30 May 2009

'A pattern of islands'

By Marguerite Finn

For anyone who has had enough of the credit crunch, the arrogance of the banking fraternity and the 'snouts in the trough' culture, let me tell you about another island community – The Republic of Kiribati - where they have approached things differently. Yet the problems facing this small nation are almost identical to those facing Britain and other countries – rising sea levels, over-crowding, youth unemployment, pressure on natural resources – making Kiribati a world in miniature.

What is different about Kiribati (intriguingly pronounced 'Kiribass') is their philosophical and forward-looking approach to these challenges.

Kiribati consists of 33 tiny atolls scattered across 3 million sq km of the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, they form the social and political basis of a democratic nation-state, with a single language and common culture. The traditional lifestyle of Kiribati is one of openness and community involvement. The community supports its members. Individuals are expected to abide by community values of equity, sharing and support for those in need. It is expected that one member of the community would not rise above the others in terms of material possessions. The needs of the community are placed above the needs of the individual. It is a lifestyle of reciprocal exchange. Primary education is compulsory and free. The population is young and growing by 2.5 percent a year – one of the highest growth rates in the South Pacific region. It currently stands at 112,850.

But the people of Kiribati face grave problems. Climate change is affecting the islands through rising sea levels and the loss of low-lying land to saltwater inundation. Severe storms cause damage to crops and infrastructure. Longer periods of drought are becoming normal. Fresh water is contaminated, staple crops are more difficult to grow, fish stocks are reducing and coconut palms are dying from saltwater intrusion. Within a few decades, the entire population of the islands may need to be removed.

The government is grappling with the complex question of whether to focus its scarce resources on fighting back the rising seas or beginning the process of relocation. This is a huge dilemma: how to find host countries to take the immigrants and to ensure that they do not sink to the bottom of the pile, losing their self-respect and their culture.

In the best I-Kiribati paternal tradition, President Anote Tong is leading a move towards maximum education for all his people – seeing this as giving them the best equipment for the nation’s demise and their personal futures. He said the time had come for countries to begin admitting the people of Kiribati. He explained: "I don't want my people to be called refugees – but rather immigrants who have the capacity to work on any standard skills for any jobs required in their new homes."

However, such a plan requires funding and one of the most likely donors – the Asian Development Bank (ADB) – would demand a heavy price for its help: the virtual dismantling of Kiribati societal structure, the privatisation of the public sector along with the accompanying insidious stratification of the community. The ADB seems more interested in short-term profits for investors than long-term benefits to the community, indeed it acknowledges ruefully that "Kiribati's communal culture, risk aversion, egalitarianism and disapproval of individualism make them hostile to the idea of free markets".

There is a genuine 'clash of cultures' here. The Kiribati culture served its people well before being undermined by a drastic change in its climate for which it was not responsible. The ADB – and Western-style banking in general - sees expansion of the private sector as the most acceptable way forward. Is exploitative competitive globalisation such an essential banking principle that it must accompany a nation's last breath – or is this just corporate greed in another guise?

Acknowledgements: ADB Reports: Kiribati's Political Economy and Capacity Development (2009); Kiribati Social and Economic Report – Managing Development Risk (2008); The Journal of the Royal Overseas League (ROSL) March-May 2009.

23 May 2009

Understand contemporary Syria

By Juliette Harkin

The prominent Syrian activist and journalist Michel Kilo was released from prison last week. Nearly 70 years old now, he had served a full three-year sentence for 'undermining national sentiment'. Kilo's 'crime' was to have spoken out about a need for a radical change in the relations between the Syrian and Lebanese states. He, and other Syrian intellectuals, had signed a declaration calling for Syria and Lebanon to exchange ambassadors and for Syria to recognise Lebanon's independence. Whilst he was in prison his demands became a reality. It seems timing is everything.

Kilo's calls coincided with international pressures on Syria as a result of the assassination in Beirut of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The US and France pointed the finger at Syria and the long reach of its military and intelligence arm into Lebanon. To date there has been no conclusive evidence to support these accusations and we may never know.

During my visits to Lebanon I had heard heavy criticisms of Hariri and the downside to what had been his policies of indebting the country to build a new Lebanon that mainly benefited the elites. Nevertheless his murder deeply affected the national psyche and resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

I had the pleasure to meet and to work with Michel and with Lebanese journalist and writer Samir Kassir during my work for the BBC in Lebanon and Syria in 2003 and 2004. Kassir was a vehement critic of the Syrian regime and wrote, as did Kilo, in a leading newspaper in Lebanon known for its anti-Syria stance. Samir was blown up by a car bomb outside his home in Beirut on June 2, 2005, shortly after he was visited by intelligence figures in Lebanon and after the publication of another critical article, his last, this time about the Syrian ruling party. I still remember receiving the news of his death by phone and the shock I felt about something as utterly senseless as his murder was.

Kassir's political views are reflected in his book, Being Arab, which has now been published in English translation from Arabic and French. In it, he rejects western double standards in the Arab world, in reference to the injustice of the war on Iraq and of the West's approach to Israeli colonialism in historic Palestine. He discusses the Arab malaise that has set in across the region and harks back to the cultural Nahda (renaissance) that got under way in the region in the 19th century as the world was caught in the grip of modernisation.

