their bell-towers leaning out crazily from vaporised buildings, while people who might once have heard them, were reduced to shadows seared on to the pavements.

Today is the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The public, with their human instinct for survival, know that the only hope of avoiding such a catastrophe recurring is to remind ourselves, at least once a year, of how fearful and vulnerable a place this world has become since the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle.

My partner recalled his scout camp when reading about the UK Government's secrecy and deceit over its plans for its latest new nuclear warhead. In 1945 the military secrecy over the atom bomb was necessary in order to achieve maximum effect. Such secrecy is no longer required. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the indiscriminately destructive power of nuclear weapons was widely acknowledged, and the British Government signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, to pursue "negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament."

2008 is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the NPT – but the Government's commitment to abandon nuclear weapons has quietly evaporated, leaving it in the embarrassing position of having to lie to the public (seventy-two percent of whom, in 2007, were against the replacement of our Trident nuclear submarines) about what it is now doing with our money.

Members of Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp, who for many years have kept a dedicated watch on the comings and goings at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) near Reading, report that the site is a hive of activity. Capital investment in AWE has increased from £24 million to £420 million in just seven years. New developments include the construction of the Orion laser (which can test nuclear materials in conditions replicating a nuclear explosion), the acquisition of a new super computer and the construction of an office complex to house more than 1500 new staff. In June, the Ministry of Defence revealed that they would apply in early 2009 for planning permission to build a new uranium enrichment facility at Aldermaston!

Information obtained recently under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that a senior MoD official told a meeting of arms manufacturers that the decision had already been taken to spend £3 billion to replace the UK's 160 nuclear warheads: "Our intention is to replace the entire Vanguard class submarine system – including the warhead and the missile".

Ministers continue to deny that there are plans to replace the warheads, insisting that no decision will be taken until 2010. Such deliberate dishonesty is hardly the 'good faith' necessary to move towards nuclear disarmament. Orwellian double-think enables them to claim to be reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the spirit of disarmament, while building a new generation of weapons which are more powerful, more targetable and more likely to be used. This mindset has given us a world armed to the teeth, with some countries quite prepared to countenance another Nagasaki just to get what they want.

Today, most nations have economies that are geared towards preparation for permanent war, as well as industralised infrastructures geared to meeting these – and not other – needs. Unless societies and economies are demilitarised, there will be no lasting peace. The Womens International League for Peace and Freedom (http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/) proposes that "all states should commit themselves to a thirty year Global Action Plan to Prevent War by reducing military budgets. A 5% reduction over 5 years would be a first step and would make available half a billion dollars a day".

If you are in Norwich this afternoon, why not come to the Peace Pillar in Chapelfield Gardens at 3pm where there will be a commemorative ceremony, followed by a picnic and an opportunity for discussion?