Monday, 31 August 2009

Why soldiers are the key to re-awakening the anti-war movement

The Daily Telegraph reports today that "there is rising disillusion among liberals and peace activists that a president who built his campaign on his opposition to the war in Iraq now views America's other conflict as a "war of necessity"." According to the article, whilst "some organisations that campaigned against the Iraq war are biding their time or are more inclined to side with the president," "others have run out of patience."

This assesment is seconded by, which warns that "what support the president has managed to maintain on this issue has a soft underbelly highly vulnerable to continued bad news from the battlefield." So, although amongst liberals "this change [criticising Obama's policies] has taken place among a very narrow group of people," a much more significant change is "taking place in the population at large." Accordingly, a poll by the Washington Post and ABC News finds that "a majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country."

This growth of anti-war sentiment under the Obama administration is still behind that to be found in the UK, where a poll for the Independent at the end of July revealed that "majority of the public believes that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and British troops should be pulled out immediately." However, it is certainly a heartening development.

For too long, the fact that it is Barack Obama at the helm rather than George Bush has rendered the anti-war movement impotent. Not a peep was raised as Obama immediately continued Bush's policies with a troop surge in Afghanistan in January, nor the deployment of another 17,000 troops in mid-February. Now, in the wake of the recent Afghan presidential election, which Human Rights Watch called "one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the last eight years," and which saw "the highest level of civilian casualties since the fall of the Taleban in 2002" according to Amnesty International, the anti-war movement is paralysed by its own inaction.

Elite and establishment groups have involved themselves in a heated "debate" over "strategy." The Chicago Tribune quotes General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, as saying that "the situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort." The Times reports that General Sir David Richards, the new head of the British Army, has echoed these sentiments and "is expected to push hard in Whitehall for more British troops."

At the more dovish end of the spectrum, commentators such as Anthony Lloyd in the Times and James Fergusson in the Independent insist that we must be asking "is it worth it?" Fergusson laments that Western troops tried to plant the seed of democracy "in a hurricane" and failed to "secure the elections." "There is an alternative to this recipe for endless war, and that is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban," which needs to be "placed centre stage" in our strategy rather than being "an adjunct." Lloyd, meanwhile, tells us that as "British soldiers are getting killed and wounded in greater numbers in Helmand than ever before," we need to ensure that the war "a reasonable chance of advantageous conclusion." At the extreme of dovishness, hestates that "the presidential election tangles the country into an even greater level of insecurity then I am almost sure that I could no longer believe that the price is worth it or success achievable."

Meanwhile, the voices challenging the ingrained assumptions defining this "debate" are so low as to be almost silent. It is hard to find those fighting to push through the message that, whatever "strategy" we employ, the war remains fundamentally immoral and an illegal act of aggression, in violation of the Nuremburg Principles (Principle VI), the UN Charter (Article 2, Paragraph 4) and General Assembly Resolution 3314. Nor can one easily find a voice openly declaring that no "advantageous conclusion" justifies the attrocities that have, since the beginning of the war, left 7,589 innocent civilians dead and another 13,660 seriously injured.

Now, however, it appears that this situation may be turning around. If it is to do so, however, then a serious redeployment of efforts and resources is needed. In Dissident Voice, an internet newsletter of the radical left, Ron Jacobs writes of one important tactic which has been underused since Vietnam;
It is the opinion of many anti-warriors that veterans have a key role to play in any organized resistance. After all, it was their presence in the movement against the Vietnam war that shook the conscience of the US public in that war’s later years. However, as Dahr Jamail and his subjects point out again and again, the strength in numbers and the political power of the GI movement against the war in Vietnam was directly related to the strength of the greater antiwar movement. So, despite the commitment of today’s GI and veteran resisters profiled in Jamail’s book, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, that commitment is limited by the weakness of the antiwar movement as a whole.
Jamail highlights the various organizations organizing GI resistance, from the Iraq Veterans Against the War to the group Courage to Resist. He also commits a chapter to each of the primary forms of resistance and reasons for that resistance. He describes instances of individual resistance and the refusal of entire units to carry out missions. He also explores the nature of the sexist culture of the military and the immorality of the wars themselves. One of the most interesting chapters in The Will to Resist is titled “Quarters of Resistance.” It describes the mission and interior of a house in Washington, DC run by a couple veterans. The purpose of the house is to operate as a sort of clearinghouse for the GI resistance movement. At times, the house has provided shelter for veterans and GIs attending antiwar activities in DC. It is also a place that the founder of the house, Geoffrey Millard, calls a “training ground for resistance.” In addition to these quarters, Jamail discusses the beginnings of a coffeehouse movement slowly developing outside major US military bases.
Such tactics are especially vital in the wake of a resurgent nationalism that has gripped the West, particularly the US and Britain, in recent months. As war veterans and GIs participate in resistance against the war, their efforts minimised by the lacking strength of the wider movement, bellicose civilians are demonstrating that they "Support Our Troops" by using them as totems to deflect criticism of the wars in which they are sent to die.

Events such as Red Fridays, with supporters wearing red to show their "support" for soldiers, are surrounded with verbose nonsense about "the 'silent' majority" who "thank God" for the "sacrifices" of these young men and women "who are putting their lives on the line everyday for us so we can go to school, work, and enjoy our home without fear or reprisal." The reality is that our freedoms and lives are not at stake in Afghanistan, that those of the Afghans are under continual threat every second that we persist in the country, and that whilst the "silent majority" "thank God," their "unsung heroes" are being slaughtered as fodder in an unjust war. And should they survive, the cheers of those who "still love this country and support our troops" is a preamble to homelessness, depression, and even suicide.