Kassir's book is an angry and critical appraisal of the arrest of this historical Nahda and the political and cultural stagnation that he feels has set in within the Arab world. It is a view shared by other intellectuals who draw on western political thought and concepts of nation-state to call for a new Nahda that is allowed to emerge free from the political constraints of authoritarian regimes.

But despite Samir's tragic death at the hands of murderers and for Michel's cruel incarceration, I do not doubt that change is happening in Syria. As I feel relief for the release of Michel, I also wonder how we can really seek to understand contemporary Syria. In some ways our focus on one intellectual and his or her views can actually blinker us to other shifts that may be occurring within a society.

Whilst western commentators hope for an unlikely regime change in Syria and president Obama fails to make a break from the confines of America's neo-conservative policies on Syria, we miss a chance to deepen our knowledge of Syrian politics and society. As I finish my research into the Syrian media at Oxford University, I am still seeking a path that allows us to condemn the imprisonment of journalists and bloggers whilst still seeing value in the examination of the social and political changes that are happening within Syria today.

16 May 2009

Obama's war in Afghanistan

By Lee Marsden

This week has seen the removal of America's top military commander in Afghanistan General David McKiernan and his replacement by Lt General Stanley McChrystal, a veteran of Special Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Announcing the departure of General McKiernan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that "fresh eyes [were] needed" in Afghanistan. The move reflects growing disquiet about the failings of US/Coalition forces in Afghanistan that has seen a resurgence of the Taliban, a growth in the drugs trade, and growing corruption of Afghan government and officials without a corresponding development in infrastructure or security for much of the country. The corresponding Taliban resurgence in Swat province in Pakistan, fuelled by US missile attacks often resulting in civilian deaths, has turned the Afghan war strategy into an AFPAK strategy that is likely to be just as unsuccessful.

As Obama turns US attention from Iraq, which is now regarded as a success because the civilian death toll has fallen to around 300 per month, towards Afghanistan he faces the danger of repeating his predecessor's mistakes. Unlike Iraq, the Afghanistan war is legal in the sense that it was perceived as a legitimate response to an attack on a sovereign country by forces harboured by the Taliban government. NATO troops are present in the conflict at the behest of the democratically elected Afghan government to prevent its overthrow by a resurgent Taliban. Yet the war in Afghanistan, just like Iraq, is being sold to British and American publics on a false prospectus. We are told that the conflict is essential to prevent Al Qaeda launching terrorist attacks against the West, that Taliban and Al Qaeda are one-in-the-same, in short that Britain and America's national security is tied to winning the battle in Afghanistan. In support of such claims Obama intends to increase US troop levels to 60,000 and is looking to NATO countries, including Britain, to increase its deployment also.

And yet such a strategy is disingenuous, built on a myth which has the potential to become self fulfilling prophecy. The relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda is tenuous at best, a marriage of convenience in adversity as US strategy unites them as 'the other'. In reality the Taliban were reluctant hosts to al Qaeda in the 1990s, regarded the attacks on America as a betrayal of Afghan hospitality, and after 9/11 offered to hand Osama bin Laden to a Muslim country for trial, an offer rejected by the Bush administration which preferred to destroy the Taliban regime in retaliation for the New York and Washington attacks. Today, the threat posed by Al Qaeda is considerably exaggerated. The US intelligence agencies which claimed in 2002 that there were hundreds of Al Qaeda sleepers cells in the United States have failed to find any and have acknowledged that any threat is potential rather than actual. The claim that terrorist groups need a geographical training base to launch operations from, such as could be provided in Afghanistan, is fanciful, terrorist operations can and are planed from anywhere. The capability of al Qaeda and its associates is also considerably overstated, their inability to strike again at America is not due to lack of opportunity but rather capability. Al Qaeda’s attacks on fellow Muslims in Iraq has led to widespread disaffection, demonstrated by the Awakening in Iraq. And yet a few hundred terrorists continue to dominate US/UK thinking. Britain's involvement in Afghanistan, resulting in the death of almost 160 troops, is not based on national security interests but rather a desire to be seen as America's closest ally. Does anyone seriously believe that British troops would remain in Afghanistan one day after US troops withdrew? The Taliban's return is undesirable on humanitarian grounds but let's not pretend that national security depends on winning in Afghanistan.

9 May 2009

Don't forget Gaza

By Nicola Pratt

Next Saturday, thousands of people, including a delegation from Norwich, will march in London to remember Gaza. Armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, in which Israel killed more than 1300 people, a third of whom were women and children, whilst Hamas rockets killed 13 Israelis, ended with a ceasefire in January. However, the misery continues. As a result of Israel's bombardment, thousands of Palestinians were injured and a UN envoy has reported widespread anxiety and stress amongst children. Human rights organizations have accused both Israeli forces and Hamas fighters of war crimes. Of particular concern, is Israel's illegal use of white phosphorous, which causes deep skin burns, as well as the long-term effects of Israel's bombing of homes, schools, factories, agricultural land and essential infrastructure. International donors have pledged $4.5 billion to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip. However, Israel's continuing siege makes reconstruction and humanitarian relief there almost impossible. Ban Ki-Moon has said he is "very disturbed" that life in the Palestinian territory "remains extremely difficult" more than three months after the January ceasefire.

