30 January 2010

From Norwich: eyewitness Gaza

By Rupert Read

My friend Peter Offord, an artist and local 'Stop the War' leader, has just recently returned from a historic visit to the Gaza strip, part of Palestine. 'Historic', because it is almost impossible to gain entry to Gaza, if the Israelis don't like what you intend to do there. As peace activists, Peter and his colleagues were considered a threat… Peter wanted to enter Gaza to be able to work with the traumatised local inhabitants there, in his capacity as an art therapist.

Why are so many Gazans traumatized?

The Israeli siege of Gaza began in 2005 when Israel withdrew its illegal settlers, and tightened in 2006 when Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Assembly, leading to collective punishment of the people of Gaza by Israel. The siege severely restricts the entry of food, fuel, medical supplies and other necessities through all the legitimate border-crossing-points into Gaza.

Just after Christmas 2008, Gaza fell victim to a viciously disproportionate attack by Israel. Gaza suffered 1,400 dead during the next month including 412 children, and 5,300 injured. By contrast, just 13 Israelis died during the attack. Israel pretended that this was a war; and Hamas, not wishing to appear cowed and humiliated, went along with the pretence. But this wasn't a war. It was a massacre.

One is reminded of the words of one of Israel's most famous ever war-leaders,
General Moshe Dayan, who once said "Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous 
to bother."

So: Peter sought, along with a thousand other peace activists from across the world, to enter Gaza, last month, as part of the Gaza Freedom March, to offer help to the Palestinian people. Shamefully, the Egyptian government sought to stop them, revoking previously approved coach permits, and banning all protests. When Peter managed to proceed 'incognito' too close to the Gazan border, he was placed under house-arrest by the Egyptian police. The situation only changed when Suzanne Mubarak - the Egyptian President's wife, and chair of the Red Crescent (the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross) - intervened, angering the Egyptian government but persuading it to allow into Gaza 100 people carrying humanitarian aid for the desperately suffering Gazan people.

Peter and his colleagues then had just three days to do all that they were trying to do, in Gaza. Peter managed for example to visit a centre for war-traumatised children who are using art materials to draw their experiences. They then describe these to their class (which takes place in devastated building) in order to try to reframe the terrible sufferings that they have undergone.

Earlier this month, Osama bin Laden said, "America will never be able to dream of living in peace unless we live it in Palestine. It is unfair that you enjoy a safe life while our brothers in Gaza suffer greatly." So long as the inhuman siege of and state-terrorisation of Gaza continues, Israel and its allies such as the USA (and UK) provide a ready-made excuse to bin Laden and his vicious minions for their savage campaign of violence against Western targets. For bin Laden continued his remarks: "Therefore, with God's will, our attacks on you will continue as long as you continue to support Israel." If we want to be tough on the causes of non-state terrorism, then we have to be tough on state-terrorism. That means, at minimum, calling time on our government's backing for Israel's cruel siege.

Well done to Peter Offord and to all his fellow activists for being brave enough to put their bodies on the line, and to make their way into Gaza despite the pressure put on them not to do so, by Israel and its Egyptian lackeys. If only our government could now be one-tenth as brave.

23 January 2010

Sing if you’re glad to be gay

By Lee Marsden

It is now over thirty years since the Tom Robinson Band invited everyone to "sing if you're glad to be gay, sing if you're happy that way". In a withering condemnation of discrimination, prejudice and indeed violence against gay people endemic within British society, Robinson invited us to celebrate rather than castigate homosexuality. The succeeding decades have witnessed a significant shift in attitudes and acceptance of difference within society. Today homosexuality has been decriminalised and civil partnerships introduced, 'queer bashing' has diminished as a favoured pastime for drunken louts uncertain of their masculinity. Even the police force, so heavily criticised by Tom Robinson back in 1978, has transformed to be awarded, in a recent Stonewall survey, five of the top twenty places as the most gay-friendly employers in the country.