Building up a strong veteran contingent within the anti-war movement is perhaps the only way to challenge the jingoism of movements which peddle the mythos about war and in doing so support not our troops but the aggressive militarism and imperial violence which is destroying them as human beings before it kills them. Moreover, it will end the senseless slaughter of innocent civilians abroad which is the real threat to our ability to "go to school, work, and enjoy our home without fear or reprisal."

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The ongoing struggle against fascism on Merseyside

The Merseyside branch of the British National Party has always been something of a ramshackle operation. After a burst of activity during the European elections, which saw a round rejection of BNP politics in Liverpool and Chairman Nick Griffin elected as an MEP only due to low overall voter turnout and high BNP turnout, especially in their Oldham stronghold, the branch has been remarkably quiet. Even the arraignment of Peter Tierney for assault charges and the promise of an anti-fascist protest to disrupt couldn't mobilise them.

However, the BNP are not the only fascist group on Merseyside, though with the support of twenty-five members at a push they might be the largest. As I reported after the protest at Tierney's arraignment, the only turnout in favour of Tierney came from four photo-happy fascists believed to be with the British Freedom Fighters (BFF). It now seems that this presumption was correct, at least based on the bellicose nonsense offered up on White Nationalist forum Stormfront;

Note that, after his "clever" remarks about the "mass of UAF idiots built up of local tranvestities, spastics and the odd student who hasn't got a life to back to during summer," Pino88 announces that "I'll be back on the 15th with some BFF again to see if the Reds want to have a proper go this time." Given that, at the last protest, "having a go" consisted of shouting inaudible jeers at the "Reds" from across the road, I would suggest that anybody attending the next protest has no need to fear any violence.

Speaking of the next protest, Tierney is due to attend court on September 3rd in order to enter a plea. Merseyside Coalition Against racism and Fascism (MCARF) and Liverpool Anti-Fascists are among the groups who will be picketing the hearing. We are calling upon all local anti-fascists and concerned citizens to join in and show that we will not stand for violence on our streets. Everybody is advised to arrive and leave in groups and perhaps to arrange rallying points where you can meet and head to the demo together. It is vital that the people of Liverpool show a united front in the face of increased violence from the fascists of the BNP. We encourage as many people as possible to come along, and to bring banners, friends and your voices with you.

September also sees the arrival of the first Trade Union Congress (TUC) conference in Liverpool in over 100 years. With "Greater regulation of the economy, increased public spending, quality pensions for all and the building of one million new affordable homesare" on an agenda built around workers' rights and protections, it is clear that - whatever the faults of the big unions in terms of hierarchy and unelected bureaucracy - this is a conference which gives the working class a voice at a time when they are most adversely affected by the continuing economic crisis.

Thus, the BNP's claims to being a party of the working class in Britain evaporate with the announcement that they will be "actively campaign[ing]" at the conference "against the Anti British Communists [sic] who will be attending." As MCARF points out, "On the local BNP blog a campaign has been run against local trade unionists, which is especially ironic considering the long history of trade unionism on Merseyside which has won many victories and fought campaigns for the people. The local BNP branch has long shown that they are opposed to the rights of workers and this action confirms it." MCARF declare that the TUC conference will be preceded by a "Time to Fight Back" march, beginning at Liverpool's Pier Head at 12:30pm on the 13th September. As effective anti-fascism is inextricably tied into class struggle, I would urge that all dedicated anti-fascists and labour activists on Merseyside do their best to attend.

The BNP, as fascists, seek to replace the global capitalist economy not with an economy guided by cooperative worker self-management, but by a corporatist system in which the interests of capital are tied to the state. In calling for protectionist measures in favour of British corporations and repealing equality legislation, hard-won by a century of class struggle to prevent capitalists from increasing oppression by turning different sections of the working class against one another, the BNP show themselves up as the party of isolationist state-capitalism which undoes the victories of the labour movement whilst throwing illusory sops to the working class.

The BNP, then, have shown themselves capable only of bringing violence and hate to our streets whilst working steadily to undermine the working class despite claiming to oppose the status quo. Clearly, as well as struggling in favour of the working class against the interests of the state and big business, it remains vitally important that we continue to stand in opposition to the BNP and other fascist groups wherever and whenever they may emerge.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Racism, terminology, and the continuing suffering of the Palestinian people

Yesterday, buried in the middle pages of the Independent, was a story that managed to escape the rest of the British press. "Israel placed curbs on Swedish journalists" attempting to enter the country, after a Sweish newspaper printed "long-standing Palestinian allegations that the Israeli army may have taken organs for transplants from men who died in custody." The article gives only passing mention of the article itself in the midst of detailed reporting on the Israeli response. The condemnations were interesting in that they said nothing about the substance of the actual allegations and everything about how Israel addresses criticism.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu "echoed colleagues in comparing the article to medieval "blood libels", which alleged Jews used the blood of Christian babies in religious rites." After the Sweedish ambassador to Israel was censured for condemning the article as "appaling," "Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a right-wing coalition party whose outspoken criticisms of Arabs have prompted accusations of racism, praised the ambassador and compared her to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who acted on his own initiative to save Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust." He told Israeli Army Radio, "What angers us is that the Swedish government didn't condemn it but hastened to reprimand the ambassador who did find it right to condemn this blood libel, which recalls the Dreyfus Affair." The Dreyfus Affair, of course, being "the trial of a Jewish officer in the French army a century ago, which drew attention to anti-Semitism across the continent and inspired Zionists to promote Jewish emigration to Palestine." Lieberman "also compared the article to "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", an anti-Semitic tract purporting to show a global Jewish conspiracy which was widely cited by Hitler among others."

