Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Harry Patch would not support the war in Afghanistan

The deaths of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham the last surviving World War I veterans brought forth much emotion.
The funerals of the two men dominated received much coverage, less though was given to the strong stance that Mr Patch took against war. In one of his few interviews, given after he reached the age of 100 Mr Patch talked of the futility of war, the terrible loss of so many lives in the name of what?
Although many mainstream news programmes did their best to play it down, Mr Patch’s funeral was really all about peace and reconciliation. It was a protest against war from the last survivor of that terrible waste known as the First World War. There were not just British soldiers involved at Mr Patch’s funeral but also Germans and French.
The terrible irony of the funerals of messrs Patch and Allingham is that they were carried out against a background of soldiers bodies being brought back from Afghanistan. One of the abiding memories of this summer no doubt will be the sight of that plane door opening and the union jack draped coffins being brought out to be placed in a hearse. There were then the mourners and well wishers marking the sides of the road in Wootton Bassett.
The links between what is going on now in Afghanistan, Harry Patch and the First World War are prescient. It is not clear what the mission in Afghanistan is about. It seems to change by the week. At one point fighting Al Queda, then the Taliban, stopping the drug trade or standing up for women’s rights – take your pick. All that we do know is that it is costing many lives.
The most blatant lie put forward to justify the war in Afghanistan is that the soldiers are fighting there to keep the streets of the UK safe. The logic of this construction must be that the Taliban having once regained Afghanistan will then march on London. It is so ludicrous that it merely betrays the desperation of those now seeking to justify this ongoing appalling loss of life. The truth is the exact opposite of what the country is being told by government ministers. British forces involvement in Afghanistan make the streets of the UK far more dangerous. It is as a result of attacking other people’s countries that people here are radicalised or may come here to cause death and destruction. A look around the world at others countries that are not intervening, like Switzerland, Norway and Sweden confirms this truth.
Another lesson from Harry Patch’s funeral is respect for all sides and all peoples. In the case of British soldiers at least the names are known. 204 have died to date. The thousands of Afghan civilians killed have no names apparently. They just don’t matter in this hierarchy of suffering.
One of the major problems that allow wars like Iraq and Afghanistan to develop is the passivity of so much of the UK population. The assertion that you can be opposed to the war but once committed the troops must be supported is such a ridiculous construct. And the government, helpfully aided by its propagandists in much of the media play on this tendency.
The continual linkage of the lives of those who fought in the World Wars and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is also disingenuous to say the least. The militarisation of most of the funerals of those who return in coffins is also disrespectful to the deceased. It often amounts to a glorification of what amounts to a futile waste of mostly young lives.There needs to be a little clearer articulation of what war is all about. It is bloody, nasty and in many cases totally unjustified business. When the war is unjustified it is wrong to take the cop out route of well I oppose the war but now we are there I’ll support those carrying it out on my behalf. It would be good to see some British soldiers following the example of Israeli soldiers who have refused to fight in certain areas like the west bank. If they were to take such a stand over Afghanistan they must be supported. It is good to see Stop the War redoubling efforts of opposing the senseless waste that is the war in Afghanistan. It is time to bring the troops home – its what Harry Patch would have wanted.