And yet for all this progress, discrimination and prejudice do still exist and these advances can not be taken for granted. They are threatened by religious fundamentalists such as the now discredited Iris Robinson who spoke for many evangelical Christians, far beyond Ulster's shores, when she described homosexuality as an abomination. The tired platitude that Christians are enjoined to "love the sinner but hate the sin" obscures the reality that evangelicals hate the 'sinner' and the 'sin', and the 'sinner' knows it.

The renewed interest by the two main political parties in 'promoting the family' serves as a code for social engineering, which favours the nuclear family over divorcees, single parents and gay people through weighting the tax system in favour of those who pursue 'conventional' lifestyles. An incoming conservative government will enter office with previous form in discriminating against gay people, a third of the shadow cabinet, including David Cameron, have voted against at least one piece of gay rights legislation.

The combination of vocal religious intolerance and pro-family rhetoric should not be allowed to role back progress in advancing gay rights, which includes adoption and same sex marriage, which is now legal in Canada, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium. Mexico and Portugal look set to add to the list later this year. In the United States, same sex marriage has been legalised in five states. Religious opponents of such legislation are pledged to overturn this and their success in doing so in California last year is now the subject of court proceedings that could see the issue going all the way to the Supreme Court.

For gay people in much of the Muslim majority world and in African countries, dominated by evangelicals, life is as hard as ever. In Malawi and Uganda homosexual acts are illegal and punishable by up to fourteen years imprisonment. Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, a gay couple recently 'married' in Malawi face humiliating medical examinations to determine whether their relationship has been consummated, confirmation of which will lead to lengthy prison sentences. In Uganda, a bill before the parliament to increase the sentence for gay sex from fourteen years to life imprisonment, and the death penalty if one of the partners has HIV/AIDS, is only being delayed due to international pressure, from Gordon Brown among others, on Ugandan President Museweri.

As we enter the second decade of the twenty first century, equality and respect for people of all sexual persuasions should be taken for granted. Sadly, homophobic hate crimes rose by eighteen percent in London last year to over 1100 reported offences; the vast majority of such crimes still remain unreported. The Albert Kennedy Trust has also reported increases in the number of gay Muslims, fleeing from forced marriages and family violence, contacting them. As we enter the new decade we all need to be vigilant to ensure that gains made over the past three decades do not disappear and that people can still sing if they are glad to be gay.

16 January 2010

Iraq was the cabinet’s war

By Trevor Phillips

Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War has reconvened. Despite its tame cross examinations it may yet provide greater insight into how Tony Blair and his cabinet ended up promoting the US/UK invasion of Iraq.

The circumstances surrounding the decision to go to war still haunt UK politics, not least because of the thousands of victims but also because the decision making process remains opaque. It is surely time to end this saga but only transparency and justice are likely to do so. It may even require Tony Blair to be tried in The Hague for the crime of waging illegal aggressive war, killing thousands of innocents.

But is the guilt for Britain's contribution to this crime all Blair's? The then Tory Leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, had access to all of Blair's 'evidence'. In the Commons debate before the vote on invasion, Duncan-Smith endorsed Blair's false case, merely adding "the main reason why we [Tories] will be voting for the motion is that it is in the British national interest."

But one person's national interest is another person's dead son. I have met several parents of dead British soldiers who believe only military and oil corporations gained - and much that was precious was lost. There are injured victims of the murderous bombings of London transport who say the invasion of Iraq was a contributory factor in those atrocities. And Afghans are still killing British troops in the belief that a 'War on Islam' began in Iraq.

Some MPs were perhaps duped by the false claims of an imminent threat from Iraq and of non-existent 'Weapons of Mass Destruction', even though millions of British people and the Stop the War Coalition rightly saw through this falsehood. But the scale of guilt surely differs between gullible MPs attending the Commons debate on the eve of war and the Leader of the Opposition and cabinet members who had dozens of opportunities to challenge Tony Blair's claims.

