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Monday, November 28, 2011

Why won't Europe heed the doctor's advice on climate change

When you feel unwell, who do you consult? Your doctor, who has been trained to treat you? Or your boss, who hasn’t?

In a letter published by the British Medical Journal last month, numerous health professionals called for robust EU action against climate change. A 30% reduction in the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (when compared to 1990 levels) would save more than 80 billion euros per year, the professionals said. These savings would result from both a fall in the numbers of people suffering from cardiac and respiratory diseases and from the increased productivity rate of a healthier workforce.

While this would appear to be a far more sensible way to slash medical bills than through austerity, policy-makers are refusing to follow the advice. Rather than going to the doctor, they take their prescriptions from corporate interest groups.

BusinessEurope, one of the most influential organisations in Brussels, has prepared a concise two-page briefing ahead of this week’s climate change negotiations in Durban. Its core messages are firstly that the Union should not go beyond its existing target of cutting emissions by 20% over the 1990 to 2020 period. And secondly, it warns that many companies will quit the EU if it unilaterally sets more ambitious reduction goals than the rest of the world.

Privileged access

Nick Campbell, the chairman of BusinessEurope’s committee on climate change, enjoys privileged access to the European Commission. A report by Carbon Trade Watch and the Corporate Europe Observatory has documented how he held discussions with EU officials preparing a “roadmap” for moving to a low-carbon economy in March this year. Campbell was exercised by proposals contained in a draft of that plan relating to the EU’s emissions trading system, under which firms buy and sell permits to pollute. Because many energy-intensive industries had been granted a surfeit of emission allowances in the past, the Commission’s draft recommended that 500 to 800 million should be set aside from phase three of the system (running from 2013 to 2020). After Campbell objected to that figure, it was deleted and the final version of the “roadmap” contained only a woolly commitment to “consider” the notion of setting allowances aside.

Campbell is a busy chap. He is also a lobbyist for the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC). As chemicals account for one-third of all industrial energy use in the Union, CEFIC should theoretically benefit from a shift towards electricity generation from renewable sources as they are less hazardous than coal, oil and nuclear power. Yet because the council’s members include fossil fuel addicts such as Shell, BP and Total, it is resisting saner energy policies. Giorgio Squinzi, the council’s president, recently contended that the EU’s 20% target was adequate. “Targeting greater C02 [carbon dioxide] reductions when other markets outside of the European Union are dragging their feet would be a lonely and bold move,” he said. “But it would not necessarily be the right one, and might achieve perverse effects.”

Blackmail

Squinzi went on to predict that chemical companies will have to move out of Europe if its policy-makers hug too many trees (not his exact words, I hasten to add). This is an old trick and it has worked wonders. Indeed, the trick has been played so many times that a concept called “carbon leakage” has emerged to describe industrial sectors considered at risk of financial loss from tougher climate change regulations. Those sectors are deemed eligible for higher numbers of free permits to pollute under the emissions trading scheme than other sectors.

This concept has turned into a joke. I was astonished to hear an EU official state last week that the list now covers 169 sectors, including wine and bicycle production.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s “climate action” commissioner, appears to be using Twitter as a negotiating tool. In a tweet earlier this month, she vented her frustration with India and the US for opposing legally-binding emission reduction targets ahead of the Durban conference. While Barack Obama should certainly be reproached for reneging on pre-election pledges to take climate change seriously, Hedegaard might contemplate sharing the blame around a bit more evenly. The truth is that the EU’s own actions on climate change are not worthy of celebration.

Speaking in Oslo last week, Hedegaard said that the EU’s emissions have gone down by 17% since 1990. By 2020, according to forecasts that the Union’s officials appear fond of citing, the EU is expected to account for 11% of all the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. By focusing so selectively on those apparent achievements, however, Hedegaard has glossed over Europe’s historical role as an environmental villain. The Third World Network, an anti-poverty group, has pointed out that industrialised countries have belched out over 70% of the world’s emissions since 1850, even though they host just 20% of the world’s inhabitants.

Hedegaard continues to promote the emission trading system as the lynchpin of the Union’s climate policy, despite how it has been plagued by fraud. Plans to bring aviation within that system will do no more than add two euros to the price of a trans-Atlantic air ticket, the Commission estimates. When emissions from aviation are projected to jump by 70% between 2005 and 2020, that step will clearly not bring the necessary reductions in air travel.