Truth behind torture, secret evidence and detention must be revealed

The declaration by two Parliamentary committees of concerns as to the complicity of British officers in torture abroad has dominated the headlines over recent weeks.
First, the Joint Human Rights Committee called for an independent inquiry into whether the UK was complicit in torture. Then the Foreign Affairs Select Committee expressed grave concerns that British officers were complicit in torture.
The Home and Foreign Secretary’s responded declaring it is not policy to “collude in, solicit or directly participate in abuses of prisoners.” Great play has since been made of their failure to mention complicity, suggesting that the UK may well have been complicit in torture.
The evidence of Britain’s role in torture has been growing for some years. British resident Binyam Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, taken to Morocco and finally onto Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed’s lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has protested as to the torture that his client suffered, particularly in Morocco, where he was subject to mutilation via razor blades on his genitals among other things. Mohamed has told how there were British officers present during much of his ordeal. Mohamed’s case has now been handed over to Scotland Yard to investigate and find out whether British agents should face charges.
Then there is the case of Shaker Aamer who went to Afghanistan in 2001 to work with local charities, He shared a house with Moazzem Begg, who also ended up interned in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer was captured and finished up being tortured. He spent seven years in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Aamer has lodged a legal claim in the High Court alleging MI5 and MI6 were complicit in his torture.
It would not ofcourse be the first time that Britain has faced accusations of involvement in torture. Moazzem Begg recently recalled that British military methods used in the north of Ireland to obtain information. These were what became known as the five techniques of hooding, wall standing, subjection to noise, denial of food and water and sleep deprivation.
There was also the exercise of creating the impression that a detainee was about to be thrown out of a helicopter, only to find the simulation was on the ground.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has given graphic description of how he was subjected to a number of the techniques, as well as beatings, when he was arrested in the 1970s.
The five techniques were branded cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights in 1977. This did not, however, stop Britain standing by while many of these techniques were deployed by the US as part of its war on terror over recent years.
More also needs to be known about the process of rendition, whereby people were kidnapped from one country and taken to another where they could be interrogated and tortured to get information. Another accusation presently before the courts is that the British dominion Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean was used as a site for rendition flights.
In the cases of Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer, the focus has been on the need for secret evidence to be disclosed as to what exactly went on. In both cases the US Government has proved reluctant to disclose the information it holds, while the British Government has been disingenuous about its role in the whole affair. These cases though have wide implications for the whole unjust legal paraphernalia that has been established since 9/11 around the world.
Many of these activities link directly to developments in this country over the past eight years that have seen a number of individuals detained without trial on the basis of secret evidence. Since 2001, a number of individuals have been held first in prison then under control orders using immigration law overseen by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC).
One of the ongoing claims is that they have not been told of what they are accused. They come before the SIAC, unable to see the material on which their detention is based. The lawyers for the detainees are not allowed to see this material either. Only the judges and special advocates appointed to act on the detainees behalf are able to see this material.
The suspicion has been for some time that the reason for much of this secrecy is that the material in question has been obtained via torture in foreign countries. The veil of secrecy over this whole process has meant that there has been no independent way of assessing the material in question. Lawyer Gareth Peirce has described the process as bringing the two evils of torture and secrecy together. Clearly these structures also need to be addressed in any process that examines questions of complicity in torture.
There does need to be a full independent public inquiry conducted into the British role in the practice of torture. The role of Britain as first lieutenant to the US on this and other related policies like rendition need to also be exposed. However, the inquiry needs to go further looking into the system of detention established in this country under the SIAC operating under immigration law. This system of injustice is also a product of illegal international operations based on torture. It needs to be wiped away together with the various torture chambers supported by the British and US governments around the world.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Let’s hope self-serving sycophants are replaced with free thinkers at the next election

The House of Commons will be a poorer place when Andrew MacKinlay retires at the next general election. MacKinlay, the Labour MP for Thurrock since 1992, has long been a steadfast defender of Parliament against government in the name of democracy.
He doggedly pursued the case of pardons for shot-at-dawn victims of the First World War. He has served with distinction on a number of parliamentary committees, notably the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He received a lot of hate mail for his intense questioning of Dr David Kelly over the question of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
One of the reasons for his departure is the supine nature of the current crop of MPs, who tend to fall in line with any diktat of the party whips. As far as MacKinlay was concerned, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the vote against a review of the extradition treaty with the United States. This one-sided agreement allows the Americans to demand whoever they want from this country. However, Britain has no reciprocal arrangement. MacKinlay is just one of many MPs quitting the Commons in 2010. Some will be missed. More will not be. One who will be a big loss and who is also somewhat disillusioned with Parliament is Alan Simpson, the Labour MP for Nottingham South. A noted environmentalist, he has said he will be more effective campaigning for radical environmental change outside the Commons, rather than remaining on the backbenches. At one point, Simpson suggested MPs have become so subservient to the party machines that they would vote for the slaughter of the first-born, if they were told to.
A number of MPs are stepping down due to the fallout over the expenses scandal. This has led some commentators to see the upcoming election as something of a cleaning out of the stables. While we can hope they will be proved right, the worry is that the party leaderships will regard this as an opportunity to replace independent-minded politicians with even more lobby fodder – those who will vote for just about anything they are ordered to support.
The next election could offer an opportunity for genuine independents to come forward. Television personality Esther Rantzen has already said she will contest Luton South. This is even though sitting MP Margaret Moran is not standing again because of the expenses scandal. The pundits predicting Rantzen’s heavy defeat have clearly not detected the same popular clamour for her candidacy as she has.
Nevertheless, independents have won before. At the 2001 election, retired doctor Richard Taylor won Wyre Forest in Worcestershire, fighting on a platform of opposition to the downgrading of his local hospital in Kidderminster. Taylor was also opposed to the Private Finance Initiative in healthcare. He is a popular MP and his tenure was deemed sufficiently successful for him to retain his seat at the 2005 election.
There was widespread public revulsion over the expenses scandal and this could still count against the mainstream parties next year, with Labour likely to be hardest hit. At this year’s European elections, 56 per cent of those who voted opted to support parties other than the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems. So there is clearly an appetite for independent representation.
Recently, Andrew MacKinlay urged more people to seek to get involved in parliamentary politics. He said: “It takes courage sometimes to stand up and get elected. It can mean putting your head above the parapet.”
A significant number of independents in the Commons could help voters to reconnect with the democratic process. An independent is directly accountable to those who elect him or her. There is no need to follow party lines, no fear of whips twisting their arms and no threat of deselection at the whim of leaders they might upset.
The downside is that, since they are not members of a major party, especially the one that happens to be in government, they have less opportunity to influence those with their hands on the levers of power.
However, if a large number of independents got elected, this could form the basis of a coalition of interests coming together to bring about meaningful change. One of the biggest problems of the present system is that there is little difference between the three main parties. The political agenda in this country has been taken so far to the right that elections are fought over who can best manage the system rather than offering any alternative way of doing things.
Changing the system in favour of the common good should focus the minds of all of us. That change seems more likely to happen if the main political power bases are weakened and some genuine power is returned to the legislature (individual MPs) at the expense of the executive (whoever happens to form the government). For this to be a real possibility, we need the election of independent-minded MPs – whether as representatives of a political party or standing as actual independents.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Making sense of death

