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Sunday, March 25, 2012

How does bombing Afghanistan help its women?

I am about to do something that I have never done before: defend Catherine Ashton.

No sooner had the EU’s foreign policy chief used the word “Gaza” in a comment about the horrific killings of Jewish children in Toulouse than Israeli politicians were competing with each other to see who could sound the most irate.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, claimed to be upset at how Ashton had drawn a “comparison between the intentional slaughter of children and the IDF’s [Israeli Defence Force’s] surgical defensive strikes.”

Ashton should have told Netanyahu to get stuffed. For a start, all she had done was made a bland remark about the suffering of children in general, without drawing any analogy. More importantly, the idea that Israel seeks to spare non-combatants is bunkum.

Three children were murdered in Toulouse. A total of 352 children were murdered by Israel when it bombed Gaza relentlessly for three weeks in December 2008 and January 2009. And there are strong reasons to believe that Palestinian children are still dying from the effects of missiles used in that offensive. From my work with The Electronic Intifada (a news and analysis website), I learned about the death of Haneen Abu Jalala, a 17-year-old girl, in January this year. Haneen developed respiratory problems in early 2009; her family is convinced that these problems were caused by her exposure to white phosphorous, a toxic weapon that Israel dropped on Gaza’s civilian areas in contravention of international law.

Nobody who has visited Gaza and seen the destruction wrought by that offensive first-hand (as I have) could believe those deaths were accidental. Those children were slaughtered intentionally by the state of Israel.

Selective

I have no desire to defend Ashton any further. The truth is that she is frequently selective about the types of violence she professes to abhor. In August last year, Ashton rushed to “condemn unreservedly” the killing of eight Israelis in the tourist resort of Eilat. Yet she had nothing to say about how Israel murdered an infant in Gaza a few hours later.

Ashton is equally selective when dealing with Afghanistan.

In an extraordinary, if little-noticed, speech to a conference in Bonn during December last year, Ashton said: “Like many, I’ve been extremely impressed by the role of the women of Afghanistan. Not least under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who’s worked tirelessly for women’s rights everywhere but especially with Afghan women.”

Maybe I haven’t paid enough attention to world affairs but I have no recollection of ever reading about Hillary Clinton’s election – or even appointment – as a leader for Afghan women. To the best of my knowledge, she is a representative of the United States, the military power that is occupying Afghanistan on a spurious pretext.

According to the official narrative, the US and its allies (read: lap dogs) in NATO are waging war in Afghanistan in order to defeat al Qaeda. Yet, as George Zornick, a journalist with The Nation magazine highlighted at the beginning of this month, it is extremely rare for al Qaeda fighters to be killed in that country. The last time one was killed by US forces was in April 2011. That’s almost a year ago now.

Rising death toll

Civilians, on the other hand, die all the time in Afghanistan. UN data indicates that 3,021 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during 2011, the highest death toll since 2006. True, the Taliban has been blamed for most of these deaths (2,332) but a total of 410 civilians were killed by NATO or by the Afghan government forces the alliance is training.

A recent report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan made clear that “in 2011, women and children again increasingly bore the brunt of the armed conflict.” In total, 166 women and 306 children were killed last year.

The report underscored that air attacks carried out by “pro-government forces” (including NATO) caused the deaths of more women and children in 2011 than during the previous year. A tripling in the number of women and children killed by air attacks was recorded between July and December 2011, compared to the same period in 2010.

Under Hillary Clinton’s “leadership”, violence against Afghan women is increasing. Could she – or her number one fan, Catherine Ashton – kindly explain how blowing up Afghan women helps them achieve their rights?

In the final pages of her 1992 book “The War Against Women”, Marilyn French praised the movement to equate militarism and sexism. Drawing inspiration from the feminist protests at the keeping of nuclear weapons at Greenham Common in Britain, she declared: “After millennia of male war against them, women are fighting back on every front.”

Twenty years later, NATO is trying to spin its wars as beneficial to women. The alliance even has its own TV channel, where it has cuddly images of women learning to drive in Herat and climbing up the ranks of the Afghan army. “This is progress,” says natochannel.tv reporter Ruth Owen.