Humanity will be let down in Durban. But I guess that’s what happens when polluters are taken more seriously than doctors.

●First published by New Europe, 28 November 2011.









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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bono must ditch Belgian maker of warplane parts for Israel

Belgium’s links to Israel’s war industry appear to be getting stronger.

At least, that is what I learned from a recent briefing by arms trade monitor Thierry de Lannoy.

He cited data indicating that Belgium is the fourth largest provider of weapons to Israel in the European Union. As the top three -- France, Germany and Britain -- are much larger countries hosting some of the world’s leading “defense” companies, that ranking alone appears significant for a relative minnow like Belgium. At €14 million ($18.5 million), the volume of arms contracts approved by the Belgian authorities to Israel was particularly high in 2005, the year before Israel killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in Lebanon.

“Made in Belgium” components are essential to some of the most sophisticated and lethal instruments in Israel’s arsenal, as de Lannoy explained.

U2 hire military firm

Barco, a firm registered in the Dutch-speaking city of Kortrijk, is a provider of screens to the pilotless drones -- or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- that Israel used to attack Gaza in late 2008 and 2009. The same firm’s brochures, incidentally, brag of how it provided screen and lighting technology to the Irish rock band U2 for its latest world tour. Considering how Bono, the band’s singer, used that technology to declare support for human rights, pressure should be put on him and other musicians to cease doing business with Barco.

De Lannoy also drew attention to how Israel’s top weapons producer, Elbit, is now in charge of a few Belgian companies. In 2003, an Elbit subsidiary El-Op Industries bought Optronics Instruments and Products (OIP) in Oudenaarde, a town in Flanders. OIP, which makes sensors and detection equipment for military clients, went on to buy Sabiex, a tank distributor headquartered in Braine l’Alleud, a French-speaking part of Belgium, last year.

The campaign group Intal yesterday held a “die-in” protest at the central train station in Brussels to raise awareness about Belgian cooperation with Israel’s war industry. As I was one of those who lay on the ground as part of the action, it was difficult for me to gauge how it was received among the public. Fellow protesters who handed out flyers, however, reported that the response was generally positive, with many passersby expressing an interesting in learning more about the topic.

Arms cooperation with Israel is almost certainly illegal. Since 2008, all of the EU’s countries have been bound by a code of conduct on arms exports, which says that weapons should not be sold to countries where they are likely to be used for repression or where they are likely to contribute to aggravating tensions among neighbors. If the EU showed any respect for its own laws, then it wouldn’t be trading a single bullet with Israel.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 27 November 2011.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mario Monti: an ideologue dressed as a technocrat

I’ve always been a little baffled by that word “technocrat”. There is something both chilling and comforting about it. It can bring forth an image of someone aloof, yet better educated and less vain than a politician fixated on image and poll ratings.

Mario Monti is, if headlines are to be taken literally, the quintessential technocrat. It is beyond dispute that he is not tainted by the corruption with which Silvio Berlusconi, his predecessor as Italy’s prime minister, became synonymous. But does that make Monti less political? An analysis of his track record indicates he has an ideologically-driven desire to transform Europe and not necessarily for the better. To argue that he is not a compromised figure would not appear accurate, either.

Monti is admired among some federalists for his work as Europe’s competition commissioner between 1999 and 2004. He is best known for blocking a merger between General Electric (GE) and Honeywell, much to the chagrin of that wealthy marauder Jack Welch.

With all the publicity that Monti’s decision received, you would assume that he would be wary of taking a job with GE when his stint at the European Commission was over. Yet while Monti didn’t go to work with GE directly, he became chairman of a “think tank” that was funded by it in 2005. The 2006 annual report for Bruegel, the economic policy outfit in question, lists GE as one of its “corporate members”.

In that role, Monti pursued an agenda designed to make Europe dismantle its welfare states and morph into a “purer” capitalist economy like the United States. True, he was subtle in his pronouncements and he hinted at understanding the importance of social policy. But it is hard to see how he had any other real objective in mind.

Assault on public services

In one of the earliest articles he wrote wearing his Bruegel cap, Monti praised a 2005 blueprint for “reform” signed by André Sapir, one of his colleagues at the think-tank. In it, Sapir upbraided most EU governments for “relying on strict employment protection laws at a time when old jobs and practices are no longer warranted.” He then bemoaned the “lack of progress” with introducing the EU’s services directive, contending that “continued rigidities in services tend to discourage foreign direct investment as the effectiveness of business services is a key factor in the location of multinational enterprises.”