Accusations of anti-semitism are common against critics of the state of Israel, but it is frankly rare to see the tactic employed so overtly and clumsily here. To invoke the Dreyfus Affair, blood libel, the Holocaust, and the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in response to just one article frankly beggars belief. However, for greater coverage of the row, one has to look beyond the Western media. The Israeli press, such as Ha'aretz, covers it, but for a report that allows a side other than Israel's to come through, one has to go to Al Jazeera;

In the article, Donald Bostrom, a Swedish freelance journalist, writes about the shortage of body parts in Israel and makes references to the so-called New Jersey scandal earlier this summer which involved rabbis, illegal organ trading and money laundering.

Bostrom then gives what he says is his own eyewitness account of an Israeli army raid on a Palestinian village in 1992.

He told Al Jazeera he was not anti-Semitic and insisted what he wrote was true.

"The body was taken away and the authorities made an autopsy with this young man against the will of the family," Bostrom said.

"All those things are actually true and happened. When the military returned the body the family said, 'We think they stole the organ of the body' because there was an empty belly.

"What I do is to refer to three things which have actually happened: the boy was shot dead, the autopsy, and the family claiming the body was emptied of organs."

Using accusations of anti-semitism to silence criticism of Israel takes on an even more virulent form with relation to the ongoing dispute over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. As the Guardian reports, "hardline pro-Israel groups in the US have been confronting President Barack Obama's demands for a halt to settlement expansion by accusing him of promoting the ethnic cleansing of Jews and jeopardising Israel's security." They "are also trying to shift the focus of administration policy from the Jewish settlements, arguing they are not an obstacle to peace, to demands for Arab governments to recognise Israel."

That the settlements themselves are a form of colonisation and annexation of the most viable Palestinian territories is, of course, overlooked in these attacks. Israel's demand that their intangible "right to exist" be recognised is also oben to considerable question. As Noam Chomsky points out;
This concept “right to exist” was in fact invented, as far as I can tell, in the 1970s when there was general international agreement, including the Arab states and the PLO, that Israel should have the rights of every state in the international system. And therefore, in an effort to prevent negotiations and a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. and Israel insisted on raising the barrier to something that nobody’s going to accept. Certainly, the Palestinians can’t accept it. They’re not going to accept Israel’s existence but also the legitimacy of its existence and the legitimacy of their dispossession. Why should they accept that? Why should anyone accept it?
Moreover, that they are accompanied by evictions of Palestinians - such as that on Sunday of two Palestinian families who had lived in East Jerusalem for 50 years - makes them a form of ethnic cleansing in and of themselves. As coverage of the pro-Israel accusations towards Obama states, "the accusation of ethnic cleansing is particularly ironic for many Palestinians, as the past 41 years of occupation have been marked by a continual forced removal of Arabs to make way for Jews."

The Guardian story also details the efforts of the Israel Project - which describes itself as a "non-governmental" organisation despite having "an advisory board that includes 20 members of Congress from both parties" - to derail the debate with misinformation and propaganda. Their report lays out a "strategy to play down the significance of the settlements" and advocates accusing opponents of "ethnic cleansing and antisemitism;"
"The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can't be Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea. We don't say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews," the guide says.
It shouldn't need mentioning, of course, that hardline Israelis do "say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel." This can be seen very clearly in policies such as denying Arab Israelis the "right of return" granted to non-Israeli Jews and the extention of the apartheid system that defines the occupied Palestinian territories into Israel itself. Moreover, the question of "why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews" is deliberately misleading. That the settlements are nothing short of colonisation of Palestinian lands, with the remnants that remain to form a Palestinian "state" being utterly unviable, and both this perception amongst Arabs and the reality of it in Israeli policy are well known.

This feeds into the distortions offered by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL, an apologist and advocate for war crimes the state of Israel rather than the "civil rights / human relations agency" it purports to be, published an advertisement in the US media on the settlement issue. Here, they insist that "the obstacle to peace isn't Israel and the problem isn't settlements," looking to distract from the issue at hand by insisting that "the Arab/Palestinian rejection of Israel's right to exist for over 60 years" is the real problem. And again, this is more than mere obfuscation - it is a deliberate and outright lie.

Even the most vilified enemies of Israel - Hamas and Hezbollah - have repeatedly called for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, offering Israel full recognition and integration within the region. Given their ideologies, they are of course not to fond of this option, but have agreed to the international consensus as articulated in the Arab Peace Initiative. There is no Arab rejectionism. What we have, in reality, is a consistent line of US-Israeli rejectionism; they refuse to recognise a Palestinian state, they refuse to give up violence, and they rejected the Arab Peace Initiative.

Clearly, then, peace will remain out of reach as long as the US and Israel define the terms of the debate. If whatever they do is defined as the "peace process," as it is, no matter how rejectionist their policies are, then there is clearly little hope of a resolution. You simply cannot expect anything positive when the position of the occupiers and oppressors colours the very lexicon of the debate.

Hence, an important part of any activism working towards a viable two-state solution must be to challenge the parameters of debate and the inherent bias of the language used. As long as we only talk about "rejectionism" in terms of Arab or Palestinian actions, define the occupied territories as "disputed," refer to a mythical "right to exist," or allow accusations of racism to define what is thinkable (especially when the accusers are themselves promoting doctrines doused in extreme racism) then there will never be peace and the Palestinians will continue to suffer.