There is a tendency for public opinion to be mobilized against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only in periods of heightened violence, such as January's fighting. What is less widely reported are the everyday consequences of Israel's illegal occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967. Since that date, Palestinians have faced increasing restrictions on their ability to live ordinary lives - build houses, to farm their land, to work, to go to school and university, to worship at their holy sites and to visit friends and family. These restrictions have actually increased since 1993, when Israel began so-called peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Since 1993, Israel has increased the rate of settlement building in the Palestinian territories, contrary to international law. There are now half a million settlers living in the West Bank and their dedicated system of bypass roads slice up the West Bank. Settlements are built on land confiscated from Palestinians and use water resources at a rate four times higher than those used by Palestinians. The seizure and demolition of Palestinian land and homes have affected more than 50,000 people since 2000. Israel makes it difficult for Palestinians to move freely throughout the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza Strip by putting in place a system of checkpoints and closure. This significantly increases travel times, impacting upon the economy and education, as well as causing daily humiliations. Israel also controls the borders of the West Bank, making it difficult for international visitors—as I discovered the other week, when Israel refused my entry to lecture at Birzeit University.

In 2002, Human Rights Watch concluded that the restrictions imposed by Israel "are so extensive and protracted and so injurious to the basic health and welfare of civilians that they amount to a form of widespread collective punishment, in clear violation of international human rights and humanitarian law". The situation has been exacerbated by Israel's building of the separation wall, begun in 2002, ostensibly to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel but ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice since it cuts deep into land that is understood to be part of a future Palestinian state. The barrier separates Palestinians from their land, schools, hospitals and even divides some villages.

These restrictions make it increasingly difficult for Palestinians to live in dignity and help to make peace negotiations look futile, whilst the hard-line stance of Hamas looks more effective. In order for peace to become a credible alternative, we must make our voices heard in calling for an end to the injustices suffered as a result of Israel's occupation. That is why it is important to march in London next weekend.

For more information, contact The Greenhouse or phone 01493 664499.

2 May 2009

Community journalism celebrates its fifth anniversary

By Marguerite Finn

I feel like a veteran columnist today, as we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the One World Column! Five years ago, a small but determined group of local peace activists approached this paper for a space for anti-war voices, at the height of the Iraq war. This column owes its existence to the vision of EDP Editor, Peter Franzen, and the unfailing help of Pete Kelley. I take this opportunity to thank them for their patient support, which has enabled us regularly to raise issues as diverse as poverty, oppression, globalisation, resource wars, human rights, international relations and the environment.

Many changes have taken place in the world over the past five years - some good and some utterly disastrous. The pace of change is speeding up. Is our government learning from past mistakes? Or will we be asking in 2055 – like Peter Postlethwaite, looking back from his lonely perch in The Age of Stupid, – why didn't we save ourselves when we had the chance?

There is still time. Humanity and the planet would benefit from a sustained period of global peace and recuperation. But peace is not just the absence of war. For a lasting peace, we need to focus on human security rather than on the state security presently encouraged by the military-industrial complex. Britain has an unprecedented opportunity for a change of emphasis, allowing it to evolve in a more wholesome direction – like getting on with the world community instead of defending ourselves against it. Innovative thinking is urgently required, to move away from the concept of endless war requiring ever more vicious weapons.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm describes the mess we are in: "Britain deregulated its markets, sold its industries to the highest bidder, stopped making things to export and put its money on becoming the global centre of financial services and therefore a paradise for zillionaire money-launderers". He suggests a way forward: "The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals but widening the opportunities of all through collective action - a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British Government has yet envisaged."

Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies in Bradford, has been looking at Britain's national security strategy. He too is concerned about the slow pace of change in Government thinking: "The indications are that British security thinking is still largely stuck in the past. Much of the emphasis, in terms of spending commitments over the coming decade, will be focused on heavy investment in a new strategic nuclear force and massive new aircraft carriers that will together provide a global expeditionary capability far in excess of anything Britain has had for nearly four decades."

The arms industry is a small part of the UK economy, contributing less than 1.5% of total exports annually. Military-export employment comprises 2% of UK manufacturing employment, yet the sector is heavily subsidised. Jeremy Corbyn MP, says: "We have to challenge the idea that British industry needs big arms contracts to survive and we should be promoting a serious arms conversion strategy." Media informers and politicians need to be convinced that security does not come from weapons of mass destruction, but from a process based on peace - which means preventing the government wasting up to £76 billion on a new nuclear weapons system - which, according to General Sir Hugh Beach, (former Commander-in-Chief of UK Land Forces), "is no bloody use".

There is an opportunity to debate military spending at a meeting on Tuesday 5th May at St Peter Mancroft Church's Chantry Hall, Chantry Road, Norwich (7pm), organised by Norfolk Campaign Against the Arms Trade.