Occupation is not progress, Ms Owen. Afghanistan is at 172 on the United Nations’ 187-place Human Development Index, suggesting that it is worse-off than other desperately poor countries like Malawi and Haiti. Regardless of what “journalists” working for NATO claim, poverty cannot be bombed out of existence.

Catherine Ashton might have convinced herself that NATO’s predominantly male generals are fighting a feminist war. Real feminists have not been deceived quite so easily.

●First published by New Europe, 25-31 March 2012.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fear used as weapon to put Irish public in their place on EU treaty

Walter Lippmann, an early theorist of “public relations”, did not have much time for democracy. In a 1927 book, he advocated that the “public be put in its place” in order that “each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd”.

Similar sentiments are often expressed by the EU elite. Sometimes, they’re even voiced in public. As Irish politicians and civil servants plotted with their German counterparts to avoid holding a referendum on the “fiscal compact” treaty, one minister in Dublin summed up the prevailing “wisdom”. Giving the people a say would not be a good idea, according to Leo Varadkar (the minister in question), because they might be motivated by “extraneous issues” like cutbacks to public services.

It takes some gall to describe cutbacks as an extraneous issue to a treaty designed to enshrine a commitment to austerity in the constitutions of most EU countries. But Varadkar spoke as if his view was the only rational one.

Now that the Irish government is reluctantly calling a referendum (on advice from the country’s attorney general), it is keeping the public in place with a tried and tested weapon: fear. No sooner had the decision to hold a referendum been announced than Varadkar’s colleague Lucinda Creighton was warning that a No vote would send a “negative signal” to investors. The implicit threat was that there would be an exodus of foreign-owned companies unless everyone obeyed their masters.

Anorak

I realise that this makes me a very sad anorak but I’ve been following Ireland’s referendums on EU treaties for 20 years now. Fear has been a weapon of the Yes side during most, if not all, of the campaigns preceding those votes. But this is the first time that I recall it being used from the get-go. Usually, the establishment has the decency to wait until the date of polling day has been announced before it tries to induce terror in the electorate.

The deep irony behind Varadkar’s comments is that it is the Yes side which has a habit of dragging “extraneous issues” into the debate.

In 2008, the Irish said No to the Lisbon treaty. To bully them into changing their minds in a second referendum on the same treaty the following year, the Yes side ran a 10 million euro promotional blitz. Its core argument was that accepting Lisbon was necessary to preserve jobs. Yet as Karen Devine, a lecturer in Dublin City University recently pointed out, jobs were only mentioned once in a treaty with 91,666 words. And that reference wasn’t even in the core text of the treaty but in a protocol annexed to it.

The Green Party, which was then in government, tried to claim that the treaty would help the battle against climate change. And yet only six of those 91,666 words dealt with that most urgent problem.

Unsavoury characters

It is true that some opponents of EU treaties are unsavoury characters. I would be happy if the anti-abortion brigade does not get involved in the campaign on the fiscal treaty. And I hope that Nigel Farage and his hedge fund owning chums in the UK Independence Party realise that the best thing they can do to help the No side in Ireland is to stay away from the country. These are only my wishes, however. As a democrat, I wouldn’t dream of trying to muzzle those people, no matter how fervently I despise their right-wing agendas.

One encouraging sign is that there is a real possibility this time around that the trade union movement will urge a No vote. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has not yet decided its position and in previous EU referendum campaigns it has tended to join the Labour Party on the Yes side. Yet there are strong indications that ICTU will break ranks with Labour, the junior partners in the ruling coalition.

Paul Sweeney, an economic adviser with ICTU, gave a brilliant presentation to the European affairs committee in the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) last month. “The treaty is an attempt to outlaw Keynesian economics and stop any fiscal stimulus as a counter to recession,” he said.

That is the nub of the matter: the treaty is the work of ideological fundamentalists. The rigid deficit rules contained in it would deny governments the option of heeding the advice of John Maynard Keynes by increasing expenditure in times of a downturn. If even better ways of coping with recession are found, they too would be forbidden. At the behest of Angela Merkel, the treaty will have “eternal validity”.