This will, in turn, drive more Palestinians towards Islamic extremism and increase genuine anti-semitism. We must be aware, too, that this is precisely the goal of US planners. An embattled Israel, fearing destruction, is a very useful client in their goal to control resources in the Middle East. A peaceful Israel, integrated into the region, isn't. This is precisely why US rejectionism, even under Barack Obama, is so fervent. It is also why we must not let the United States define the terms of the debate.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

No War but Class War - August 2009

The beginning of the month saw several crushing blows for the organised working class across the globe.

In South Korea, with the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) and Korean Federation of Trade Unions claiming victory after long efforts to isolate workers, police stormed the Ssangyong car factory and detained and interrogated many of the strikers who had occupied the building. The KMWU negotiators then failed the workers by surrendering to terms very favourable to the company, leaving the majority facing redundancy or forcible unpaid leave, whilst those charged with criminal damage have been hung out to dry.

Analysis of the events by "guadia" on ends with the following conclusion;
The Ssangyong defeat cannot be attributed merely to the lame role of the KMWU national organization, which from the beginning allowed the negotiations to be channeled in a narrow focus on “no layoffs”. (By contrast, the local union president, who ultimately signed the surrender document, stayed in the occupied plant right to the end, even though he was not on the layoff list.) Nor can the defeat be fully explained by the atmosphere of economic crisis. Both of these factors undoubtedly played a major role. But above and beyond their undeniable impact, it is the year-in, year-out rollback of the Korean working class, above all through casualization, which now affects more than 50% of the work force. Thousands of workers from nearby plant did repeatedly aid the Ssangyong strike, but it was not enough. The defeat of the Ssangyong strikers, despite their heroism and tenacity, will only deepen the reigning demoralization until a strategy is developed that can mobilize sufficiently broad layers of support, not merely to fight these defensive battles but to go on the offensive.
A day after the Ssanyong occupation ended, workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory faced a similar defeat when balliffs finally forced their way into the factory office. As the BBC News dispatch states, their "demands [for the government to nationalise the factory and save their jobs] look to have fallen on deaf ears, with the Danish wind turbine firm sacking the workers and taking away their redundancy packages."

A week later, climate change protesters ended the rooftop protest they had begun in solidarity with the workers. However, "they will head to MP Andrew Turner's constituency surgery requesting urging action on the issue." Unlike the occupation in South Korea, the defeat on the Isle of Wight did not utterly crush the workers. The campaign is still very much ongoing, with the Save Vestas blog continuing to announce meetings, pickets, and solidarity action in support of the cause. As they said on the day of the eviction, "it is only the start of our battle for jobs and for the planet! We salute you, guys. You’re the spark that’s lit a fire."

A smaller and much less reported, though nonetheless highly significant, occupation that ended in the same week was that of a Thomas Cook outlet in Dublin. The police raid that ended the sit-in was followed by arrests, the strikers only escaping prosecution by agreeing not to resume the occupation or damage the property. Given the precarious position of these workers, one could argue that the action was doomed to fail from the outset, with the workers having absolutely nothing to bargain with. However, the protesting and petitioning looks set to continue. Clearly, such an action requires a much more integrated and strongly organised working class movement, willing to show solidarity and hold to the idea that "an injury to one is an injury to all."

Despite these defeats, of varying severity, there have also been considerable victories for the working class this month. The parents and teachers who have been occupying Lewisham Bridge Primary School since April in protest at Lewisham council's demolition plans ended their occupation far more agreeably than those mentioned above. The Department for Media, Culture and Sport upheld the English Heritage decision to grant the building Grade II listed status, granting victory to this unprecedented act of community solidarity against an out-of-touch local government bureaucracy.

In Belfast, traffic wardens who were sacked for taking part in wildcat action in April had been engaged in almost daily protest for the following four months. This commitment paid off, with all being offered either reinstatement or substantial redundancy packages. Given that the sacked wardens managed to achieve this victory despite undertaking illegal action, due in large part to the unwavering support of political groups such as the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) as well as fellow wardens, who gave unanimous support to an all-out strike, sets an important example.

In Britain, as elsewhere, the trade union movement is crippled by various anti-union laws put in place by the Thatcher and Major governments succesively. The victory by the Belfast traffic wardens, hardly a large or illustrious group, shows the power of worker solidarity and unwavering public pressure against corporate muscle and a legal system weighted in favour of big business.

A similar lesson can be learned from the bus workers in Cairo. Demanding improved working conditions, the drivers, ticket takers, and mechanics from 14 of the 19 bus garages in the city went on strike. As Infoshop reports, "the effect on the streets was immediate, with far fewer public busses on the street and large crowds gathering at many city bus stops. The government response was equally swift. On Wednesday evening, the strikers received an offer from the Public Transportation Authority meeting most of their demands and agreed to return to work."

This latest victory is just one of a wave of strikes that ave occurred across Egypt recently. Tax collectors, postal and textile workers, and now bus workers have taken part in strikes and sit-ins across the country, and they look set only to increase.