A year has now passed since my Dad died. What a year it has been, appearing at times to be just a roller coaster of death.
Three weeks after my Dad died, his sister, my aunt Moyra also passed on. At the same time, news came that a local friend Chris Piper had also died. After spending much of August organising my Dad’s funeral, September brought two more funerals.
After attending Chris’s funeral, I left to go from Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Wanstead to nearby St Bedes in Chadwell Heath to see my aunt’s coffin go into the church. The next day came my aunt’s funeral. Adding to the connectedness of it all, my aunt had known Chris and his wife Kathy when they had all been parishioners at St Bedes 35 years ago.
The parish priest at St Bedes, Martin O’Connor had been at Wanstead thirty years previously. Indeed, he had given one of the few homilies I ever remember at Our Lady of Lourdes over 30 years, about why the death penalty was wrong.
Moving on, six months after my Dad’s death I was at St Anthony’s church for the funeral of 15 year old Steven Lewis who was stabbed to death.
I was back at St Anthony’s again six weeks ago for the funeral of Stephen Corriette, the former director of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice. He died aged just 45. I’d come to know Stephen over recent years due to his work with CARJ and at St Anthonys as master of ceremonies.
At Stephen’s mass I sat next to Maureen Corsi, the secretary at CARJ. She was her usual cheerful self, though obviously upset as she had been very fond of Stephen. A month later came the bad news that Maureen had died due to a thrombosis. Her funeral is on Monday (17/9).
In June, Giovanni Scudiero also died. Giovanni had been director at the Missionary Institute in London for some years. I knew him mainly through his Pax Christi and Justice and Peace work. Another sad loss.
By this time you may be thinking, Paul is obviously not a very safe person to be hanging around with. The year though has provided much time for reflection. It is strange how every time someone dies there are eulogies as to what a good person they were. Whether it be a person in the public eye like the foot legend Sir Bobby Robson or an ordinary person. Death becomes a time to celebrate life.
Secrets and lies told in the past remain hidden, possibly to come out later but certainly not at time of passing.
At the end of the day maybe the lauding of virtue and the banishment of unpleasant memories is all part of the grieving process. Everyone has different ways of getting by. Some rush into work to bypass grieving. Others shut out great junks of the past because it just hurts too much to think back to those times.
In my own case with my Dad I’ve tended to think back to the good times with a joy but also a regret that he is no longer here.
There is also the time of passing. Some of those mentioned who have died in the past year have suffered terribly in their final weeks and days. Others have passed quietely away. My Dad was in the latter group. It has been immensely consoling to have been with him over those last three days and that he passed away peacefully. That said he had suffered five years of mental deterioration with dementia.No doubt all of this is part of the grieving process. I feel at the end of this tumultuous year that I may be a little wiser. If I have gained anything though it must be the realisation of ones own mortality. As human beings we tend to believe ourselves indestructible and super human. It is this supreme arrogance that no doubt contributes to the appalling way that for the most part we treat the environment in which we live. The real lesson of death is to realise that your life is only a short passage of time in terms of the history of the world. We are all only here a little while. Born into life, we die and physically return to the earth. Our souls travel onward but physically we cease to be. It is this feeling of mortality that remains the abiding memory of the past 12 months.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Media coverage of migration fuelling growth of far right

