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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why I tried to arrest Avigdor Lieberman (again)

For the second time in as many years, I tried to arrest Avigdor Lieberman today.

As soon as I saw the Israeli foreign minister enter a room where he was scheduled to give a press conference in Brussels, I stood up and shouted: “Mr Lieberman, this is a citizen’s arrest. You are charged with the crime of apartheid.”

Immediately, I was grabbed by security guards. They whisked me to a side exit and the scariest-looking of them grabbed me by the throat and looked me in the eye with an air of menace. “I am pissed off with you,” he yelled (in French). I tried to speak but was unable to. Once he released his grip, I found myself with my arms and legs forcibly outstretch as the security guards searched my pockets and patted me up and down. Then they tied my hands behind my back with plastic cuffs.

The security guards consulted among themselves for a moment about how they could avoid my detention being witnessed by journalists. “We should be discreet,” said the scary guy (who I recognised from my attempt to arrest Lieberman last year). The scary guy pulled me backwards into a nearby room and told me to sit on the floor.

I sat trembling for a few moments, until the head of security for the EU’s Council of Ministers arrived. He shook hands with the guards and looked behind my back to see my hands tied up.

“Mr Cronin, we meet again,” the head of security said.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Why have you done this?”

“I feel very strongly about the occupation of Palestine, Sir.”

He told me there were other forums at which I could express my views on human rights other than press conferences. I explained that this was one of the few opportunities I had to confront senior representatives of the Israeli state directly.

I asked the head of security to remove my handcuffs, pointing out that I was no threat to anyone and that I was outnumbered by his colleagues. A moment later, the scary guy came through the door with cutters and removed the cuffs. I was allowed to sit in a chair.

The head of security explained to me that my press card was being confiscated and that I was banned from the Council of Ministers’ building from now on. After 20 minutes (my estimate), I was told that I was free to go and was escorted by two guards to the building’s main exit.

Moral duty

While I had reservations about making a second attempt at arresting Lieberman, I felt that I had a moral duty to do so when I learned this week that the EU has formally offered to “upgrade” relations with Israel. By expanding the scope of its political and economic ties with Israel, the EU is becoming increasingly complicit in Israeli apartheid and the brutal treatment of the Palestinian people.

Since my earlier attempt to arrest Lieberman (in February 2011), Israeli apartheid has become more extreme.

Last year I complained that Lieberman and his party Yisrael Beitenu had sponsored about 20 laws and bills before the Knesset (Israel’s parliament, all of which were designed either to discriminate against Palestinians or to deny the right to freedom of expression. The list of discriminatory and anti-democratic initiatives has now grown to 30.

Among the most egregious violations of human rights being planned by Lieberman and his fellow ministers are the displacement of 70,000 Bedouins in the Negev (Naqab). Many of the Bedouins have been living in this region since before the state of Israel was founded.

The Prawer Plan – as the blueprint for the dispossession of Bedouins is called – is just one of a series of measures intended to put Palestinian land in the hands of Israel. Two days ago, the Israeli high court informed of plans to demolish eight Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills because the area is “needed” for training exercises by the Israeli military.

If there is any doubt that Israel is a racist state, please take note of the recent remarks by Eli Yishai, the interior minister, about African asylum-seekers. By declaring that “Israel belongs to the white man”, Yishai has effectively encouraged pogroms against everyone with a different colour of skin to his own.

As a European citizen, I am deeply ashamed of how the governments and institutions which claim to act on my behalf are embracing the apartheid state of Israel. I refuse to be silent while the European Union abets apartheid, an internationally recognized crime against humanity. That is why I tried to arrest Avigdor Lieberman once again.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 24 July 2012.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Is BP writing Europe's energy policies?

This month marks the twelfth anniversary of what was perhaps the most deceptive rebranding exercise of all time: BP christening itself Beyond Petroleum. Though it might have fooled a few, the exercise eventually collapsed. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico illustrated that you can’t conceal ecological devastation with a pretty logo.

