29 May 2004

Yet more carnage

By Rupert Read

"This must never, ever be allowed to happen again." (Newspaper editorial, 100 years ago, commenting on the first ever car accident fatality)

Yet the very day after my first 'One World' column ("Why we must stop this carnage", May 15), the headline on p4 of the EDP was "Six killed in road accident 'carnage'". There have also been a lot of deaths in Iraq, and in Israel and Palestine, recently, too. Photos of the dead and the grieving from there, too, have been all over the press.

Lots of deaths on British roads; lots of deaths in the Middle East. Coincidence? Not entirely; the two tragedies are closely connected. Every time you fill up with petrol, you are touching the tragedy of the Middle East. For the Western economy has a kind of terrible drug-habit. Every time you or I fill our cars with petrol, we are part of the West's habit. We are dependent on cheap oil, which makes the wheels of our economy, literally, run smoothly.

Virtually no-one now believes the lies of our spin-saturated 'New Labour' government: the biggest lie of all is that the war on Iraq had nothing to do with oil. The truth is that, worried about the stability of the Saudi regime and worried about the independence of the Islamist Iranian government, Bush-Blair wanted to get their dirty, and now bloody, hands on the vast oil reserves of Iraq, which were of course in the grip of the bloody, and, far more importantly from Washington's point of view, worryingly independent Saddam regime.

The Iraqi oil fields have now been 'secured', and are being sold off to huge (mostly American) oil companies. The forced privatisation of Iraq's greatest national asset is the underhand way in which the 'coalition' is seeking to ensure that it never loses access to Iraq's oil again.

The fire that Bush and Blair have ignited in the Middle East - especially in Falluja and Najaf and all over Iraq -- has however got out of control. The anger of the Iraqi people against their occupiers has in fact destabilised the country very badly. The ironic result is that oil prices are shooting up. The nightmare scenario now looming for Bush-Blair is this: their attempt to secure Iraq's oil fields for the West will lead to an economic downturn, as a result of rocketing oil prices!

The West invaded Iraq so that Western businesses might control the oil fields there. The West props up Israel so that it has a reliable strong-man in the MidEast. Every time an Israeli military assassin or a suicide-bomber strikes, the British and American governments bear a responsibility for it.

Every time there is carnage on the streets of Iraq, you and I bear a little responsibility for it. Every time we fill up with petrol, and choose to risk car-nage on the roads of Britain, we also choose to fuel longer-term carnage on the streets of Gaza and Baghdad and Jerusalem.

Only by ending our love-affair with the car, and looking for ways of weaning ourselves off the drug of oil, do we have a hope of putting an end to the terrible scenes that occur on our roads every day. The kind of scenes (dead and dismembered bodies, screaming relatives) that shock us, when we hear of an atrocity in the Middle East - yet which fail to shock us, when they happen right on our doorstep. Horribly, we have learnt to accept car-nage.

Until we start to break our oil-petrol-drug-habit, each and every one of us is playing a part in the tragedy of the Middle East, as well as in the growing death toll on Britain's roads.

What can be done? The first thing is always to drive within the speed limit. If you just do that, you cut massively the chance that you will turn your own car into a bomb. The second thing is wherever possible to car-share, to use other means of transport - summer is a great time to get on yer bike, for example! - or even to ask yourself, in the old war-time spirit, "Is my journey really necessary?" The third thing is to campaign and vote for politicians who are serious about changing our economy and our transport system so that we are no longer addicted to the car. Cars are wonderful things, but, like antibiotics, they are being dangerously over-used…

Cars are killers. There will be war in the Middle East as long as there are casualties on our roads. And so, truly: Norwich is Gaza is London is Jerusalem is Washington is Baghdad is Norwich.

22 May 2004

Dig for victory, dig for choice

By Jacqui McCarney

My family have joined a growing trend as we dug up our lawn to cultivate a kitchen garden. The self sufficiency of the 2nd World War has been reawakened as seed manufacturers report bumper sales this spring. This time it's not about "Victory" but about choice. We want good, wholesome food: vegetables which are fresh, locally grown, and not contaminated by GM products or pesticides. Soon growing your own may be the only way to ensure this.

In holding the "GM Nation" debate last year, the government intended to paint public concern as "anti-science", and "educate" the public about the benefits of GM technology. However, a sceptical public was not won over - 4 out of 5 people oppose the growing of GMs and only 2% are prepared to eat them.

