Sunday, 29 July 2012

Drones make war more likely

The proliferation of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, is one of the most alarming developments in modern warfare since the invention of the atom bomb.

There are two types, the surveillance and armed drones. Surveillance drones are used to discover what an enemy force are doing, while the armed drones rain death from on high.

This form of warfare has been presented as clinical and accurate in its conduct. It also makes conflict more likely because the combatant in possession of the drones can launch attacks without fear of reprisal in terms of taking casualties.

Critics have referred to the “playstation mentality” that develops among operators who sit in military headquarters in the UK or US manouvering these lethal weapons in far away countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

One particularly gruesome approach to this form of killing comes with secondary attacks. These see a drone attack kill a number of people on the ground, only to then hover above until others come around to investigate and then fire again on the new arrivals.

The US and Israel have been major developers of this new killing technology, though Britain is not far behind. Israel has tested the technology in the occupied territories.

In 2001, the Pentagon had 50 weaponised drones, today it has more than 10,000. They cost around US$12 million each, compared to US$60 million for a fully armed aircraft.

There has been a particular growth in the use of armed drones under the presidency of Barak Obama. Once seen as a man of peace, it was revealed recently how the President has a weekly meeting with officials when a “kill list” is put together.

Many of these drone attacks are overseen by the civilian CIA and are occurring in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – countries that the US is not at war with. This has raised the question as to whether these are not just extrajudicial killings. The legality of such conduct under international law has yet to be tested in the courts. UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings Christof Heyns has said that the secondary strikes by drones amount to war crimes

The other US users of drone technology are the military who deploy them in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq – this though seems a somewhat different scenario to the attacks being made in countries where there is no conflict involving the US.

The UK has five drones, with Prime Minister David Cameron committing to increase the fleet to 10 over the next few years. The RAF operated Reaper drones being used in Afghanistan are controlled from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, via satellite. There is though also to be control from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire soon.

In 2005 the British government placed an £800 million order for Watchkeeper drones to be used for surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting for the army’s artillery regiment. The Watchkeeper is based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone and is being built by U-Tacs Limited, a joint venture company owned by Israeli company Elbit Systems and Thales UK.

Late last year, the UK boasted its 200th drone strike in Afghanistan. The British forces are less forthcoming with detail of the lives lost as a result of these attacks.

One of the big pluses from the point of view of those using the drones is that they can attack in foreign countires without putting their own military personnel at risk. But as Dr Peter Lee, senior air power lecturer from Kings College London and the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, warned drone technologies can lead to a more rapid escalation to military means as a way to settle disagreements.

“The last 100 years is a lesson in the invention of aerial technology that has killed ever more people,” said Dr Lee, who also told how President Obama had launched six times as many drone air strikes as President Bush.

There must be real concerns about the humanity and legality of using armed drones in this way. It is a sanitisation of the killing process. So a military operative can be sitting at his desk directing a drone 1000s of miles away in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Deaths may result. That officer will then return home to his wife and children. It is not possible to live in a moral vacuum. We all have to take responsibility for our actions. This must also include making government’s accountable for what they are doing with this destructive new form of killing technology.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How the Olympics brought Belfast to east London

My friend from Derry could scarcely contain his amusement when he declared now you know what it is like to have the Paras on your street corner.

He was referring to the deployment of the army onto the streets of east London ready for the Olympics.

I live in east London, just a couple of miles away from the Olympic stadium and even closer to the blocks of flats fitted with surface to air missiles in case of a terrorist attack. Many local people wonder what the guidance is for using these weapons, should that become necessary in this heavily built up area?

The hysteria over security around the Olympics has been a wonder to behold. Some 13,000 military personnel were due to be deployed around the area to maintain security. Now, with the meltdown of the private contractors G4S operations, another 3,500 soldiers have been called in, many coming straight from frontline action in Afghanistan. No doubt pumped up and ready for action on the streets of east London.

G4S though will still be doing their bit, with several thousand rapidly recruited staff being given security duties in and around the Games venues. Some variance in standards of security here though, between a hurriedly recruited G4S operative and a fully trained police officer or soldier.

Security though has become the watchword for this Olympics. Not far from one of the blocks with the surface to air missiles, a “temporary” police station has been erected with a number of cells to deal with any surfeit of arrests at the Olympics. There are concerns that once this building is established on Wanstead Flats it will provide a precedent for building on an area where it has been banned for centuries.

The police have been given special powers, including dispersal orders to control people they don't like the look of. This in the main relates to youngsters and will no doubt result in some living under an effective curfew throughout the Games.

The courts will sit around the clock, in an operation likened to those put into action for the riots last August.

This type of securitisation of the area causes many locals to pinch themselves and wonder, is this not a peaceful festival of sport, when nations come together to celebrate in solidarity? At times, this particular Olympics has begun to more resemble a dry run for World War III in the east end.