Michael Taft, an economist with the Irish trade union UNITE, has demolished the core argument made by the treaty’s supporters: that it would deter the kind of behaviour that led to the current crisis. The treaty’s most important provision relates to a limit on structural deficits of 0.5% of gross domestic product. By the European Commission’s estimates, Ireland had an average structural surplus (not a deficit) of 0.5% between 2000 and 2007, meaning it was considered “fiscally responsible” in Brussels, as Taft argues.

The economic crisis was not caused by the government spending too much on public services. It was caused by lax regulation of banks and other gambling addicts in the financial services industry. The EU’s fiscal treaty ducks that problem. It punishes the hard-pressed, not the brass-necked. That’s why it must be opposed.

●First published by New Europe, 18-24 March 2012.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Israel hires lobbying firm to win MEPs' backing for trade deal


Israel has hired a top lobbying firm with the aim of persuading members of the European Parliament to approve an agreement on industrial trade.

Kreab Gavin Anderson won the lucrative contract with the Israeli government towards the end of 2011 but this has gone unreported until now.

Karl Isaksson, head of the firm’s Brussels office, confirmed to me that the contract has been signed. The contract, he said, is “mainly focused on a couple of trade agreements” between the EU and Israel.

He admitted that these accords include the protocol on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industry Products (ACAA), which was signed between the EU and Israel in 2010 but has encountered stiff resistance from left-leaning MEPs.

Politically significant

Despite its technical nature, ACAA is politically and economically significant. A report by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission in 2009, stated that its entry into force would be the first step in Israel’s integration into the Union’s single market for goods and services.  Under the agreement, checks on the quality of manufactured goods carried out by the Israeli authorities would have the same status as similar checks carried out by authorities within the EU. This should reduce the administrative hurdles that Israeli firms have to clear in order to sell goods in Europe.

Isaksson would not disclose the value of the contract. Last year, the website Ynet reported that the Israeli foreign ministry had earmarked $3.2 million per year for recruiting image consultants in Europe.

While only a fraction of that sum may be destined for bank accounts held by Kreab Gavin Anderson, the contract is undoubtedly sizeable. The latest declaration made by Kreab Gavin Anderson to a register of “interest representatives” active in Brussels says that work related to EU affairs  brought it €3.4 million ($4.4 million) during the 2010 financial year.

Well-connected

Reliable sources have told me that Israeli diplomats had meetings with a number of lobbying firms in Brussels before opting for Kreab Gavin Anderson. Well-connected politically, this firm boasted Carl Bildt as a chairman before he became Sweden’s foreign minister. Its Brussels team includes a former MEP Karin Riss-Jørgensen and a former high-ranking EU trade official Mogens Peter Carl.

While Israel has been eager to divert attention from its crimes against humanity for a number of years, Isaksson said that his firm will not be seeking to improve Israel’s image among the general public. “We have been hired to work on very specific objectives, to get these agreements through. This is  quite similar to lots of other work we do for our clients. The broader reputational matters are not really our thing to do.”

He then appeared to contradict himself when I asked him if Kreab Gavin Anderson had assessed Israel’s human rights record before agreeing to sign the contract. “Of course, we consider the threats and opportunities that all clients bring in. But we decided that in the zone of public opinion, we wanted to help Israel.”

The best way to prevent backroom deals between Israel and the EU is to increase public opposition to them. Palestine solidarity activists in a number of EU countries have already been campaigning against ACAA. Hopefully, they will redouble their efforts in the months to come.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 14 March 2012.

Monday, March 12, 2012

An immoral obsession with privatising water



Water is not chocolate. Provided you have access to other types of food, giving up chocolate will not kill you. The same cannot be said for water.

Needless to say, these truths are evident to anyone who has not yet taken leave of his or her senses.  The reason why I feel it necessary to spell them out is that they jar with the extremist ideology prevailing in the European Union.

As water is essential to life, it follows automatically that access to clean water should be regarded as a fundamental human right. And yet when the United Nations’ general assembly voted to recognise it as such two years ago, 41 countries could not bring themselves to support the motion. Eighteen of these abstainers were EU governments, including Britain, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland.

