28 February 2009

Going nuclear – Iran, and us

By Rupert Read

Iran this week opened up its own very first nuclear power plant to public view. This plant is expected to be operational before the year is out.

There has been a big international debate over the past few years as to whether Iran should be allowed to 'go nuclear'. Israel (anxious to preserve its position as the only Middle Eastern power possessing nuclear weapons of mass destruction), backed by Britain and the USA, has said that it should not. While Iran has insisted that all it wants is a nuclear power plant, to generate electricity from.

OK then; taking that at face-value: isn't there an even more important question, underlying but ignored by the debate over whether Iran should be 'allowed' to build a nuclear power plant? Namely: Is it a good idea for Iran to be building a nuclear power plant, at all? It clearly makes sense for a country like Iran to be diversifying out of oil, which is running out, and the burning of which is meanwhile horribly damaging our planetary climate. But, leaving aside the question of nuclear weapons, does it actually make any sense for Iran to invest in nuclear power?

Let me add to those questions that I've raised so far some further questions:
  1. Can nuclear power be produced in a way that does not bring with it increased risks of nuclear terrorism or nuclear-bomb-making?

  2. Can nuclear plants be made in such a way that they are invulnerable to the risk of meltdown?
And, most crucially of all:
  1. Do we have any solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste?
The answer to all these questions, sadly, is no.

And now one final question:
  1. Does Iran have good renewable energy resources easily available to it?
To this question, the answer is, of course, yes. Iran has wind, wave, tidal – and, most obviously, solar power, just waiting to be harnessed. If Iran were to put serious money into the very exciting new technology of Concentrated Solar Power (which generates heat and electricity by concentrating the sun's rays on one point through mirrors), it could make nuclear power seem oh-so-20th-century by comparison. For scientists calculate that an enormous country like Iran could provide in perpetuity all the energy it needs for itself, by covering with concentrating-solar-panels a desert area about the size of Suffolk.

In a week which has seen some of the media in a bit of a tizzy about a tiny handful of British green-leaning thinkers who are thinking about nuclear, these questions are salutary. These British greens are thinking about nuclear out of despair about how dreadfully slowly - disgracefully slowly - our government is going green.

But surely the response to that has to be to push harder for us to go green, faster. And let's bear in mind that a renewables revolution would hugely benefit East Anglia, with the tremendous resources of tidal and wave power – as well as wind, of course – that we are fortunate enough to have, here.

It would be a cynical and stupid manoeuvre for us in Britain to start full-bloodedly going nuclear once again. It would make it impossible for us to tell countries like Iran, while keeping a straight face, the truth: that nuclear power just isn't a very clever idea…

In conclusion then: if we want to counsel Iran not to go nuclear, then we must first start moves in earnest to rid ourselves of nuclear weapons – and we must resist our government's ridiculous idea of a new generation of nuclear power plants. It's time instead to go renewable; to go green…

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21 February 2009

What do elections mean for post-war Iraq?

By Liam Carroll

"Elections are an opportunity for substantial improvement or for things to become substantially worse," notes senior US analyst Steven Biddle in reference to last months provincial elections in Iraq.

This decisive view is not unlike US ambassador Ryan Crocker's assessment on leaving Iraq two weeks ago; "almost anything is possible here" declared the diplomat.

The recent provincial elections in Iraq have generally been hailed as a success in terms of procedure and levels of participation, and some optimism for the future of the country has been derived from this flicker of democratic hope.

Further referendums on a military agreement with the US, the final status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and crucial parliamentary elections are also scheduled to be held this year. If all goes well the foundations of a new democratic state may well have been laid.

Analyst Biddle and ambassador Crocker are seasoned observers of the state-building process however and their warnings of potential trouble are not without good grounds.

Elections may determine which parties assume office, but elections in and of themselves offer no guarantees that the big national issues over the distribution of oil revenues and the distribution of power can be speedily resolved.

Middle east oil analyst Yahia Said explains that the long awaited oil law "can and must be part of the solution to Iraq's broader instability and is an essential part of the way forward, but only after thorough discussion."

Difficult constitutional issues over the right balance of power between the central, regional, provincial, and local levels of government also have to be made. "These are issues that are very important and touch at the core of what Iraq is and what Iraq will be," declares Said, and adds, "but this is a process that is very hard to short-circuit or to complete in a short time period."

Unfortunately however speed is of the essence, as a lack of essential services is now the biggest concern for most Iraqis, who still live without clean water, electricity, sewage services and healthcare. The need for improved sanitation to forestall the spread of cholera and typhoid, for example, is not an issue that can be deferred for long.

Furthermore, with more than 2.8 million people displaced in Iraq and another 2 million outside Iraq, analyst Biddle remains concerned that there needs to be "a judicial process where rights of return to property are established and compensation is offered," but fears that "the government of Iraq has zero administrative capacity to do that."

The returning refugees, representing one fifth of the country, will also stretch government capacity "in terms of public health, in terms of housing, in terms of education infrastructure, in terms of just plain sewage," he adds. "There are going to be serious issues, and the government won't be able to meet them. And when that happens, the government's legitimacy is further derogated, and that in turn creates instability."

In the face of failure to meet these "enormous challenges", ambassador Crocker fears "a collapse of faith in the nascent Iraqi state." Opinion remains divided on where this collapse might lead but most analysts take note of the growing power of the Iraqi security services under prime minister Nouri al Maliki.

Steve Biddle thinks that prime minister Maliki could build support for the government "by providing actual services in places like Sadr City" but fears that instead "his natural instincts will be to suppress by military force" expressions of discontent.