According to Sir Michael Jay KCMG, then Permanent Under-Secretary of State, "The main ministerial discussion which takes place on foreign policy issues is in cabinet … I think I am right in saying Iraq was on the agenda of … each cabinet meeting or virtually every Cabinet meeting, in the nine months, or so, up until the conflict broke out."

The notorious 'dodgy dossier' and the '45-minute' claim, should have been put under acute examination by cabinet ministers in those meetings. Ministers had a duty to cross-examine Blair with forensic intensity on a matter where British lives were at stake. Did Ministers merely accept Blair's false claims at face value? Who asked questions? With what answers? We have a right to know, especially if those Ministers still hold office, like Gordon Brown, or seek re-election, like Norwich South MP Charles Clarke. Mr Clarke often espoused the 'regime change' argument in defense of the invasion. Were Ministers willing to support war on that basis even though regime change is not a legal basis for war - and was certainly not the reason given to parliament and the British public?

Publication of cabinet meeting 'minutes' (reports) could reveal the truth about the dutiful role played – or abrogated - by cabinet ministers. On 27 January 2009 the Information Tribunal agreed to release minutes of the last two cabinet meetings before the Iraq invasion. It considered there was a greater public interest in doing so than in maintaining confidentiality. Those minutes revealed that only Robin Cooke and Clare Short asked questions in those final meetings. The same public interest would be served by publishing minutes of all 28 cabinet meetings which considered the invasion of Iraq. Faith in the British democratic process is severely damaged, partly due to the Iraq tragedy. Sir John Chilcot should interrogate all of the then cabinet ministers and find out how cabinet government broke down. And then we must mend it.

9 January 2010

An old problem for a new year

By Marguerite Finn

In my new year's zeal to tidy up my study I uncovered a pile of newspaper clippings from 2008 including many references to population control as part of the mix of attempts to address climate change.

By 2009, exposure of this thorny subject had died down, as if population control had become the unspeakable 'elephant in the room'. Since it is a subject I believe should be widely debated, I was relieved to see a few brave letters appearing again only this week.

Policies to tackle climate change usually ignore the population question because it’s seen as being too sensitive and controversial. This 'blind spot' extends all the way from the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (October 2006) to the agenda of environmental groups, development bodies and political parties. The charity Optimum Population Trust maintains that: "a de facto taboo exists throughout civil society and within government". Consequently policy-making has concentrated exclusively on techno-economic solutions to climate change.

Putting this into perspective, figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show our own population growing by over four million to 65.6 million by 2018, passing 70 million two decades from now in 2029 and reaching nearly 86 million by 2083. Growth will be running at over quarter of a million a year and the ONS says that over two-thirds of the projected increase over the next quarter century will be due to immigration of people who have been displaced by climate change and the accompanying problems of war, famine and refugees. That immigration is our fate, for we in the west have caused the climate change. But those of us already here must not increase, for each additional one of us causes carbon emissions equivalent to 22 additional Malawians. From the industrial revolution onwards we have had our population explosion already; and, with inevitable immigration alone, will reach soon the limit of the carrying capacity of our land.

What of the poorer countries, which are having their population explosions now? Their problems are political – the inequality of food and other resources. Education, particularly of women will help them to address that. Additionally, countries such as the Indian subcontinent (twice as densely populated as China) and other island states, are already losing land to climate change. Yet we cannot point fingers at them with our heavier footprints, if we continue to over-populate ourselves.

Dr Mike Coleman, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, writing in 2008, suggested the UK government needed to address both population and economic growth – otherwise we will find it difficult to feed, house, educate and care for people and the quality of life will diminish considerably. The 'business as usual' model of striving for economic growth at any cost is the wrong path to follow. Two years on, these arguments will be understood locally by all those currently opposing the loss of prime agricultural land to thousands of new houses, obscene business hubs, plus a grossly carbon-negative northern distributor road. Spreading industrialisation, urbanisation, pollution and first world consumption patterns are reducing the ultimate carrying capacity of the earth.

