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.