The US has spent billions developing Iraq's security forces, and the central government, analysts say, has been on a massive defence-sector buying spree. A strong military may well be needed, but at a time of fractured politics and weak governance, it could also form the base for the next military strongman.

14 February 2009

Brown at the end of the tunnel

By Marguerite Finn

In 2005, I wrote a column about Ireland entitled A country whose time has come, highlighting the good-will and humanity shown by a group of Protestants from Ballymena in Northern Ireland, who helped their Catholic neighbours remove the sectarian graffiti daubed on the Catholic Church of Our Lady. They wanted to show Loyalists that they did not support sectarian violence - a positive sign that the communities of Northern Ireland were ready to put the past behind them and move forward with hope into the 21st century.

In 2009, spurred on by the recent rumpus about the proposed £12,000 'compensation payment' to all victims of the Northern Ireland conflict, I decided to revisit the subject.

I began by reading the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, coordinated by Lord Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. The report contains 31 recommendations of which the proposed 'compensation' payment is just one – but it was seized upon by the media for its sensational value. Robin Eames explained the rationale behind it: "It is not compensation by another name; it is an acknowledgement of their loss and their individual and collective pain".

Many people during the consultation process pressed for a recommendation to ensure that their grief was recognised - but they feared putting a monetary value on a loved one’s life. The raw emotion, unleashed from both sides of the sectarian divide, at the pre-emptive publication of this single recommendation, indicates their fears were justified. It might be better to channel the money into a fund accessible to communities for mutually constructive purposes.

Robin Eames puts his finger on the crux of the problem: "We are still terrified that if we acknowledge the grief and moral position of other people, it will dilute the grief of our own". This is true in all conflicts. There are at least two sides to every story – and as many sets of perceptions – whatever the facts on the ground. The need for those affected by the conflict to 'tell their stories' runs like a leitmotiv throughout the report. To hear and understand what it looked like from ‘the other side’ is the key to moving on to a shared future.

For both nationalists who felt discriminated against, as much as for Unionists who felt threatened, the UK government has a responsibility to acknowledge its own mistakes in the governance of Ulster. The Prime Minister’s recent comment on the 'compensation' proposal is not hopeful. The Guardian editorial of 29 January describes it: "Meanwhile, at Westminster, a furious Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionists demanded that Gordon Brown should disavow this 'obnoxious proposal'. Less than 30 minutes after Lord Eames pleaded for political leaders and opinion formers to avoid 'instant responses' to his ideas, Mr Brown told MPs that Mr Dodds 'speaks for the whole community in Northern Ireland' – which he most certainly does not – and promptly appeared to boot the whole payment idea into deep touch."

This lack of understanding of the issues behind the Northern Ireland conflict, at the highest levels of British Government, has been part of the problem all along. It is troubling to see it continuing. Another challenge to reconciliation is combating the compulsion to pass on hatred from one generation to the next. Speaking to parents about children in The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says: "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you - For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."

7 February 2009

A new generation of student activists from the flames of Gaza

By Juliette Harkin

Hundreds of students have staged occupations of university buildings around the country in solidarity with Palestinian citizens against Israel's brutal attack on Gaza. Young students, some of whom who have never been involved in political activism, have been moved in large numbers to express the outrage that British people feel about the mass carnage in Gaza. In doing so the myth of student apathy has been completely debunked and it looks like a new generation of activists are here to stay.

Participants in the occupations of building at the universities have come under fire by critics claiming that their actions are disruptive for other students and a form of bullying that is not acceptable in our higher education system. These critics have misjudged the strength of feeling about the injustice visited upon Gaza and chosen to ignore the noble history of student protest which played a part in ending South Africa's apartheid regime and condemned the Vietnam war.

I was one of the students involved in occupying the Clarendon building of the historic Bodleian library of Oxford University. As I returned for a new term at Oxford, I wondered what kind of a world do we live in where it is 'normal' to hear about fathers watching as their daughters are beheaded by explosions in front of their eyes and their sons die because the ambulances were refused access? In the face of this horrifying terror visited on a civilian population as our governments look on we have to ask is this right? Is it right that students be angry that they have the inconvenience of not being able to access a building or of being disturbed by the calls for justice for Palestine? Is it right that some universities resort to the law to forcibly remove students who feel so passionately about justice?

We as students and humans had a moral obligation to act and it was one that far outweighed the restrictions that criminalise direct action when international conventions are being ignored, or the rule books of our great universities. Attending a lecture on Palestine in Oxford University last week, we were reminded that our governments have failed to reign in what Professor Avi Shlaim stated clearly was a "rogue and pariah" Israeli state that was exhibiting the signs of "fascism" in its behaviour. A word that the Israeli professor would not use lightly.

The list of sheer wanton destruction of Gaza that was read out by Dr Karma Nabulsi was in no way exhaustive... 1,325 civilians killed of which 446 were children, 110 women and 108 elderly, 5,320 injured many of them very seriously, 10,000 farms damaged or destroyed, the fishing port, UN compounds and schools and food warehouses all bombed to destruction, Gaza's largest university attacked... the list goes on. Many of us speak out and say this is wrong and we must do something. The situation is desperate and our politicians, with few honourable exceptions, refuse to condemn Israel's reign of terror over occupied Palestine.

By occupying the buildings the students gained national media coverage and alerted students and staff and the British people to the urgency of the Gaza crisis. The occupations highlighted the brutality of Israel's assault on a civilian population. Students from across the political spectrum have come together to make their voices heard and they have acted honourably. This is just the beginning as students now organise and work with the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to keep the pressure on our government to act responsibly.

The students and activists deserve our support.