Such a rise in worker activism and uprisings seems even to have spread to the United States, where the trade union hierarchies have been complicit with the state a lot longer than most other Western countries and where laws protecting workers rights are, quite simply, not enforced. The Brandworkers International website tells of how this status quo is finally facing a challenge;
A group of workers and supporters picketed outside Agata and Valentina this past Saturday as part of an ongoing labor dispute with the company. Workers are calling on A&V to respect its workers’ right to organize and stop engaging in illegal anti-union activity.
Agata and Valentina, located on 79th & 1st, is one of many upscale gourmet grocery stores in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has been organizing the largely immigrant workforce in the gourmet supermarket industry. UFCW Local 1500 has already won union contracts at D’Agostino’s and Gristedes.
About fifteen people were on the picket line on Saturday. Picketers held signs, handed out flyers, spoke to customers about the dispute, and chanted pro-worker slogans. Joining Local 1500 were members of Brandworkers International, a Queens-based workers’ center that works in solidarity with Local 1500.
In the summer of 2008, workers began meeting with UFCW organizers and decided to assert their right to join a labor union. The supermarket responded viciously, using misinformation and intimidation tactics to scare the workers into staying away from the union. In March, Roberto De La Cruz, a counter person in the produce department, was illegally terminated for his union activity. Says De La Cruz: “I was called into the office and fired. They told me it was because I supported a union.”
UFCW Local 1500 has been holding daily picket lines outside the supermarket for six months. Local politicians have spoken out in support of the workers, including NYC Council Member Jessica Lappin.
More information about the campaign can be found at the Nothing Fine About It website.
Given the weakness and lack of organisation apparent across the American working class, especially by comparison with countries where anti-union repression is at a far higher level, this campaign is to be lauded. Workers across the world need to demonstrate their solidarity with their American brothers and sisters as much as with workers from any other country. Perhaps more so, as galvanising the workers of the most powerful capitalist state on the planet to fight for their rights could be a vital catalyst of a much broader level of resistance.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Opposing the murderous arms trade

Today, the Committees on Arms Export Controls issued a 173-page Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls report. The report came to the conclusion that "the Government must now take the initiative and set a deadline for NGOs and industry to bring forward draft proposals for consideration on the further extension of the trade controls on activities by UK persons anywhere in the world."

In short, based on concerns raised in February over arms exports to Israel, as well as the newly-raised possibility that "UK supplied weapons, ammunition, parts and components were used by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the recent military actions against the Tamil Tigers," the Committees have called for much tighter arms export controls. This is alongside commendation of the government for pursuing an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) with the suggestion that "a successful ATT should be clearly enforceable, have as wide a scope as is achievable, and underline the applicability of international human rights and humanitarian law."

Certainly, this report is to be welcomed. As the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) points out, "the arms trade severely undermines human rights, security and economic development at global, regional, national and local levels" and "government decisions are unduly influenced by arms companies." Thus, any call from a government body for tighter regulations so that, as BBC News puts it, "arms exports are not being used against civilians in war zones" is long overdue.

However, this report cannot be seen as more significant than it is. At this time, it is unclear exactly how far these recommendations will go in influencing government policy. Moreover, the report was hardly scathing in its criticism of the arms trade. It asks "that the Government report back to the Committees by the end of 2009 on how discussions with other EU Member States have progressed towards consensus on a revised EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports to be adopted as a Common Position," hardly a radical demand for change. CAAT explains fully why, beyond principle, a code of conduct or ATT is not enough to end the injustices fuelled by this multi-billion dollar industry;

CAAT supports the idea of an ATT in principle, but questions whether it will be effective, at least in so far as major conventional and high-technology equipment is concerned. The ATT could strengthen the hands of governments trying to prevent the circulation of small arms, and CAAT would warmly welcome this, but it is clear that the deals the companies find most lucrative, such as those to Saudi Arabia, Israel, India and Pakistan, would continue unabated.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) itself stresses that the proposed ATT is "not a disarmament treaty but an export control treaty" aimed at stopping weapons reaching "the hands of terrorists, insurgents and human rights abusers". The ATT is supported by the arms industry; unsurprisingly, since the FCO says it: "will be good for business, both manufacturing and export sales."

The FCO has told CAAT that the ATT will not prevent any UK sales. This was reinforced by the Defence Manufacturers Association’s DMA News, January 2006, which said the DMA believes "the eventual Treaty would not bring new obligations for UK industry." It seems that sales to FCO countries of concern, such as Saudi Arabia, would continue unabated.

As envisaged by the UK government, the ATT would not provide adequate constraints and could well serve simply to legitimise arms sales. CAAT is concerned that its support for the ATT allows the Government to the impression it is taking action, whilst it continues to support the arms companies in their deadly business.

There is no such thing as a responsible arms trade. The UK government must acknowledge that an ATT will be worthwhile only if it stops arms sales, from the UK as well as elsewhere, to areas of conflict and to human rights violators.

Clearly, then, although doused in strong rhetoric, both today's report and the push for an ATT amount to piecemeal measures. It is no good to simply hold a "full review" or to "assess more carefully the risk that UK arms exports might be used by those countries in the future in a way that breaches our licensing criteria," in the words of Labour MP Roger Berry, when the end result is that the arms trade continues unabated.

However, the recommendations offered in this report do present an opportunity. We should be under no illusions - the arms industry is one of several ways in which taxpayers' money is used to subsidise corporate profits (most notably in the US Pentagon system, though also in the UK and elsewhere) and there are powerful vested interests with huge resources to oppose all significant moves towards its abolition. But this should not put people off. With the publication of this report, the issue is in the news, and we have to ensure that it stays there.

The most significant reason why there is no public pressure on any large scale about this issue is because the general public is unaware of what is at stake. Stories such as this are quickly buried under an avalanche of militaristic and nationalistic editorials espousing the neccesity of "defence" and "national interest" to justify war, aggression, and an arms industry growing fat off global turmoil. We need to ensure that that does not happen this time. We need to keep the story alive, to keep people informed, and to get them angry about what is happening in their name and with their money.

If we do not, then all we can do is watch liberals pat themselves on the back for "regulating" the problem whilst the worst injustices of this immoral trade continue to spread across the globe.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Tigers are gone, yet the repression goes on

It has been three months since the Sri Lankan military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and killed their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, ending over forty years of vicious ethnic struggle between the ruling Sinhalese majority and the minority Tamils. However, in the time since, reports of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government have not abated.