I can though understand the smugness of my Derry mate. Some 20 years ago when visiting the north of Ireland I remember being repeatedly told that the great securitisation of society going on there at the time would one day all come home to London and beyond.

In those days, there were the observation towers around the walls of Derry, in Belfast and beyond. I remember the Rosemount Tower with its notice from the RUC explaining that it was only there to protect the community from terrorists. No one in the nationalist community believed it, especially those told by soldiers on the street what they had been doing in their own homes the previous day.

At the time, we debated how people in an area of London would react if a surveillance tower was put up, with the proviso that it was there to cut drug related crime.

And so it came to pass, for tower now read CCTV. Not only did the great British public accept this surveillance but many actively campaigned to have CCTV cameras on their streets, please, please watch me.

Other things came over from the North like plastic bullets, riot control methods, the loss of the right to silence and other human rights. All sacrificed on the altar of security.

The Olympics though does seem to have brought the whole thing full circle with troops finally deployed on the streets of London. But no worries, remember they are only here to keep us safe, maintain the peace and will all have gone home by Christmas

Friday, 20 July 2012

NJPN must become more political

Justice and Peace activists from across the country will descend this weekend for the annual conference at Swanwick in Derbyshire.

The activists come together for the 34th time under the National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) banner at a time when the work of that body seems under threat as never before.

The recent making redundant of the position of J&P worker in the Shrewsbury Diocese seemed symptomatic for some of an attempt to phase out justice and peace as it is now constituted.

Previously, the position of J&P worker in Salford disappeared, not to be replaced. Though bucking this trend the Nottingham Diocese has just appointed a new worker. Others though could go, as economic hard times provide a useful excuse to get rid of workers.

The concern is that the hierarchy backed and better resourced Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) is coming down the track with NJPN in its sights. In Salford, Caritas has effectively taken on the social justice work.

The NJPN certainly face a fight if it is to survive, let alone grow. Given the potential crisis, an outside observer might expect to see much debate and strategising over the two days of the annual conference as to how the challenges are to be tackled.

The strange thing is aside of the odd conversation in the bar, it seems certain that the very shape of justice and peace in the UK will not be on the agenda in any part of this conference.

This underlines a problem of justice and peace over the years, namely a failure to strategise politically within the Church. There is engagement with many different political campaigns, covering such diverse topics as climate change, war and peace, the nuclear industry, fair trade, ethical investment and workplace justice. Campaigns run by agencies like CAFOD, Progressio, Housing Justice and CARJ all receive support.

But when it comes to the very politics of the Church, where are the J&P people to be seen? Many no doubt will argue they must get on with the real work of justice in the world and that work should not be inhibited by internal fights within the Church. A good point but if you want to do social justice outside of the Church context then there are many secular organisations fulfilling that role, why not join them and do the work uninhibited. This is no doubt what many people have done, growing disillusioned as they see the Church’s role as a prophetic voice for justice downgraded.

However, those in NJPN who believe that the work of justice and peace does have a future, need to start acting in a strategic political way within as well as without the Church. Failure to do so, now invites elimination.

One of the problems with NJPN is that it has largely let its function be reduced from that of building a J&P movement across the country to a body that simply puts on an annual conference with a number of quarterly meetings in between times. The conferences are always excellent but I have yet to discover any link between the theme of one and another. Take last year, the theme was justice in the workplace. The speakers were top notch, Frances O’Grady, the deputy general secretary of the TUC and Labour MP Jon Cruddas. The discussions valuable but what has the follow up been?

Since that time, Mr Cruddas has been put in charge of the Labour Party’s policy review, so he is at the centre of coming up with new ideas to form a programme for social justice to put before the electorate at the next election. Ms O’Grady will become the first female general secretary of the TUC in September when the present incumbent Brendan Barber steps down. Both are top players in terms of the social justice world. Both enthusiastic and supportive of the work of NJPN, yet what has happened since last July to build on an excellent start? The subject for the conference this weekend is China.

Somewhat pointedly, the theme of justice in the workplace has also very much come home to J&P activists over the past year, with the sorry episode involving J&P worker Joan Sharples in Shrewsbury.

The NJPN has clearly reached a cross roads in its existence. Either it starts to act like a political organisation, engaging not just with occasional issues but the politics of the Church or it fades away. The present approach of a virtual semi-detachment does not seem to be a a strategy in the long term. There will be those who instead of fighting will view decline as simply the spirit at work. Maybe so, maybe CSAN should take over much of the justice and peace work, who knows? However. I believe that the NJPN still has much to offer and can have a strong future. But it has to start being more political rather than just doing some politics.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

G4S fiasco exposes fallacy of government's private fits all mantra

What the G4S debacle underlines is the unravelling of the coalition government's idealogically driven attack on the public sector. It has unashamedly used the deficit as an excuse to destroy public sector jobs. First there was the debacle at the airports due to the lack of personnel and now G4S. If anyone still believes the ridiculous mantra private good/public bad then the G4S meltdown surely buries the lie once and for all.
The private sector is only interested in profit. The service delivery in the case of G4S underlines the point. Now, the police and the army, who most certainly are qualified to do security, have been called in. In fact the arrival of security personnel who have years of training in this speciality does rather underline the point, regarding the ineptitude of the private sector approach. What is for sure is that it is about time the government stopped attacking the public sector, especially when they have to keep turning to it in order to to dig themselves out of ever deeper privately dug holes.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The most "secure" Olympics ever?