Monti, it should be recalled, was a member of the Commission team which formally proposed the services directive (though it is usually associated with his Dutch colleague Frits Bolkestein). That legal measure was designed to open up the services sector generally to competition; its original draft contained no real guarantees that the essential purpose of healthcare would be to cure the sick, not to line the pockets of pharmaceutical or insurance executives. It also contained clauses aimed at making sure that firms are subject to the laws of their country of origin. As a result, an employee hired by a firm in an EU state with inadequate worker protection law would still be subject to that law if he or she was transferred to work in another EU state with higher protection standards.

Just as the term “technocrat” baffled me, I have to confess that I used to be under false illusions about “think tanks”. Like many journalists, I have often phoned think tank representatives for quotes when writing news stories or features. Because they tend to have titles like “research fellow”, I was led to believe that they were akin to academics, who could be relied on to think independently.

Now, I realise that think tanks are corporate cheerleaders in disguise. They are engaged in what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman called “manufacturing consent”. The papers they pump out diligently are presented as contributions to public debates. In reality, those pithy pamphlets are furthering an agenda that will only benefit the affluent.

Big tobacco and think tanks

The European Policy Centre, for example, hosts discussions on the future of healthcare every so often. Yet the very notion that the EPC has altruistic motives falls asunder when you learn of its strong links to the tobacco industry. A 2010 report by the organisation Action on Smoking and Health detailed how the EPC’s founder, the recently deceased Stanley Crossick, was a lobbyist for British American Tobacco (BAT). That firm was one of the main players in the EPC’s “risk forum”. In 2003, the Commission bowed to pressure from the forum to agree that it would consult cigarette makers about any measures affecting their industry.

Firms that sell cancer in a box merit contempt, not consultation. Indeed, the only industry that rivals tobacco in causing human misery is the arms trade, which also has think tank “experts” championing its bloody cause.

A few weeks ago, the European Council on Foreign Relations published a paper lamenting how military budgets are shrinking. The paper was written by Nick Witney, former head of the European Defence Agency, an institution set up at the behest of weapons manufacturers. Unless steps are taken rapidly to improve Europe’s military capabilities, the EU’s defence policy will “by the end of 2012 be ready for its final obsequies,” Witney warned.

We should take Witney’s warning seriously, albeit not for the reason he advocates. The militarisation of Europe is obscene and it must stop. Our political “masters” must be pressurised into combating poverty, instead, and to stop pretending that technocrats have the solutions.

●First published by New Europe, 21 November 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An unholy alliance between MEPs and banks

A 260-page declaration of class war was issued in Cannes earlier this month.

The final report of the B20 summit, a gathering of business chiefs coinciding with the Group of 20 meeting for political leaders, contains this explicit demand: “Restore fiscal stability by reducing public spending rather than by increasing corporate taxation.” If a software package is ever developed to translate executive speak into plain English, it might just transform that sentence into: “Indulge the wealthy; make life miserable for everyone else.”

It would be comforting if this paper was destined to gather dust. Tragically, that core demand is already being put into effect in many countries, without the governments and institutions overseeing its implementation having any democratic mandate to do so. We saw how George Papandreou was browbeaten into retreating when he dared to suggest that the Greek people should be allowed to vote in a referendum on austerity. Less widely-reported, the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan has lately described as “sacrosanct” the deficit reduction targets set for his country by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. When standing for election in February this year, the same Noonan pledged to renegotiate the diktats he now regards as “sacrosanct”.

Can the European Parliament strike a blow for the disadvantaged? In theory, the EU’s only directly-elected institution can. In practice, it seldom does.

This week, the Parliament’s economics and monetary affairs committee will probably approve its official position paper on the innocuous-sounding but highly dangerous “European semester” arrangement.

Even though that arrangement usurps democracy by requiring the national governments of EU states to have their annual budgets vetted by the unelected European Commission, most MEPs sitting on that committee appear untroubled. The draft version of the paper they are considering merely recommends a few tweaks to the Commission’s proposals such as keeping MEPs abreast of what other EU bodies get up to.

It is telling that Pervenche Berès has drawn up the Parliament’s paper. As chairwoman of the economic and monetary affairs committee, she made it to number eight on the “Top 50 Power List” compiled by the Accountancy Age in 2008. According to the magazine, she has been prepared to “ruffle the feathers” of the International Accounting Standards Board by querying moves by that (ironically unaccountable) private sector body to converge US business reporting standards with those used in the rest of the world.