The negative way in which the media has covered immigration is giving rise to increasing levels of racism in society and the growth of the BNP.
Proof of this approach came with the recent coverage of a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) disproving the myth that migrants coming into the country jump the queue for social housing. The myth had been propagated by groups like the BNP for their own political advantage.
The report found more than nine out of ten people who live in social housing were born in the UK. Some 64 per cent of people who arrived in the UK within the last five years live in private rented accommodation. Just 11 per cent of new arrivals get help with housing - almost all of them asylum seekers. The researchers found that social housing policies target those in most need including the homeless, the elderly and families with children.
Observing the media coverage it was difficult at times to discern this message. The BBC is opposed to immigration per se. So on the EHRC report, the BBC flagship programme Today opened with a typical anti migrant position, pretty much stating the opposite of what the report research had established, namely that migrants come in and jump the social housing queue. The author of the report then responded, establishing that this was not the case. Interviewer John Humphries then moved to the local government minister John Healey asking why if the queue jumping story was a myth had the government talked of local homes for local people. This government move seemed aimed at the claims of the BNP which as the ECHR had proved were falseThis was a fair line of questioning and the minister responded well pointing out that the real problem was a lack of social housing.
Later in the day a local BBC London report took a more dangerous line, following a similar pattern to Today in the morning only with no interview with the minister. The news report ended interviewing a BNP representative in Barking and Dagenham who ofcourse refuted the report.
A week later I was able to assess the impact of this type of coverage when interviewing people in the same area about the findings of the report.
"Yes its right they are coming and getting preferential treatment. The country is nearly bankrupt," said one man. "There is a definite preference. I was born in Barking, moved away with my husband to Peterborough. Now we've split up and I've come back and the council won't house me because they say I haven't been here for six months and lack links to the area. Others are definitely getting ahead of me... I'm not racist but the government and council put us last," said a young woman."They do come in and jump the queue and they know where the social is as well. We lived in one room for five years. We must stop so many coming in," said an elderly couple.
It wasn't all one way traffic with some saying the report was right. The most obvious thing though coming over was that the ECHR report and the way it was reported had made little impact on the popular perception of migration and housing provision. Many of those questioned only really related to elements of the reporting that chimed with their own prejudice. There was no enlightenment but simply a reinforcement of existing prejudices.
The damaging nature of this dynamic will only become clearer as time goes by. The immediate danger can be seen from the election of BNP politicians at local and European level.
In the longer term it could lead to very real damage to the economy. The population in the UK is ageing rapidly. Academic David Blake found 500,000 migrant workers need to come into the country if the economy is to continue at recent levels of prosperity. The revenue received from the tax provided by these migrant workers is needed to sustain the UK economy. Then there is also the very services themselves. If the BNP repatriation policy were followed the NHS, care and education services would collapse.
The idea that migrants come in sponge off the state and receive benefits is a complete myth. The problem is that when this narrative is taken up and force fed by influential media outlets like the BBC and papers like the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Sun it becomes a reality for many. Migration is good for the country and every effort should be made to attract people to work and contribute to the society

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Tax payer cannot continue to be duped by bankers

The announcement of massive profits for the banks who intend to continue paying huge bonuses to some staff as a result underlines how well the government and by extension the tax payer has been duped.The banks have been allowed to restore their balance sheets at the tax payers expense. Borrowing rates have reached rock bottom. The banks have only handed rate cuts on to savers. Meanwhile, lending to small businesses has been restricted.While the banks are allowed to operate in this bubble of prosperity, everyone else picks up the bill in the form of higher taxes and cuts to public services. The government still appears enthralled to the tune of the bankers, blustering about regulation but on the ground allowing business to continue as usual. When the next great crash comes about, as it undoubtedly will due to the unwillingness of government to seriously regulate the banks, then whoever is in power may be forced to let banks go to the wall. The banks need to be put on notice that they will not be bailed out the next time.
* See Metro - 5/8/2009