Amnesty International reported at the start of this month that "hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the recent war in North East Sri Lanka and living in camps are being denied basic human rights including freedom of movement." It accused the government of "not addressing properly the needs of the newly displaced" and said that the camps "are effectively detention camps. They are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them; they are denied basic legal safeguards. The government's claim that it needs to hold people to carry out screening is not a justifiable reason to detain civilians including entire families, the elderly and children, for an indefinite period."

Amnesty's assesment is that "with no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence." Clearly, this is an unacceptable situation, and the plight of these people - over 409,000, with at least 50,000 of them children - needs greater attention drawing to it. Amnesty's briefing paper on the subject is extremely in-depth and its usefulness in campaignig against this injustice cannot be understated.

At the same time, however, it is not the only injustice that continues in the region. Only last week, Amnesty also drew attention to the plight of journalists and free media in the country;
The Sri Lankan government actively obstructed reporting on the last stages of the recently concluded armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE – Tamil Tigers). Civilians were subjected to artillery attacks and both sides were accused of committing war crimes.

The government continues to deny journalists and media workers unrestricted access to hundreds and thousands of displaced people living in camps, hindering reporting on their war experiences and on conditions in the camps themselves.

At the same time, unprecedented levels of violence against media workers engaged in critical reporting has contributed to a climate of fear and self-censorship that has deprived the people of Sri Lanka of their right to information.

Sri Lankan press freedom advocates say that more than 30 people working for Sri Lankan media outlets have been killed since 2004. Many others have been abducted, assaulted or threatened for their war reporting. Newspapers have been seized and burned, newspaper offices have been vandalized and printing equipment destroyed.

Months after the war in Sri Lanka ended journalists and media workers are still facing murder, abduction, censorship and intimidation. The vast majority of victims were members of the minority Tamil community, but Sinhalese and Muslim journalists have also been killed. The perpetrators of many of these crimes have not been identified, let alone punished.
Clearly, no country that is so repressive towards the media can hold any claims towards basic freedoms or democracy. In the recent war, the effects of such obstructed liberties became startlingly apparent;
Sunanda Deshapriya recalls that not long ago, both the government and the Tamil Tigers were giving heavily distorted figures for the amount of people living in the war zone in areas under Tiger control:

"Access to information was blocked, and because of that what happened? Tigers said they have 400,000 people in Wanni. That's the Tiger number. Government said: there's 120,000.

"And there was no independent verification, no journalists, no media was allowed. And government [was] asking people to come...they said 'we are ready to welcome you.' And, at the end, it turned out to be nearly 300,000 people."

The government, said Mr Deshapriya, urged civilians from the war zone to flee into its territory, but its own agencies, relying on erroneous government figures, were unprepared for such vast numbers.

When the civilians arrived, "...there were no facilities. Still, after three months, after the war is over and people does not have even basic facilities [in the camps] because there was no freedom of information. Journalists could not report [on] how many people are there, what conditions they are living in," he said.

This also meant that the international community could not effectively address the situation because there was no verification of facts.

With no independent verification, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers were both able to use the world's appetite for information as a means of promoting their own agendas.

The flow of information from the camps now consists mainly of information provided by relatives of those detained, of individual leaks from aid workers to journalists and of anonymous blog entries.

In almost all cases, those providing the information remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. As a result, the information finding its way out of the camps is often unreliable. This can only hurt the detained civilians.
Thus, we have a direct connection between media repression and the suffering of ordinary civilians detained in the military-controlled refugee camps. Moreover, as BBC News reports that "the [Sri Lankan] army chief says he wants the army, already 200,000, to increase in size by 50%" now that the war is over, based on the pretext that "the army must be on alert and observe everything these people [LTTE survivors] are doing, and take any action needed to prevent them forming again," the potential for unreported abuses is not one to be ignored.

Right now, activists, journalists, and human rights groups across the world need to be showing solidarity with the people interred in the Sri Lankan camps, and with the journalists risking death simply for doing their job. Only by keeping this issue alive and by continually ramping up the pressure can we force the international community to take notice and offer any reprimand to the Sri Lankan government.

Otherwise, under the "security" and "terrorism" pretexts that we know well here in the West, we are allowing them to set the stage for heightened abuse and persecution of the country's Tamils.

Friday, 14 August 2009

In defence of socialised medicine

In the United States, on significant area where Barack Obama has departed from the path set by Bush II - indeed most US Presidents before him - is on the issue of healthcare. His healthcare reform bill, whilst not quite approaching the level of public health care offered in Britain, canada, and most of the rest of the industrialised world, represents a significant move for the poorest in American society.

In the United States, according to estimates by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), 54.5 million people were uninsured for at least part of the year in 2006. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), meanwhile, projects the amount of uninsured as rising year-on-year. The Institute of Medicine states that "lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States. Although America leads the world in spending on health care, it is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have coverage."

That is why Obama's commencement, in March, of public consultations on health care reform represented such a landmark moment. In the US, health care is a for-profit industry, with the average $2 trillion dollars spent yearly amounting to nothing more than public subsidy for private enterprise. Thus, in spite of the level of money spent on health care, the World Healh organisation ranks the US at #37 out of 190 health systems internationally. That a baby born in El Salvador, which until March this year had a government which spent the 1980s using death squads to murder its dissident citizens, has more chance of survival than one born in Detroit is an inescapable indictment of the US system.

In this context, the hysterical reaction to the bill by Republicans and conservative Democrats is absurd. Sarah Palin's Facebook rant that a reformed system is "downright evil" and that the result will be an America where "my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care" smack of scaremongering nonsense.