The companies promoting GM, such as Monsanto have a poor past record: remember PCBs, Agent Orange, and Bovine Growth Hormone. They don't inspire confidence when they push for unlabelled GM in our food. Now the US government is demanding that the EU abandons its ban on growing genetically modified crops or pay $1.8bn in compensation for "loss" of exports over the last six years. The US bases its case on the "breaking of Free Trade rules" - "Free" Trade, but no Free Choice here!

Good news: Mendocino County in California banned growing GM crops earlier this year, followed soon by four Australian states imposing moratoriums and bans. Here on May 11th Hertfordshire County Council voted to go GM-free at their Cabinet meeting, and proposed that the East of England Regional Assembly adopts a policy preventing the growth of GM crops in our region. As the GM-free movement mainstreams, the US will have its work cut out.

Whilst the US claims that such bans are made without scientific evidence, there are mounting claims that, in fact, the scientific evidence of the risks of GM is suppressed. This is comprehensively documented by Jeffrey M. Smith in his damming expose of the GM industry, "Seeds of Deception". For example, Dr Arpad Puztai, found in 1998 that rats fed on GMs suffered damage to the immune system, the thymus and spleen, and indicators of increased cancer risk. Their brains were smaller and less developed than rats on non GM diets, as were their livers and testicles. Puztai was sacked and banned from speaking to the media.

We are sensible to cultivate our own veg when allergic reactions have doubled in the US since the introduction of GMs, and the Royal Society has said that genetic modification could lead to unpredictable and harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods.

Farmers are also threatened by huge difficulties in containment. Seeds are carried by birds, winds, floods and cross pollination by bees. For example, organic farmers in Canada can no longer grow GM-free Soya beans or canola because all their seeds are contaminated. Former environment minister Michael Meacher says "the Canadian experience shows clearly that GM will wipe out the organic sector".

To protect the livelihoods of our farmers, Gregory Barker conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, with the support of Friends of the Earth, is trying to ensure their legal protection with the "The GM Containment and Liability Bill". This would enable farmers to seek compensation from the bio-tech industry for loss of earnings due to contamination. This is only a sticking plaster solution : an outright ban is the only real protection.

If GM crops are introduced on this small Island, we will find it increasingly difficult to buy non-GM contaminated foods. They are sneaking in anyway as new laws allow the food on our supermarket shelves to contain 0.9% GMs without the need for labelling.

Growing our own will buy us a little time but we also need a guarantee from supermarkets that the food we buy will be 100% GM free. Even without the environmental and health risks of GMs, surely it is the right of all citizens to decide what they and dependent children will or will not consume, and not what US corporations dictate. With achy backs and dirty fingernails, many are making that choice. But real choice is being freely able to decide if we as a country want GM or not.

15 May 2004

Why we have to stop the carnage

By Rupert Read

The scene is all-too-familiar. An ambulance streaks towards the place in the middle of the road where people lie wounded and bleeding. Children are screaming. A dismembered leg is visible on the tarmac.

Hours later, we see a bus smashed half to pieces, and the remnants of a car are close beside it. Once again, sirens wail, and the bereaved wail just as loud.

Terror. Terror and horror. How can anyone tolerate the despicable people who made these scenes possible?

Let's look a little closer, if we dare. Near the dismembered leg, there are heavy skid marks. It looks like a car shot down the road at much too high a speed and did not succeed in avoiding these pedestrians.

And passers-by tell how the bus was smashed in a near-head-on collision with a car which jumped the lights.

When we look closely, then, we see that these are not necessarily scenes from Iraq or Palestine. These could be scenes from the roads of Britain, every day. The main subject of this column is road-crashes. In this country, 70 people die on our roads, and 750 are injured, every single week. Cars themselves are deadly weapons.

Is it outrageous to compare the deaths caused by road-crashes with the deaths caused by Palestinian or Iraqi suicide-bombers and by Israeli and 'coalition' assassination-squads? People don't choose to kill with their cars, whereas the Israeli and 'coalition' occupation forces and those who fight against them DO choose to kill. True. There is an important difference. And yet… people DO choose to use their cars in ways that they know can kill. At times, virtually all of us who drive knowingly drive dangerously, because we are three minutes late, or because we are angry, or … we knowingly use our deadly weapons with the safety-catch off. We kill. Some of us go to prison for it. Perhaps more of us should.

The real outrage, perhaps, is that we aren't more outraged by the car-nage on our roads.