Affront to democracy

Rather than making a habit of ruffling feathers among the titans of finance, Berès is generally accommodating towards them. She has combined holding one of the more coveted positions within the Parliament’s structures with membership of the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum (EPFSF).

That forum is another affront to democracy. In return for an annual fee of 8,000 euros, banks and other providers of financial services enjoy privileged access to the MEPs who are supposed to be regulating their sector. Companies who are not fully signed up to the forum can still take part in the “briefing sessions” it organises, provided they pay 200 euros each time. If political parties were holding fund-raisers, where businesspeople coughed up comparable sums to have chinwags with ministers, the press would rightly be curious.

While Berés told Spinwatch, a group monitoring relations between business and politics, in 2008 that she was not an active member of the EPFSF, the forum’s own website indicates that she chaired at least five of its meetings between 2003 and 2008. In 2005, she was in the hot seat for a discussion on mortgages, where the two “guest speakers” came from BVBA and BNP Paribas. There is no suggestion that Berès benefitted personally from the discussion. But the fact she was also chairwoman of the economic and monetary affairs committee surely meant there was a conflict of interests involved. She cannot seriously claim that a corporate-funded body is a neutral or objective forum for debate.

Among the corporate participants in the forum are Barclays, DeutscheBank, Goldman Sachs, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) and the crediting ratings agency Standard and Poor’s.

Hedge funds write the script

The ISDA has been lobbying to ensure that EU rules on hedge funds end up being to its liking. Its work has inevitably brought it in close contact with another French MEP, Jean-Paul Gauzés, who has been tasked with preparing the Parliament’s official positions on hedge funds and credit ratings agencies. Guess what? Gauzés is also a member of the financial services forum.

The influence of hedge fund lobbying on the Parliament was apparent from the outset. During the first debate on proposed new rules that the economic and monetary affairs committee held in 2009, German MEP Wolf Klinz argued that the recommendation on the table failed to distinguish between different types of investment funds. “The problem is the one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

I checked a briefing paper that the EPFSF circulated on the same proposals in 2009. It closely resembled Klinz’s comments by warning of a “one-size-fits-all approach of regulation to a very heterogeneous group of fund types”. The resemblance is unlikely to be accidental. Klinz is the current chairman of the forum.

Also this week, Michel Barnier, the EU’s single market commissioner, is scheduled to come forward with new proposals on credit ratings agencies. Don’t be surprised if the MEP put in charge of responding to them sits on the aforementioned forum.

Theodore Roosevelt once spoke of an “unholy alliance” between business and politics. That kind of alliance is commonplace in Brussels.

●First published by New Europe, 14 November 2011.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"We must challenge Israeli mindset," says rugby player turned blockade buster

Trevor Hogan, best-known as an international rugby player, was one of 14 Irish people detained by Israel over the past week after they tried to break the illegal siege of Gaza.

In a telephone interview this morning, Hogan recalled how the MV Saoirse (called after the Gaelic word for freedom) and the Canadian-flagged Tahrir were approaching the waters off Gaza last Friday (4 November) afternoon when they were intercepted by the Israeli navy.

“They were circling us for ages, with their rifles trained on us,” he told me. “It was surreal looking out our window at these guns.”

Still in international waters, the two boats were surrounded by numerous Israeli vessels. Hogan estimates there were 15 or 16 vessels in total, including several full-sized warships. Eventually, the MV Saoirse was attacked by water cannons.

“The water cannons destroyed the electricity,” said Hogan. “They flooded the engine room. We had to use emergency power. The boat could have sunk if it went on much longer.”

Balaclava-clad Israeli commandos then boarded the Saoirse. “We just stayed sitting down peacefully,” he added. “They wanted to search us on deck but we refused. We all acquitted ourselves well. One sudden move and they were sure to fire. My heart was pumping looking at this.”

Hogan expected to be beaten when the Israelis brought their captives to the port of Ashdod. But the arrival of an Irish diplomat at the port “calmed things down.”

Women “stressed and traumatized”

Hogan said that the Israelis kept him and the others awake on their first night in Givon Prison. But the treatment was even worse for the two women, Zoe Lawlor and Mags O’Brien, on the boat, who were detained separately from the 12 men.