Now Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP most famous for his YouTube tirade at Gordon Brown, has joined the debate. He told viewers of Fox News that "I wouldn’t wish [the NHS] on anybody." "We’ve lived through this mistake for 60 years now," he said, insisting that the British National healh Service "has made people iller [sic]" because "we have very few doctors." Hannan, of course, is a "free-market" dogmatist who praised Iceland's "blue-eyed Sheikhs" for staying out of the EU and for its willingness to "cut taxes and regulation, and to open up its economy." The wisdom of these measures became apparent recently when, in the wake of the recession, the Icelandic government completely collapsed.

Hannan's comments on the NHS are similarly nonsensical. There are, of course, problems with the NHS, but these are due in a large part to the creeping privatisation of the system in recent years, as well as the long-term effects of a massive neglect of it by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Hence, the lax cleaning standards that gave rise to "superbugs" like MRSA and C-difficile can be traced back to an outsourcing of cleaning contracts that began in the 1980s, with the majority of nurses that cleaning be brought back "in-house;"

May McCreaddie, a nurse from Glasgow, said: "There has been an increase in hospital infections and decline in cleanliness. It is quite simple."

She said private cleaning firms did not have the public sector ethos of in-house teams and there was higher staff turnover which contributed to poorer performance.

"We know what works we have been there before, we have had them. They are called ward domestics, they are an integral part of the team."

Another significant problem with the NHS is that too much money is spent on the bloated bureaucracy at the top rather than the vital staff at the bottom. This, too, is a recent development, with the result that dentists' appointments, glasses, and prescriptions now have to be paid for where once they were free. The cause, once again, is outsourcing and creeping privatisation.

So, Hannan and other "free-market" dogmatists can talk down the NHS, pointing to problems caused by privatisation as "proof" of the folly of socialised medicine and public health care, but it doesn't change the facts. Other public health services, where care genuinely is free at the point of delivery, expose the flaws of their arguments. That 96% of Cubans say that health care is available to everyone and are highly satisfied with the level of care received, with a longer average lifespan and lower infant mortality rate than the United States, is just one example that speaks volumes. And that's in one of the poorest countries in the world, devestated by half a century of an illegal US trade embargo.

We should remember, too, that rejecting public health care does not mean a reduction in taxes. For all their talk of a "free market," honest economists know that such a version of capitalism is unviable - which is why it hasn't existed since the Wall Street Crash. What we have instead is a system akin to fascism, where public funds feed into private profits to the tune (for the US health industry) of $2 trillion a year, as the poorest in society die for lack of access to treatment.

This is why the distortions of screaming reactionaries in America need to be rejected, as do any moves to privatise and destroy the health service any further in Britain.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Robbing from the poor to pay the rich

A good way of judging precisely how social justice works in any particular society is to look at how it acts during times of hardship. With the recession still continuing apace, such a judgment can be readily applied for our own corporatist system.

Already, we have seen considerable evidence that the scales are weighted quite considerably in favour of the haves at the expense of the have-nots. The bail-out of the major banking institutions responsible for the current recession - to the tune of £94 bn - has been contrasted with a treasury budget report that offered cuts and reliefs for nearly all of the taxes that affected the richest whilst hailing the aim to "build a strong economy and a fair society, where there is opportunity and security for all." Not long afterwards, as bonuses for bank failures returned to usual levels of obscenity, Alastair darling warned public sector workers that "the cold blast of recession is going to hit their pay packets."

Clearly, then, we have business as usual - i.e. socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor - exactly as I surmised in the wake of the London G20 meeting.

Further weight has just been added to this imbalance, with the publication of HM Revenue & Customs' (HMRC) Departmental Report 2009 and Departmental Accounts 2009. At the end of July, the department's press release stated that they "have responded effectively to the global economic downturn" and "are committed to supporting those with genuine difficulties in paying what they owe but as an organisation we are committed to collecting what is due from those who can pay."

However, a footnote at the end of the accounts report states that "during 2008-09 the Department successfully introduced new data matching and automated clearance processes to allow it to clear over five million open cases that would have had to be manually checked." Open cases, "are generated by an increasing number of coding discrepancies caused by changing customer work patterns," and so in essence refer to cases where a taxpayer has over or underpaid. The footnote goes on to say that "at March 2009 there were still some 20 million open cases, of which some six million are likely to entail additional tax payable or a refund."

The conclusion, buried in another footnote, is the staggering fact that "based on the Department’s last in depth analysis of open cases in 2005, the backlog could affect around 4.5 million individuals who have overpaid in total some £1.6 billion of tax." On its own, this is astounding enough, but what are we to make of the fact that HMRC are "clearing" their "open cases" that otherwise "would have had to be manually checked" in this context?

Given that, according to the Budget in April, the national debt has now hit £1.2 trillion, the desire to hold onto as much money as they can makes sense. However, if good fiscal sense was the aim, then that all went wrong the second they started to reward those responsible for the recession with several billion pounds and a safety net against going bust. What this amounts to, especially as HMRC is looking to shed more of the people who could "manually check" and reimburse overpayment, is theft on a massive scale.

The time is long overdue for poor and working people to organise together as a single, impenetrable block and refuse to be robbed to pay for the failures of the capitalist class.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The sorry saga of Peter Tierney: an update

In response to BNP "super-activist" Peter Tierney's arraignment on Wednesday - which I reported on in full in my previous post - the BNP propaganda machine has gone into overdrive.