And what of the assassins and the bombers? They choose to kill, for sure … and yet ... they don't. It is virtually chosen for them, by their lives. As Jenny Tonge M.P. recently said: if you or I had been born into a refugee camp, if we had seen our parents humiliated daily by occupying troops, if we had seen our land systematically taken away, if we had seen the governments of the U.S. and Britain giving the occupiers vast military aid, if we had been offered neither democracy in our own land nor the chance to learn effective techniques of non-violent resistance, if we had become utterly desperate … then we too would quite probably have become suicide bombers. Bombers and assassins are made, not born. The life-choices that are available to them make their terrible vocation seem natural. Just as it seems natural to many of us to break the speed limit routinely. We do it, because our consumerist culture 'forces' the pace of our lives. We do it, even though we know that speeding drastically increases the dangers posed to others by the metal lethal weapons that we move around in.

Needless to say, I am not arguing in favour of the desperate, horrific and self-defeating actions of Palestinian or Iraqi suicide-bombers, nor of the oppressive, brutal and self-defeating actions of their Israeli or American counter-killers. I believe passionately in a non-violent solution to the problems of humankind, including even the tragically difficult problems of the Middle East. But such a solution will probably take a long time coming. At least as long as it will take for us to get violence off the roads, and end the daily car-nage of our own streets.

Sooner or later, we will have to start changing our economy and our transport system drastically. If we do it sooner, we can perhaps reduce carbon emissions enough to stave off the looming catastrophe of global warming.

Whereas, if we leave it until later, the car-nage on our streets will not stop. And nor will the carnage in Iraq. For let's not forget: we went into Iraq (and not into Zimbabwe or North Korea) because of oil.

Oil and petrol; cars and killers. It's time to start thinking seriously about the connections here. Before it's too late for all the families - in Fallujah and in Norwich and everywhere -- who haven't had to grieve … yet…

8 May 2004

A tale of two cities ... divided by a veil

By Marguerite Finn

I wonder what Charles Dickens would have made of the great debate currently raging in Paris and London, on the ban the wearing of religious symbols in French public (state) schools.

I have no doubt he would have produced a masterpiece exposing both sides of the issue - possibly entitled Too Great Expectations?

Christians, Muslims and Francophiles in Norfolk are all disturbed at the decision of the French Government to legislate against Muslim girls wearing headscarves at school. France is a secular state, but nevertheless, a secular state should respect human rights, including the free expression of one's faith, as required under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Article 18 of which affirms that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and this includes "freedom, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief, in teaching, practice, worship and observance".

The French proposal also bans the wearing of turbans by boys at school, crosses on necklaces or bracelets, the Star of David, or anything which denotes adherence to religion of any kind. Pursued further, it could even preclude the display of such symbols on notice boards outside any place of worship. This is a dangerous road to have set out on. So why are they doing it - and does the issue of the headscarf not veil a much deeper conflict at the heart of the State ?

The French Revolution in 1789 ushered in the immortal values of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité, together with a tendency to recognise individuals rather than groups: a French citizen owes allegiance to France first and foremost and has no officially sanctioned ethnic or religious identity. In 1905 France passed a law separating Church and State, and from as far back as 1937, French schools have been periodically exorted to keep religious symbols out.

In attempting to "sell" the forthcoming legislation to a divided population, French Government spinners argued that the conflicts of the world should not be brought into the class room. They said they were not seeking to take away individual freedoms - they wanted individuals to be integrated and Muslim women to be viewed and treated as equals. Head scarves, they argued, could not be tolerated in schools because they were instruments of propaganda for an intolerant version of Islam and are symbols of the oppression of women. If a Muslim woman wishes to wear the Hijab in order to identify herself with a particular set of values and a way of life which rejects some of the wilder material excesses of today's world, is that such a bad thing?

But should Muslim women not always be 'viewed and treated as equals' according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and irrespective of whether they wear the hijab? Is there really a threat to France's traditional secularity now, from its 6 million muslims ?

And what about the United Kingdom? Is the multiculturalism of the UK a better model? Well, there are 1.8 million Muslims in Britain and Islam is one of the fastest growing religions. London has become one of the world's principal centres of Islamic publishing, as well as a major Muslim cultural and intellectual centre. There is greater political representation in the UK with at least 12 ethnic-minority members of Parliament and a reasonable presence in the world of radio and television. This compares favourably to France where there are no Muslims in the French National Assembly. Britain's more 'relaxed' attitude to ethnic minorities may have produced more social mobility but perhaps at the price of complacency about our entrenched ghettos, from whence there may be a drift towards greater extremist activity.