“There was solidarity among us [the men],” he said. “We were all together. We managed to meet them [the two women] for 20 minutes each time the consular was there. You could see that the girls were stressed and traumatized. They were under serious pressure.”

Yesterday morning, seven of the 14 were scheduled to be flown from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv to London. Yet they were prevented from boarding a British Airways flight by the Israeli authorities and placed into cells in the airport.

“Givon was tough enough,” Hogan said. “Ben Gurion was a lot worse. We thought we were going home and then we were banged up in cells. It was more decrepit. There was no information and no free association. We were held apart.”

Israel has blamed British Airways for the episode at Ben Gurion, alleging that the carrier would not take the seven campaigners. “Maybe there was an element of the airline being at fault,” Hogan explained. “But there was more to it than that. It was part of a pattern. They wanted lessons to be learnt and that’s why they made life as difficult as they could for us. We didn’t sign anything saying we were criminals, [even though] there were threats made that we would be kept [in prison] indefinitely.”

Five of the Irish, including Hogan, were put on a later flight and arrived in Dublin late last night. Two others, Fintan Lane and Zoe Lawlor, were stopped from taking that later flight and were instead made to travel via Istanbul. They and the seven remaining prisoners are expected to land in Dublin today.

Effective tactic

Hogan retired from professional rugby earlier this year because of persistent knee injuries. His efforts to reach Gaza as part of the Freedom Flotilla II during the summer and now with the smaller Freedom Waves initiative have been supported by a number of Irish sports personalities.

He is adamant that the attempts to penetrate the Gaza blockade have been worthwhile. “We don’t want to make out that we are the victims or martyrs,” he said. “We were in Givon Prison. But Gaza is the world’s largest prison. Whatever we have gone through, the Palestinians have to go through 10 times worse.

“It was very interesting to notice the attitude of the Israelis towards us. They couldn’t comprehend why were doing this. What we were doing challenges their mindset and that is why it is such an effective tactic. They treat the Palestinians as if they are subhuman. They don’t think Palestinians deserve to live in a normal society, to be able to import and export and fish and farm. It’s great to be able to meet that mindset head on.”

●First published by The Electronic Intifada

Thursday, November 10, 2011

EU Parliament chief refuses to protest at illegal arrests by Israel

The president of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek has declined to protest at how Israel arrested one of his own colleagues in international waters.

Last weekend, Paul Murphy was one of 14 Irish people kidnapped by Israeli forces who boarded the MV Saoirse, as it sailed towards Gaza. Murphy, a member of the European Parliament (MEP), has still not been released but is expected to be flown from Tel Aviv to Dublin tomorrow.

Buzek took his time reacting to Murphy’s arrest, which took place last Friday. It wasn’t until Wednesday this week that Buzek issued a statement urging Israel to “quickly” release his fellow MEP and the other detainees.

I called Buzek’s spokesman Robert Golanski this morning to ask if Buzek had gone beyond calling for the release and complained at the unlawful manner of Murphy’s arrest. “The main concern of the president is to make sure that EU citizens, including a colleague of his, be released as soon as possible,” Golanski replied.

When I repeated the question about whether or not Buzek protested at Israel’s illegal conduct in international waters, Golanski remained evasive. “It looks as if Mr Murphy is going to go home very soon,” he said. “The issue is closed.”

Buzek, a former prime minister in Poland, is sympathetic towards Zionism. During a meeting last month with Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, Buzek described Israel as an “indispensable partner for the EU.” Buzek has been more vocal in demanding the release of Gilad Shalit, the only Israeli soldier detained by Hamas until recently, than any of the thousands of political prisoners held by Israel.

Furthermore, Buzek’s refusal to protest at Israel’s illegal behavior in recent days is at variance with the official position of his institution.

In June 2010, the Parliament approved a resolution condemning Israel’s killing of nine activists taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The resolution argued that the manner in which Israel attacked the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship, breached international law.

Fortunately, nobody was killed when Israel used heavy-handed tactics against the Saoirse and the Canadian boat the Tahrir last weekend. But considering it behaved in a manner that had been previously condemned by his assembly, Buzek had strong grounds to protest. His decision not to do so indicates that he either has a short memory or that he is not willing to upset Israel.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How EU science chief helps Israel's war industry

Ensconced in Brussels, the only controversy Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has been embroiled in over the past few years related to her bloated income. While she has displayed remarkable chutzpah in seeking to draw down both a European commissioner’s salary and Oireachtas and ministerial pensions, her personal greed is of little consequence compared to how she is abetting Israel’s crimes against humanity.

