Thursday, 21 August 2008

Georgia, Poland, and the US missile defence shield

It has been a rather dramatic two weeks since Georgia's attack on South Ossetia and the uncompromising response of the Russian military, but only now - with Poland signing a deal to host US missile interceptors as part of the missile defence shield - is the full story becoming clear. The war between Russia and Georgia took the West by surprise, despite the strong precedent for it, and has led to a quite heated debate. The only problem, though, is that this debate has remained largely shallow and simplistic.

The basic analysis of the conflict, as depicted by the mainstream media, is this: Georgia was wrong to attack South Ossetia, but Russia's response was completely disproportionate and unnecessary, whilst the US and UK are in no place to criticise due to its role in Iraq. And, to an extent, this is all true, but it is not the whole picture.

Although the conflict does have its roots in the South Ossetians' struggle for autonomy against the then-Soviet Republic of Georgia, its unrecognised independence of 1992, and Mikhail Saakashvili's strengthened crackdown in the region after the "Rose Revolution" in 2003, international influences also have to be taken into account. Georgia, though not a formal member, has strong ties with NATO and is engaged in an "Intensified Dialogue on ... membership aspirations" with the organisation. This is consistent with NATO's post-Cold War expansion, which has taken in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria since the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, and makes Georgia a strategic US ally in the Caucasus.

This does not mean that the South Ossetia conflict is a proxy war between the US and Russia, as "New World Order" conspiracy theorists insist, but it has allowed the United States to protect and reassert its global economic hegemony in the face of Russian resurgence. The US and NATO have failed to provide military support for Georgia, allowing Russia to completely dominate the disputed region, instead offering only diplomatic condemnation. However, fighting back militarily would have been unproductive, as Russia's swift and brutal retaliation against Georgia has given the US the prefect excuse to expand its Missile Defence Shield with Poland.

Though the US has officially denied any connection with the Georgia incident, instead sticking to the official line of the Missile Defence Agency (MDA) that the shield is necessary to protect against "rogue states" such as Iran who are "hostile to the U.S. and its allies," the Polish Defence minister Bogdan Klich's comments to Polish newspaper Dziennik suggested otherwise. "Above all," he is quoted as saying "it seems that the Americans changed their opinion as a result of the situation in the Caucasus" adding that "this conflict proved that Russia was not a stable partner for the States."

This fits well with the view put forward by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) think-tank that the US must capitalise on victory in the Cold War by "build[ing] upon the achievements of past decades" and "shap[ing] a new century favourable to American principles and interests." And it is important that the US's "global leadership" must face no "challenges to our fundamental interests" and accept its "unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles."

Thus, Russia's resurgence - and, for that matter, the rising economic might of China - cannot be allowed to present a "peer competitor" to America, and the crisis in South Ossetia has provided the perfect excuse to further negotiations for the expansion of the missile defence shield. These negotiations should not be viewed in isolation. The US also has designs upon the militarisation of space, and to that effect in 2002 vetoed efforts by the UN Conference on Disarmament to ban space weapons. We also know that the missile defence system has the capability to shoot down satellites as well as ballistic missiles, and that there is historical precedent of America making preparations for devastating "First Strike" plans.

So, the prospect of a completed missile defence shield presents some very disconcerting concepts. Essentially, it threatens to give America the power to launch a first strike anywhere in the world without fear of reprisals, and to cement US hegemony over the world. Russia and China both know this and have both promised to do everything in their power to stop it from going ahead. This places us, right now, at one of the most precarious and potentially unstable moments in the history of the planet.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

On paedophiles and the "lynch-mob" mentality

Today, the Madeleine McCann abduction case was thrust into the spotlight once more with the revelation that Maddie was apparently spotted in Holland, three days after she was taken, with a French-speaking woman. According to the Daily Mirror, "shop assistant Ana Stam, 41, said the little girl told her: "My name is Maddy." Then she said of the woman with her: "She is not my mummy, she took me from my holiday.""

This will no doubt raise hopes that the child, and those who took her, can be found and set the nation talking. Every single time there is a high-profile case of child abduction, and especially murder, the public's emotions run high. This is understandable. Every parent in the country has the exact same fear of this happening to their own kids, and there are few people who cannot sympathise with the horror and trauma suffered by those involved.

However, it can go too far. The tabloid media, with relative ease, is able to very quickly drum up an atmosphere of hysteria and fury that has people baying for blood. Talk of bringing back the death penalty do the rounds in The Sun, The News of the World, and their ilk, and the threat of vigilatism and angry mobs is so great that suspects in such cases have to have the tightest of security. However, this attitude is unequivocally wrong and needs to be resisted. It has become so absurd that, a few years back, a doctor was attacked by a mob who couldn't differentiate between a paediatrician and a paedophile.