Is it not time we faced up to population control and debated the subject more openly? Couples deciding about the size of their family are currently denied the public debate and awareness that might have informed and encouraged them to think about the implications for their fellow citizens, the climate and the rest of creation.

Could the United Nations Population Fund not ensure that all countries – including ours - adopt non-coercive policies limiting and stabilising population growth? Family planning in poorer countries should be a legitimate candidate for climate change funding, empowering women to control their own fertility while having major humanitarian benefits for the poorest women in the world.

2 January 2010

One planet community kitchen

By Charlotte Du Cann

After Copenhagen the citizens of the world have found themselves with all the cards. Their nations' leaders, unable to make a deal about carbon emissions, are sticking, while a powerful corporate lobby, in its relentless ransack of the planet, pushes the stakes higher and higher.

The question now is: knowing these things how do we proceed? Though we might be justified in calling the global elite and the "polluter" corporations to account, we've got work to do at home. Governments are locked into an economic growth model which demands three planets' worth of resources to fulfil. Their hands are tied whilst ours are free. We might not feel very free but we are able to act. And nowhere can we act more imaginatively and decisively than in the kitchen.

Everything we eat is intimately connected to other lifeforms, to plants, places and people. It's linked with the suffering of cows, the fate of migrant workers, the bulldozed rainforest, the desecration of the oceans, the pollution of the atmosphere. When you look at your plate you gaze upon the abundance of the earth and our great wasting of it. So if you share a resolution to keep within the limits of one planet living in 2010, here is a good place to start.

Right now, it's hard to look at the decade ahead, or even outside the door, where there are plans to turn beet fields into biofuel production, build distributor roads and tanker ports, flood supermarket shelves with mammoth amounts of imported sugar, palm oil and soya. However the moment you take practical steps in the kitchen, you're preparing for another future - planting corn for the harvest, planting fruit trees which one day your child will pick.

In 2010 if we are smart, we need act on what we know about the industrialised food system. We need to eat plants grown without pesticides, eat radically less meat and dairy, stop throwing a third of what we buy away. Although we are used to operating within a highly aggressive, competitive society, revved to the max on factory food, we're not made to live individualistic, isolated lives. We're configured to work in co-operative teams, swapping knowledge and stories and seeds, enjoying life in common.

This is the logic behind many local food initiatives that have sprung up in villages, towns and cities in the last decade. Aware of a coming decline in oil supplies (on which modern agriculture depends) as well as the knock-on effects of climate change, people are renovating allotments, organising city farms and community kitchens, creating woodlands and orchards, food co-ops, garden share schemes, baking bread. In Sheffield communities are gleaning fruit from the city's trees, in Hackney raising 70 different salad leaves, in Norwich pioneering a CSA scheme, school market garden and flour mill to produce bread made from Norfolk wheat.

To engage in food production is to remember the bargain all human beings make with life, which is we give the best of ourselves for our time here. While the industrial barons are in charge of our reality we can give nothing because all our energy and attention serves to uphold the Chosen Few and the make-believe world they control.

We have to take that energy and attention back. Not just for ourselves, but for the land we live in, for the disappeared honey bees, for the herring shoals, for our apple orchards. And no matter how powerful and greedy and apocalyptic those barons become, they will not be backed by the planet as we are backed in our small actions. A weak agreement was reached in Copenhagen because the deal governments make with life, with the life-affirming citizens of the world, is weak. Because the real future of the earth does not belong to them. We hold it right now in our hands.

To find out more about local food projects in the UK read Local Food – How to Make It Happen in Your Community by Tamzin Pinkerton and Rob Hopkins (Green Books); for Norwich food projects contact Tully Wakeman on tully@transitionnorwich.org. Charlotte Du Cann is a member of Transition Norwich and Sustainable Bungay.