Israel is the most active non-European participant in the EU’s multi-annual scientific research programme, which Geoghegan-Quinn administers. According to the European Commission’s own data, Israel is currently involved in 800 EU-financed research activities with a total value of €4.3 billion. What the Commission is less eager to spell out is that the beneficiaries of this largesse include weapons manufacturers and technology firms that supply Israel with the tools of repression and occupation.

The Irish Times regularly publishes columns on the EU’s research activities by Conor O’Carroll from the Irish Universities Association. Because the seven universities O’Carroll represents receive funding from the EU’s science programme, he has a direct interest in presenting that programme in a positive light. Although The Irish Times is nominally committed to informed debate, its editors have told me on several occasions that they would not have space on their pages for an article explaining how Irish academics cooperate with Israel’s war industry.

Trinity College Dublin, for example, is taking part in a €14.5 million EU-financed project called Total Airport Security System (TASS), under which new surveillance equipment will be installed in Heathrow Airport ahead of next year’s Olympic Games in London. Among the other participants in the TASS consortium are Elbit, a company that has helped install surveillance equipment in the apartheid wall that Israel is building in the West Bank. Elbit was also one of two makers of the pilotless drones(or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) with which Israel attacked Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

Duty not to assist apartheid

When ruling that the West Bank wall was illegal, the International Court of Justice stated in 2004 that public authorities throughout the world had an obligation not to render any aid or assistance to its construction. Norway – a country outside the EU - has taken that verdict sufficiently seriously to order that its state-owned pension scheme divest from Elbit. Yet Geoghegan-Quinn and her officials continue to subsidise that same company.

The University of Limerick is involved in a €70 million project called Maaximus for developing “more affordable” aircraft than those currently in use. Other participants in this project include Israel Aerospace Industries, another firm that has worked on the West Bank wall and provided warplanes used to kill civilians in Gaza.

University College Cork, meanwhile, is trying to give credence to the Israeli myth that it is saving the world from terrorist attacks. UCC is the official coordinator of an EU-funded project called CommonSense, which is focused on developing sensors for detecting bombs containing radioactive materials. This project also involves the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Israeli Institute for Technology in Haifa. Better known as the Technion, that institute has been responsible for such innovations as a remote-controlled bulldozer, explicitly intended for use in demolishing Palestinian homes.

Geoghegan-Quinn was pressurised by the Dublin government last year into returning her pension payments to the state. She has not come under pressure from any European government to cease assisting Israel’s military industry. This dearth of scrutiny has allowed her to remain in denial about reality.

Poorly informed

She recently dismissed concerns about an EU-financed surveillance technology project that includes Motorola Israel. The aims of that project – to design sensors for detecting “intruders” who venture near buildings or resources deemed to be of critical economic importance – appear similar to those of the “virtual fences” that Motorola has placed around Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. (Using thermal cameras, those “fences” are also designed to identify “intruders”). But when a British MEP alerted her to that similarity, Geoghegan-Quinn claimed her officials do not have “any information about any radar systems Motorola Israel might or might not have installed in the West Bank.” Her advisers should take greater care reading their email messages in future; a paper containing detailed information about Motorola’s work in the West Bank was sent to them by the Palestinian organisation Stop the Wall in May.

Geoghegan-Quinn will be kept busy in the coming months finalising plans for the next EU science programme, which is likely to have a budget of around €80 billion between 2014 and 2020. While the negotiations on the programme’s priorities remain ongoing, Israel’s participation in it has been guaranteed. This means that Geoghegan-Quinn will continue approving the allocation of grants to companies profiting from war and human rights abuses.

Why doesn’t her support for Israel attract more attention than the contents of her bank account?

●First published by Politico, 7 November 2011.

Who killed more: Gaddafi or NATO?

In a 1936 essay Aldous Huxley summarised how warfare relies on dishonesty. “War is enormously discreditable to those who order it to be waged and even to those who merely tolerate its existence,” he wrote. “Furthermore, to developed sensibilities the facts of war are revolting and horrifying. To falsify these facts, and by so doing to make war seem less evil than it really is, and our own responsibility in tolerating war less heavy, is doubly to our advantage. By suppressing and distorting the truth, we protect our sensibilities and preserve our self-esteem.”

