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.