The big political event over the coming week will be the World Water Forum in Marseille (12-17 March). Don’t be duped by the neutral-sounding name of this “forum”; its agenda has been set by corporations who regard water as a commodity that should be treated as no different to Easter eggs. Indeed, it is no accident that some of its participants – such as Nestlé – are making profits from both bottled water and confectionery. (Adding to the deception, Nestlé is supporting a front group called Project WET, which masquerades as a “water education” charity).


Pragmatic approach?


The orientation of the forum was summed up in a report published by its sister organisation, the World Water Council, in 2003. That document was the work of a panel chaired by one-time International Monetary Fund chief Michel Camdessus and featuring  representatives of private firms like Thames Water and Suez, a few investment  banks and a token anti-poverty campaigner. After observing that “the ownership of the water industry generates passionate debate,” the report advocated a “pragmatic” approach. While it acknowledged that some difficulties had been encountered, the report claimed that “most private operations had achieved real progress in efficiency”.

For a less upbeat assessment – one far less influenced by corporate spin – I’d recommend that you read a 2011 report on the French utilities giant Veolia, by the watchdog Food and Water Europe. It contains a litany of examples of where water privatisation has proven disastrous in this continent and beyond.

In both Bulgaria and Romania, Veolia’s subsidiaries have dramatically increased water bills paid by households and either turned off the taps for those unable to pay or threatened to do so. In Australia, the Veolia-owned firm United Water lost a contract for supplying the city of Adelaide that it had originally won in 1995; the company had to pay back $14 million to overbilled customers between 2001 and 2006. Another firm in the Veolia empire has left whole districts in Libreville, Gabon’s capital city, without water. And Veolia has been forced out of deals in Argentina and Brazil because of dissatisfaction with the quality of its services.

The European Commission announced in January that it has begun proceedings over alleged price-fixing by Veolia and Suez in France. The action won’t stop EU officials from availing of their hospitality. No fewer than four EU commissioners are scheduled to attend the World Water Forum, which is generously sponsored by both of the firms under investigation.



Drumming up business


Andris Piebalgs, the development aid chief, will be among the Commission’s quartet. In 2010, he appeared to recognise that water is not chocolate when he unveiled plans for a 40 million euro “water facility” for countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. It explicitly reserved assistance for supporting partnerships between public water providers and other public authorities on a not-for-profit basis.

More recently, Piebalgs has reverted to promoting private-public partnerships, where firms motivated purely by greed are put in charge of providing essential services. Piebalgs praised this model – embraced with gusto by Britain’s Conservative government in the 1990s – during trips to Lesotho and Somaliland last year.

Piebalgs will be throwing something of a birthday party in Marseille for the earlier EU Water Initiative, which was set up ten years ago. One of its core objectives was to help find new opportunities for Europe’s big utilities firms. That was in keeping with the thrust of efforts made by EU trade officials to pressurise more than 70 countries worldwide to open up their markets to major water corporations. It was only when details of these efforts (made via the World Trade Organisation) became public in 2003 that the Union stated its intention to exclude drinking water from its demands.

Despite the abundant evidence that water privatisation is immoral and impractical, the EU’s power brokers remain committed to it. Before Italy was taken over by an unelected prime minister last year, it was told by the similarly anti-democratic European Central Bank to undertake “large-scale privatisations” to local services. As part of the counterproductive shock therapy being introduced in Greece, the water provider in Thessaloniki, EYATH, has been targeted for sale by this coming September.

We should not be under any illusions about the effects of these measures. Some services are too important to be run by fickle entrepreneurs; that is why they must be kept in public hands, even though they are expensive to run. When put at the whim of market forces, the quality of those services inevitably declines, prices go up and human rights are denied. Why should corporations control every aspect of our lives?

●First published by New Europe, 11-17 March 2012.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Evading reality in Sarkozy's playground for the rich


On a bright day in a Paris suburb, the first street sign I see carries me back to my childhood. Rue Bobby Sands, it reads. The student walking beside me does not know who Bobby Sands was, so I give her a quick history lesson about how the Irish republican prisoner died on hunger strike in 1981.