Shortly after reading those words, I checked NATO’s website and was greeted with cheerful images of Libyan children returning to school. The message was clear: now that Muammar Gaddafi is dead, the people who lived under his dictatorship can finally breathe easily. The truth, of course, is more sobering.

Yes, Gaddafi did appalling things. Hundreds of people suspected of opposing him “disappeared”. About 1,200 were estimated to have been massacred by his forces at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. The case for bringing him before the International Criminal Court (ICC) was compelling.

But who killed more Libyans: Gaddafi or NATO? While accurate data is impossible to come by, educated guesswork indicates that NATO caused a higher number of civilian deaths over the past six months than Gaddafi did over several decades.

According to estimates from the new Libyan government in September, at least 30,000 had died because of the war. Thomas Mountain, a member of an American group that laid flowers in Tripoli graveyards in 1987 to remember the children bombed at Ronald Reagan’s behest a year earlier, calculated (also in September) that NATO’s 2011 war involved the dropping of 30,000 bombs. Assuming that each bomb killed an average of two civilians, that brings the death toll to 60,000.

Supporting war crimes “all the way”

And what about those Libyan rebels that Catherine Ashton pledged to support “all the way”? When the EU’s foreign policy chief uttered those words during a visit to Benghazi in May, she did not specify what “all the way” meant. Did it include racist attacks on the inhabitants of Tawergha, a small town south of Misrata, who are largely descendants of African slaves? Human Rights Watch has reported in the past fortnight that witnesses and victims interviewed by its researchers provided “credible evidence of Misratan militias shooting and wounding unarmed Tawerghas and torturing detainees, in a few cases to death.” A report in August by Al Jazeera gave prima facie evidence that Ashton’s beloved rebels resorted to ethnic cleansing. It showed a large residential block set ablaze and one of the few remaining civilians left in Tawergha being evicted.

On 23 October, Ashton applauded the announcement of a “day of liberation” and exhorted the construction of a “new Libya based on respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles.” Two days earlier, the decomposing bodies of 53 people were found at the Mahari Hotel in Sirte. They appear to have been Gaddafi supporters, who were executed by Ashton’s rebel friends. Ashton has not yet made a public call for an investigation into their deaths. And why would she? The rebels who seem to have carried out the attacks had been told she supported them “all the way”.

And what exactly happened in Abu Salim hospital in Tripoli? In August, an Al Jazeera TV crew counted 39 dead bodies when it visited this trauma treatment centre. Numerous patients seem to have been killed in fighting between Gadaffi supporters and the rebels. Did any of the men Ashton promised to support carry out these atrocities?

Humanitarian imperialism

And what about the killing of Gadaffi himself? I didn’t shed any tears over his death. But if we are to believe in the universality of human rights and international law, then they must not be applied selectively. There is a term for the deliberate killing of someone who is already in captivity during a conflict, as Gaddafi was. That term is war crime. It would be hypocritical to gloss over that fact, just because the assassination was undertaken by rebels that Ashton supports “all the way”.

Jean Bricmont, a Belgian academic, coined the phrase “humanitarian imperialism” to describe the agenda behind war in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The suffering of civilians in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq has been used as a pretext for military intervention by the US and its European lackeys, in an attempt to divert attention from their ulterior motives. The war against Libya fits that pattern.

Gaddafi had long been a tyrant. But until recently he was “our tyrant”; his rapprochement with the West meant he was a valued customer for our arms dealers. The Italian weapons company Finmeccanica had a backlog of orders worth 800 million euros with his regime when NATO started bombing Libya in March.

Ashton was not known to be troubled by the plight of Libyan civilians when her mentor Tony Blair was cosying up to Gaddafi. She has not expressed any disquiet either about the obscene haste which BP has displayed in trying to wrap its paws around Libyan oil contracts in the post-Gaddafi era. In 2007, that British corporation signed a 900 million dollar deal with the Tripoli authorities for exploiting two wells. Bob Dudley, the chief executive, says “we remain enthused” by their potential now that BP can return to them. You bet he does.

●First published by New Europe, 7 November 2011.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book review: Friedman seeks to make racism respectable

It is unusual for politicians to namedrop journalists. And so it should be; our job as reporters and commentators is to expose the harm done by the powerful, not to curry favor with them. One exception I recall was during a 2003 press briefing given by Jim Wolfensohn, then the World Bank’s president, most of which he spent listing his influential acquaintances. Among them was Thomas Friedman, who, Wolfensohn reminded his listeners, “belongs to your profession.”