Let me be in no doubt about this: paedophiles and those who harm children absolutely should not be allowed anywhere near kids. However, there are various schools of thought on whether or not that means prison. Some psychologists believe it is a mental disorder which requires treatment in isolated facilities, whilst others believe that they are capable of engaging in normal community interaction as long as they're not exposed to kids. Most experts agree that their urges can be controlled and quelled if not removed altogether.

The reason I bring this up isn't to make any apologies for them - far from it, I believe abuse of children to be the most horrendous of crimes and even I get the urge to stamp on their balls until they explode. However, treating them far more humanely than they treat their victims might be more pragmatic by way of prevention.

The current reaction towards paedophiles in the media and even in the justice system is a violent one verging upon vigilatism, which has the detrimental effect of driving most of them underground. This makes them harder to catch and, ironically, puts children in greater danger. However, if we were to adopt a more humane approach, then it could prove easier to isolate child abusers before they commit crimes.

Although there are those who are simply sociopaths with no empathy whatsoever towards human suffering and a sadistic delight in causing pain, the majority of paedophiles are actually highly disturbed individuals - often as a result of suffering such abuse themselves - whose urges fester in them for a long time before they act upon them. If we put a stop to the current tactics that make them think that all they will receive from society is vilification and harsh punishment, then we could make appeals and urge those with such desires to come forward and seek help before they offend.

As those who have been victims themselves - Fred and Rose West's son is a good example - know the horrors of such abuse, then there will be a conflict within them between their urges and the knowledge and self-hatred for how it affects people which will make them more likely to give themselves up if such an appeal is made. If we do this, as well as providing greater long-term help for victims of abuse as soon as they are saved to stop them becoming abusers themselves, and redoubling efforts to catch those who are unrepentant sociopaths, then I think there will be a much greater possibility of saving more children from abuse and significantly reducing instances of paedophilia.

We just have to control our urge to kick the fuckers to death...

Monday, 4 August 2008

Asylum seekers and the NHS

As ever, the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant lobby and the reality of the system we live under are utterly out of step. Thus, those accustomed to the usual platitudes that we are "too soft" on asylum seekers, that they are "drowned" in benefits, that they "bleed" our country "dry," and that they are "raping" the NHS might find themselves surprised by recent news.

Four years ago, this "soft" government that apparently "panders to every whim" of asylum seekers set forth proposals to restrict overseas visitors from getting primary NHS care for free. This includes refused asylum seekers, undocumented migrant workers, victims of trafficking, and recipients of Section IV Support, some of the most vulnerable people to come to this country. And, because they're so keen to make sure foreigners are "prioritised" and "treated like royalty" in the UK, when invited responses from the medical profession and experts on asylum and immigration issues came back largely opposing the new measures, they were suppressed.

It is only now, four years later, that these comments have come to light. Medsin's Global Health Advocacy project launched a campaign to defend the right to free primary healthcare for all, and have worked long and hard to contact all those who responded and find out what their opinions actually were. The submissions they received are very revealing. Overwhelmingly, they come out in opposition to denying anybody primary healthcare on both ethical and practical grounds:

"East Midlands Consortium for Asylum and Refugee Support - we have requested a copy of their submission. Meanwhile we note that in their annual report from 2003-4, they state (page 20)...

"Recently we sent a regional response to the Department of Health consultation on restricting overseas visitors (including failed asylum seekers) entitlement to free NHS Primary Healthcare. We argued that this was neither ethical nor practical to do in GP surgeries.


"Dr Jill Maben (Senior Research Fellow, Nursing Research Unit at King's College)...

"Cannot locate the documents I am afraid - sorry...My views are that access to healthcare is a human right. Here in the UK we may often take this for granted because of our largely very good healthcare provision with our 'free at the point of delivery' NHS system. However, whilst I am largey in favour of non EU citizens who travel to the UK for health provision paying for their treatment if they can afford it and on a case by case basis, I am not in favour of my government refusing the most vulnerable in our society (asylum seekers, failed asylum seekers and refugees) access to healthcare that they require. The NHS is a universal service for all based on clinical need, not ability to pay, yet we hear of failed asylum seekers being refused hospital treatment and being pursued by debt collectors if they have received emergency treatment (BMJ 06). Asylum seekers and Failed asylum seekers should be entitled to access to healthcare as this is a universal right under international law and embodies our recognition of common humanity. As these groups are also denied access to work, or the ability to earn money in any way, just how are they expected to pay?

"It will cause death and increased morbidity if such people are denied these basic rights and the impact would be felt further downstream, for example by emergency health services. If the government is unable to think of the health of the asylum seekers themselves, issues of public health for the whole UK population should be of concern. A lack of basic health information, health education and untreated HIV / Aids, TB, and other communicable diseases in an already stigmatised population may also result in the spread of such diseases to a wider population.