We are in Saint-Denis, a commune with a strong tradition of left-wing dissent and anti-colonial activism. A workers’ centre here is hosting a conference about Israeli apartheid that has been banned by the authorities in the nearby University of Paris 8 where it was originally scheduled to take place. Calling out Israel as a racist endeavour is taboo in France, where  Zionist lobby groups habitually smear their critics with ludicrous accusations of anti-Semitism and have bullied several colleges into cancelling similar events. To illustrate the power of that lobby, both Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist Party rival François Hollande turned up at the annual dinner for CRIF (the purported representative council for French Jewish organisations) in February. Both men appear happy to swallow the myth about Israel being a model democracy (a “miracle”, according to Sarkozy).


Forgotten

The evasion of reality isn’t confined to foreign policy. Libération, the daily newspaper, has described the situation facing suburbs (les banlieues, as everyone calls them) like Saint-Denis the “great forgotten” aspect of French politics.

“There are eight million inhabitants in these areas,” Mohammed Mechmache from the social action group AcLeFeu has noted. “There are people who live in unhealthy conditions. Why must you wait until the suburbs burn before showing an interest in these people?”

Rather than properly tackling the social problems on the outskirts of Paris, Sarkozy’s government has been portraying les banlieues as synonymous with lawlessness. Claude Guéant, his interior minister, recently stated that the “concentration of social housing” in the greater Paris area explained why it was the part of France “most exposed” to gang violence. That phenomenon led to six killings over the course of 2011. Of course, that is six deaths too many. But it is a tiny number, compared to the thousands of civilians slain in the war Sarkozy helped to initiate in Libya. (To the best of my knowledge, France has not published data about the death toll resulting from state violence last year).

Guéant is an especially reactionary politician, who would not be out of place in the Front National. Having previously blamed immigrants for crime, he sailed closer to overt racism a few weeks ago by declaring “all civilizations are not created equal”.

Supremacist mentality

His comments revealed that the French ruling class hasn’t abandoned the supremacist mentality that guided it when it lorded over an empire. The mentality has been largely unaltered since the 1950s when its toxic effects were brilliantly summarised by Frantz Fanon, himself born in the French colony of Martinique: “Every effort is made to bring the colonised person to admit the inferiority of his culture which has been transformed into instinctive patterns of behaviour, to recognise the unreality of his 'nation', and, in the last extreme, the confused and imperfect character of his own biological structure.”

Poverty is the worst form of violence, another agitator against imperialism, Mahatma Gandhi, observed. The worst form of violence is acute here in Seine Saint-Denis. The rate of tuberculosis in this area is almost four times the national average, according to data compiled by the country’s health monitoring institute. TB is a disease closely linked to hardship.

On both sides of the English Channel, pundits are keener to point fingers at the poor than examine why they are poor in the first place. “Saint-Denis, just outside the Paris Périphérique, used to be known for its basilica where French kings are buried,” a Daily Mail blog post noted in February. “Now it's known for French cars being burned. Most of the cars there are ready for the knacker's yard anyway (even in nicer areas the French tend to drive heaps that no self-respecting Brit would be caught dead in), but that's no excuse. The question is, how long before the fires, fanned by multi-culti sanctimoniousness, spread over into the nicer areas?”

I took a stroll around the basilica a few nights ago. Not only did I feel safe, I savoured the diversity offered by the surrounding streets by going for a Moroccan dinner. Contrary to what The Mail infers, the riots of seven years ago were not caused by santimoniousness. They were sparked by the deaths of two young men electrocuted in a power sub-station; among local residents it was widely believed they died while fleeing the police.

Those deaths occurred in Clichy-sous-Bois, an area that continues to suffer from extreme neglect. Nearly 70% of families in the tower blocks of Chêne-Pointu live below the poverty line. A recent addition to their problems was that their lifts stopped working.

In 2005, Sarkozy called the rioters in this area “scum”. Their grievances were never going to be addressed by his presidency. On the night of his election, he threw a party for some of France’s richest citizens in the 1,000 euros-a-night hotel Le Fouquet’s Barrière. He has championed the interests of his affluent pals consistently since then; one reason why they can still afford luxury accommodation is that he has lowered their tax bills dramatically. In the land of égalité, some citizens are far more equal than others.

●First published by New Europe, 4-10 March 2012.