So, where is the evidence that either the French or British model works, when in both countries, Islamophobia is on the increase? Secularism/integration and laissez-faire multi-culturalism both appear to be failing. Is it not far, far better to celebrate the diversity of life rather than to produce a seemingly homogenous population that is seething with resentment underneath the surface.

We can ensure respect for diversity by better employment and wage prospects for all. If ethnic minorities are encouraged to attend classes in Citizenship, English and History - all of which could be taken wearing veils, turbans, crosses in mosques, temples and churches and school halls throughout the land - then surely all of us should attend classes in the dangers of violence and of unremitting competition and alienation - for citizenship depends upon inclusion and not exclusion. In a pluralistic society such as ours, we ban the wearing of veils, crosses and turbans to our cost.

1 May 2004

Here's a birthday present for Live Aid

By Andrew Boswell

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Live Aid. But where is Africa now? That continent is in a more horrendous a plight than it was back in 1985. Unpayable debts and unfair trade rules keep Africans poor, whilst Aids ravages the continent largely uncontrolled. Sir Bob Geldof, sanctified by some as Saint Bob, has asked global leaders for a 20th anniversary birthday present to the Live Aid generation. Well done, Sir Bob. Let's be in no doubt, Africa needs several leaps beyond the gesture politics seen at Johannesburg and past summits.

Referring to one of the UN Development Goals for 2015, Gordon Brown recently said "on current forecasts, sub-Saharan Africa will achieve our target for reducing child mortality not by 2015, but 2165. This is not good enough."

The UN estimates that it needs an extra $50 billion annually to meet the UN Millenium Development Goals and the challenge to us rich nations is to deliver money and actions, not words. Aid on this scale and without strings might just permanently reverse the endemic poverty and suffering.

Who pays, you ask? Well, Gordon Brown has a crafty financing scheme where rich, donor countries borrow from the international capital markets to underwrite large increases in aid between now and 2015. The French are on board: they hosted a meeting just before Easter to promote the scheme. The US and Germany are less keen, but Britain, as twin president of the European Union and the G8 industrialised nations, next year, has the ideal opportunity to promote this doubling of global aid to $100 billion.

Sounds good, but the scheme has downsides. The donor countries will be expected pay the money back, up to around 2032, out of aid budgets. This undermines stable and predictable aid-flows Africa needs long into this century. Worse, Gordon Brown's scheme ties countries to unhelpful IMF rules, and borrowing countries will also have to agree to trade liberalization, more likely to increase poverty and limit growth.

It is essential that world leaders stop burdening poor countries with these with unfair conditions, and instead underwrite further Aid generating schemes to enhance Gordon Brown's scheme and sustain its benefits beyond 2015. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves wondering in 2025 why the lot of Africa hasn't improved since 2005 and 1985.

Here are two ideas for Messrs Brown and Blair, and the G8. First, impose a minute tax, a fraction of 1%, on the billions traded every day in currency transactions. Better known as Tobin Tax, after Nobel prize winning economist James Tobin, I love this idea - it's a wonderful triple whammy. It will raise vast international revenues to eradicate global poverty, calm financial markets and protect developing countries from the currency fluctuations that can currently reap enormous damage on their economies. I urge readers to support War on Want's campaign for the tax at www.waronwant.org/tobintax.

Second, Messrs Blair and Brown should encourage leaders to part-fund development from a peace dividend from reducing global spending on warfare, now around $1trillion annually. In the light of the horror of Africa, we rich nations must ask honestly if we need hugely, expensive defence systems : "Star Wars", flotillas of large war-ships, or new nuclear weapons.

A Peace dividend is not a new idea: Isaiah referred to turning swords into ploughshares millennia ago. If all nations progressively decreased defence spending by 1% annually into a "ploughshares" Aid fund, approximately an accumulative extra $10 billion would be generated each year. By 2015, this annual Peace dividend would amount to $100 billion - a further doubling of the Aid budget, at the time that the IFF is due to time out.

This triple headed financial plan comprising Mr Brown's scheme, Tobin Tax and a Peace dividend, creates real, sustainable action - it would be a true 20th anniversary birthday present to the Live Aid generation.