"I am wholly against this ill-thought through and pernicious proposal. It is shameful that the British government is seeking to act in this way, denying access to medical care is unlawful, inhumane and goes against what those if us in healthcare professions are seeking to achieve. Such a law would be largely unworkable too and is likely to have little effect on the number of asylum seekers treated by GPs, and practice nurses, it would merely force such doctors and nurses to carry out illegal actions to uphold their Hippocratic oath / code of conduct.


"David Sloane (City and Hackney Teaching Primary Care Trust)

"Of the top of my head I think the main reasons for objecting to the proposed legislation were:

"It is contrary both to basic human rights and to the spirit of the fight against inequalities in health which is clearly stated Govt policy

"It will frighten people off seeking help thus potentially causing ill health from potentially preventable stages of illness

"Antenatal care is a particular concern – if people do not come for it we know they are likely to get into trouble which the state will have to pick up and pay for

"Emergency care has traditionally been free to all – what is emergency care and what elective?

"There is no need to enact it because the NHS is not being abused by asylum seekers and refugees; they are not here to exploit our health care system

"There may be a case for legislating to prevent such exploitation by those from rich countries – eg bankers from the US

"Imposing the responsibility on GPs to police the system undermines the GP/Patient relationship which is likely to create a black market in healthcare

"There is an anomaly in the legislation which allows treatment for conditions presenting a public health hazard. However where do you draw the line? – e.g. we know that mental health is a major problem for R&AS – this could become a public health hazard if these people are not helped

"If we are concerned with public health then R&AS should be a focus for our concern not a target for penalty!

"Hope these rapid thoughts may be helpful."

Medsin's campaign briefing also provides specifics on the changes to the law and several revealing case studies that show the detrimental effects of the new regulations, Statutory Instrument 2004 No 614, on both individuals and on the nation as a whole. And the case against the new regulations is a damning one.

As well as being highly unethical, and in contradiction with both the Hippocratic Oath and the principle of universal health care that's free at the point of delivery, the new rules also highly impractical and nonsensical. For example, two of the types of primary care denied to foreign citizens is vaccination for things such as measles and whooping cough and medicine for the likes of diabetes and asthma. They have to wait until such diseases are in full swing before they can be treated. Besides the obvious fact that this essentially means that catching serious diseases in the UK becomes highly dependant upon your country of origin, it also falls flat as a money-saving initiative. It would cost the NHS just £9 to give a foreign national (or, indeed, anyone) an appointent with a nurse. It costs a paltry £110 for them to attend A&E. However, it costs the enormous sum of £1,387 for just one day in intensive care.

So, not only do the changes to the healthcare regulations deprive asylum seekers and other desperate people of necessary basic healthcare, and force them to forgo prevention so that they're more likely to need a cure, it does so at cost. Why? For the same reasons that such absurd and punitive measures are always brought in, of course; as an attempt to sate the baying hounds of the anti-immigration lobby and the right-wing media. To prove how "tough" they really are.

They needn't bother. No matter what measures the government brings in, no matter how harsh and Draconian they really are, there will always be those who make noises about "preferrential treatment" and being "too soft." The hounds can never be sated. No matter what is done - detention, points systems, denial of healthcare, or whatever else - they will keep fermenting the lies, demanding ever more brutal action, and pushing the ruling party towards totalitarian action. The reality will always go ignored, the facts will always go unheard, and the Tories, the BNP, MigrationWatch, the Daily Mail, and their peers will continue to present myth and hearsay as truth.

It is time we stopped pandering to the xenophobes and the nationalists and started fighting for justice and equality. And universal healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery, is as good a place as any to start.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

An argument for the legalisation of all drugs: an update

Since I posted my argument for drugs legalisation a month ago, it seems that many others in positions of far more influence than me are taking a similar line. Last Wednesday, the UK Drugs Policy Commission released a report that claims the war on drugs has had "little adverse effect" on the availability of drugs in the UK.

According to the report, although £380 million, which the report states is "about one-quarter of the total cost of delivering the drug strategy," was spent on enforcement and cutting off the supply of drugs in 2005/06, the effect has been minimal. This is because "drug markets have proven to be extremely resilient" and "they are highly fluid and adapt to law enforcement interventions." Moreover, the report unequivocally finds that "enforcement can have a significant and unintended negative impact on the nature and extent of harms associated with drugs" and insists that this problem needs to be "recognised and minimised."

Of course, the problem is being recognised now. The report is just the latest evidence against the drug war policy, and more than one senior police officer has come forward in the past year to argue in favour of legalisation to some degree. Some have argued for addict prescription whilst others, like myself, have insisted that full legalisation and removing the trade from criminal hands is not only necessary but vital.

Either way, more and more people are opening their eyes and starting to realise that, when official figures "
estimate the size of the UK illicit drug market to be £5.3 billion" and thus "the single greatest organised crime threat to the UK," then those willing to bypass the law for profit will never be deterred by crackdowns and drug-busts.