The excuses on the Merseyside BNP blog were painfully transparent, claiming that the party "decided in the interests of public safety to cancel our protest last week" when in fact the national website issued an "urget" appeal for people to attend only a few days before. Accusations that "McFaddens [sic] "hired UAF criminals" [were] doing their best to intimidate Peter Tierney with "whispered threats" of violence in the waiting area" and that the protest consisted of "fifteen protesters who turned up with the intention as usual of acting unlawful" are so facile as to not deserve comment.

On the main website, however, there was no mention of "whispered threats," and the party instead claimed that "Peter was already inside the building" when the protesters arrived and that "a short time later when the BNP contingent left the courts there was not a “protester” in sight." They are now insisting that "this case is yet another example of who the real troublemakers are – the UAF and other unsavoury left wing Labour Party groups staging violent and pointless attacks." However, they are reduced to vague polemicism because the specific accusations they have made about the original incident are now unravelling before their eyes.

After the attack in April, the BNP said that Tierney "was engaging in perfectly legal political activity" when "mob of violent Tory and Labour-supported UAF thugs started harassing him and the other BNP members, including women and elderly folk." According to this version of events, Tierney "defended the women and the elderly members against the deranged leftists" who had "suddenly physically attacked the BNP people."

One anti-fascist was arrested on an assault charge only once Tierney sought out the police to make the accusation, despite the BNP assertion that two "were immediately arrested by the police and dragged away." The second man, of course, was the anti-fascist who had to be taken to hospital with head injuries after Tierney's use of a camera tripod as a weapon. It now emerges that the accused anti-fascist is no longer faced with assault charges. He was arraigned a day after Tierney on one count of "criminal damage" for allegedly smashing on of the BNP's cameras and will be tried for such at a later date. Clearly, the accusation that he "suddenly physically attacked" Tierney had no weight, given that the charge was dropped even before his arraignment.

As mentioned in my previous post, Tierney is now due to stand trial on 3rd September, and it is vital that anti-fascists come out in great numbers to show their opposition to him, whether the BNP cabal turns up or not. Liverpool antifascists are holding a meeting this Saturday (August 8th) to discuss organisation for this event as well as the protest against the BNP's Red White & Blue festival in Derbyshire on August 15th. Coach tickets are available for this event from News From Nowhere, the radical and community bookshop on Bold Street.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Standing up to fascist violence

Today, BNP "super-activist" Peter Tierney was arraigned at the Liverpool Magistrates Court on assault charges. On St George's Day, he split open a man's head with a camera tripod during an attack perpetrated by him and Steve Greenhalgh on anti-fascists who had managed to organise opposition to the party's city-centre leafleting on a moment's notice. Despite accusing another anti-fascist of attacking him, Tierney was eventually arrested and charged by Merseyside police.

In response, the BNP claimed that it was in fact they, "including women and elderly folk," who were "suddenly physically attacked" by "a mob of violent Tory and Labour-supported UAF thugs." These "thugs," of course, being local anti-fascists who were not "harassing" Tierney and his fellow fascists but leafleting against them and their lies.

In the run up to the court-date, the BNP mailing list urged armchair fascists to "email or phone the Crown Prosecution service," in an attempt to subvert the course of justice with a flood of crank calls. Merseyside BNP also called on "all democratic, peace loving Nationalists" to show "support" for Tierney by protesting outside the court.

Today, however, after Liverpool Antifascists organised an opposition rally to "show the BNP that we won’t tolerate their racism and violence in Liverpool or anywhere else," the story was somewhat different. Around fifty anti-fascists turned up at the Magistrates Court to protest both the fascist gathering and Tierney's violence, but the BNP were nowhere to be seen.

On the other side of the road from the antifascist gathering, however, four known local fascists gathered to jeer at the protesters and take pictures. In response, many in the crowd produced their phones to photograph the snoops whilst a chant of "I'm on Redwatch and I don't care" started up. Eventually, the four slipped away to massive jeering, though not before skulking under the nearby motorway bridge to take a few more photographs.

Inside the court, meanwhile, Tierney was decidedly the worse for wear, looking as though he was "off his face on some or other substance" and being unable to remember his own address. His bail conditions, namely a ban from Liverpool city centre, were reimposed, and he will stand trial on September 3rd. It is vital that anti-fascists come out to demonstrate their opposition to Tierney's violent thuggery once again.

However, although today's protest served its stated purpose well, I can't help thinking that it could have been better done. Although local Liverpool anti-fascists were the first to call a demonstration, it was Unite Against Fascism (UAF) who quickly dominated the event, with UAF and trade union "leaders" there as speakers. One major problem I have with the UAF and similar organisations is that theirs is an opposition to the extreme right centred on hierarchy and authority, with a lot of neglect as regards grassroots organisation.

In Liverpool we do not simply need a band of people who will come out to hold banners at protests in "safe" areas pre-arranged with the police. What we need is solid, grassroots organisation of activists who will not just come out to shout "scum" at fascists but also mobilise their community, engage with ordinary people, and combat the ideology as much as the physical presence of fascism. We need to be there in great numbers when fascists come out, and to present genuine opposition - not to simply negotiate with police to sell the Socialist Worker in an area of their choosing. Most importantly, we need a movement that is tied into class-struggle, not one that tries to turn people off the BNP by directing them towards a government enacting their worst policies.

Successful anti-fascist movements recognise that real power lies with the people, not with "leaders" and "spokespersons." Moreover, they organise with the aim of taking back the streets from fascists wherever and whenever they may be, and they realise that asking police permission to occupy a small corner for a short time does not even come close to this goal. Tierney and his fellow thugs must be opposed, not by bureaucrats with a permit but by ordinary people with cries of "¡No Parasan!"