The emphasis on hyping security around the London Olympic games seems to be reaching new heights. The increasing warnings of the terrorist threat. The military are being deployed, there are to be defence installations put on a variety of buildings, private security companies abound. the police will be able to use dispersal orders to control people they don't like the look of and special police holding cells are being built. The preparations for courts to sit around the clock have been likened to those used for the London riots last August.

How incredible, a peaceful coming together of nations to watch athletes compete against each other in an international sporting festival is viewed in terms of preparing for a riot. The emphasis on security and the denial of basic liberties says a great deal about the kind of country that the world will be coming to visit - an increasingly insular one that is happy to see any liberty denied on the basis of a threat - real or imagined. A country that once boasted Magna Carta but is now happy to detain people without trial for years on end. It really does make you wonder what this Olympics is all about.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

What to do about the banks

The news of the latest robbery committed by the banking industry on the general public has caused outpourings of anger.
Following the bail out of the banks in 2008, it now turns out that Barclays were involved in manipulating the London Inter Bank Overnight Rate (LIBOR) for its own purposes. These activities resulted in a fine of £290 million being imposed by the Financial Services Authority on the bank.
The news came hard on the heels of the Natwest debacle that saw computer problems result in customer accounts being frozen.
Royal Bank of Scotland (parent body of Barclays) boss Stephen Hester announced he would not be taking his bonus, whilst Barclays chairman Marcus Agius and chief executive Bob Diamond resigned.
Things though need to go a lot further if the banking industry is to really be cleaned up. The way in which the bankers have got away with repeatedly robbing the taxpayers is an ongoing scandal.
First, the banks virtually go bust and have to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Nothing happens, they continue with business as usual paying themselves huge bonuses.
Any threat of action being taken against them is met with declarations of "we’re leaving the country." Regulation is resisted on the basis that the banking industry is needed to create the growth needed to get the country out of recession. Restrictions will effect competitiveness. A recession ofcourse largely created by the banks.
The result of the bank created economic crisis that has engulfed the world has been in this and many other countries to dump it on ordinary working people. This has come in the form of cutting public services and the conditions of work for those operating in the public sector. Apart from a minor levy on the banks there has been little effort to make those who created the crisis pay for it via higher taxes.
The thorny question though remains as to how to deal with the banking industry. Let’s say first of all that it is wrong to paint everyone in the same way. Those responsible for the crisis are relatively few in number. The majority of people working in banks are doing ordinary tasks, trying to survive like everyone else. Indeed, it is many of these people who increasingly come to suffer the public anger regarding the perceived crooked nature of the industry. It is not fair to blame someone on the till or answering the phone in a call centre for the libor manipulation or the 2008 crisis.
There is though the other end of the scale, often described as casino banking, where the rewards are huge and the risks bigger. This is the world of the trading floor, where a relatively small number of testosterone driven individuals operate.
The phrase "he would sell his own grandmother" comes from this environment. All that matters is winning, there is no moral bar on the actions of these individuals. The banks themselves struggle to control these people. They usually put “a hard man” in charge to control those operating in an area of such moral laxity. Even then the institution can suffer as these individuals have only one concern and that is themselves.
What is needed is the break up of many of the banks and proper regulation of the industry. The banks must also be made to pay their taxes, which should include paying for the past damage done. There have been the reports like that from Sir John Vickers which make sensible suggestions regarding reform of the industry. These should be actioned immediately.
Most of all though what is needed is the political will to carry through these substantial reforms. Little has really happened since the crisis of 2008, the bankers in the mind of many have got away scot free. They must not this time be allowed, once the dust has settled, to get away with threats of moving out of the country or to complain of the effects of red tape on competitiveness.
The politicians need to be ready if necessary to buy the bankers the one way tickets out of the country if they will not comply with a new just regulatory framework. A Leveson style inquiry could also be useful as it would expose the true nature of the banking industry from the till and call centre to the dealing rooms.
What is for sure is that something needs to happen, the taxpayer cannot simply go on being robbed time and time again by the bankers.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Robbing bankers

How many more times are the bankers going to be allowed to rob us all? First, they virtually go bust and have to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Nothing happens, they continue with business as usual paying themselves bonuses. Any threat of action being taken against them is met with threats of "we're leaving the country." Now the libor and Natwest scandals. It is a great pity Cameron's government doesn't focus a little more on this particular type of welfare cheat