After reading The Imperial Messenger by Bélen Fernández, the thought of sharing a profession with Friedman revolts me. Fernández demonstrates meticulously how The New York Times columnist seeks to make racism respectable.

His racism is directed at one ethnic group: Arabs. In 2001, he even implied that Arabs are innately backward, writing: “In an age when others are making microchips, you are making potato chips (116).” The following year, he effectively advocated the mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians. Three days before Israeli troops went on their March 2002 rampage in Jenin refugee camp, Friedman called on Israel to “deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay (xv).” Israel’s murder of 1,200 people, mostly non-combatants, in Lebanon during 2006 was, in Friedman’s view, part of the “education of Hezbollah” (142).

More Middle East than Minnesota?

Even though just one chapter is specifically focused on the “special relationship” between Israel and the US, Friedman’s commitment to Zionism is criticized throughout the book. While Friedman has claimed he learned he was “more Middle East than Minnesota” on his first visit to Jerusalem in 1968 (55), Fernández stresses that his refusal to analyze Zionism and its legacy from a critical perspective means that all his work on the region must be treated with circumspection (54). In any event, his claim is a dubious one; a great deal of his travels are spent in the Westernized environments of golf clubs, luxury hotels or hamburger restaurants (one typically ludicrous Friedman theory is that no two countries hosting a branch of McDonalds have gone to war against each other (3)).

Perhaps the best thing about this book is how it highlights the shoddiness of Friedman’s research and how someone who has been lauded by Pulitzer Prize judges for his “clarity of vision” is frequently muddled and inconsistent. Last year Friedman stated that “when widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem (135).” Yet his own copy is known to rely on sources of questionable veracity, in particular the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which, according to Friedman offers “an invaluable service” by translating foreign-language articles written by Arabs and Muslims into English (61). MEMRI is a somewhat shadowy neoconservative outfit, yet it is upfront about one of its goals: to aid the US government and military in their “war on terror.” By definition, then, the “invaluable service” is fighting a propaganda battle on behalf of American foreign policy.

Another telling example of why Friedman should not be trusted is that he concluded Yasser Arafat was a “bad man” based on a Google search, which yielded more hits when Arafat’s name was combined with “jihad” and “martyrdom” than when it was combined with “education” (106). Meanwhile, Friedman’s view of Israeli settlements has veered from arguing their continued expansion was as irresponsible as drunk-driving (96) to dismissing them as “extraneous” to the underlying conflict (93) within the space of a seven-month period.

Vanity

Perhaps the strongest indication that Friedman’s ego is out of control came in his 2002 collection of essays Longitudes and Attitudes. In it, he sought credit for the Saudi plan to establish relations with Israel in return for a withdrawal from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Friedman has convinced himself that the genesis of this initiative was a column he wrote on transforming Saudi Arabia “from terrorist factory to peacemaker”. Fernández derides this self-important twaddle by querying its pertinence: Friedman’s boast was pointless, given how he recognized that Ariel Sharon was determined to reject the Saudi offer (124).

My only complaint with this book is that it doesn’t go into much depth in examining how Friedman is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the mainstream media. A reader unfamiliar with the American press could come away with the impression that Friedman is a singular buffoon, when, in fact, his prejudices are shared by many of his senior colleagues. But that is a tiny gripe. I fully accept that this is a brief polemic targeting Friedman and does not purport to be the definitive history of an American institution.

Few books on current affairs merit being called page-turners; because of Fernández’s witty and punchy style, this one does. Her conclusion turns to the urgent task of developing a counter-narrative to that of Friedman and other writers who pander to a corporate and political elite. The healthy growth of alternative publications on the internet is certainly helping that task and hopefully this trend will continue.

Nonetheless, it is sobering to reflect on how Friedman remains something of a role model for aspiring journalists (at least, that is what I have gleaned from speaking to reporters younger than me). It is vital to explain that the high salary he commands is atypical of his trade and, the way newspaper sales are declining, is bound to become more so. Even more fundamentally, it is vital to ask whether or not Friedman can really be considered a journalist. Fernández indicates that he has essentially become a copy-writer for big business, the US military and the state of Israel.

Does America’s best-known columnist have trouble thinking for himself?

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 4 November 2011.