One thing that remains concealed, though, is the full extent of the relationship between BP and the European Commission.

At the end of June a consortium led by BP and Statoil announced it had chosen the Nabucco West pipeline – running from the Turkish-Bulgarian border to Vienna - as one of two possible routes for bringing gas from Azerbaijan to Central Europe. Günther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissioner, swiftly welcomed the decision, hailing it as a “success for our security of supply”.

Oettinger’s statement made no mention of the fact that BP is leading the Shah Deniz consortium (as the group behind this project is called). Instead, he referred to how Nabucco West had been chosen over a rival project, which was owned by BP. A layperson could be forgiven, then, for thinking that BP had lost out.

As Oettinger works for an institution which claims to be transparent, the least we should expect is that details of all contacts between his office and BP should be published. Yet when I searched his website, I could find no information on any contacts he had with BP this year.

Only by trawling through some newsletters written with policy wonks in mind did I learn that Oettinger’s chief of staff, Michael Köhler, attended a conference organised by BP in Berlin during May. Köhler was praised as “eloquent” by the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS), which published a short report of the event proving that he took part in a discussion about the Nabucco West pipeline. Comments by BP representative Iain Conn indicated that the message delivered by the corporation chimed with those of the European Commission. Conn stressed the “strategic importance of Azerbaijan for a diverse and competitive European energy supply.”

Envelopes of cash

Vultures’ Picnic the latest book by the investigative reporter Greg Palast, hints that BP has thought deeply about the “strategic importance” of Azerbaijan.

In the early 1990s – not long after it had obtained independence from the Soviet Union – the Azeris elected a new president Abdülfez Elchibey. Within a year of awarding a lucrative oil contract to Amoco, then a competitor of BP, Elchibey was deposed in a coup supported by Britain. His successor Heydar Aliyev did not make the same mistake: four months after the coup he gave BP the “contract of the century” (Aliyev’s words) without subjecting it to any tedious bidding process.

Palast interviewed Leslie Abrahams, a BP agent who admitted that he handed over “envelopes of cash” – about “two or three million pounds” in total - to Azeri officials to clinch the deal. (This was in addition to a £30 million cheque for Aliyev). When Margaret Thatcher visited Baku, the Azeri capital, in 1992, Abrahams was her drinking buddy.

Azerbaijan has a deplorable human rights record. Mehman Huseynov was arrested last month on spurious hooliganism charges. He campaigned for democratic reforms when the country hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. The treatment of this young activist is part of a more general pattern. A series of protests in Baku last year were repressed.

Have you heard BP, a key investor in the country, denouncing the Azeri regime for crushing dissent?

Or have you heard BP executives register their disquiet with the incarceration and sadistic treatment of Bradley Manning by the US authorities?

Cover-up

Among the documents that Manning is said to have released was a diplomatic cable stating that BP had covered up a gas leak in Azerbaijan in 2008. Another cable published by WikiLeaks observed that BP blamed the incident – which involved the largest evacuation of workers in the firm’s history – on a “bad cement job”. This explanation was eerily similar to the one given by Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive at the time, for the cause of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Allegations of bribery in Azerbaijan continue to dog BP. Earlier this month The Daily Telegraph reported that BP has been under investigation from the British Serious Fraud Office over claims of improper payments relating to engineering projects being undertaken by one of its contractors in Azerbaijan.

The probe is not yet conclusive. But is it right for the European Commission to deepen its cooperation with BP at a time the firm’s activities are being investigated for fraud?

The subtext of Oettinger’s enthusiasm for importing Azeri oil is that the EU needs to reduce its dependence on Russia as a source of energy.

His diagnosis of the underlying problem is correct: Russia’s unreliability was demonstrated during its gas dispute with Ukraine in early 2009, which disrupted energy supplies to some EU countries. But Oettinger’s prescription for dealing with the problem is flawed.

The EU has great potential to be self-sufficient in energy. Two years ago Oettinger launched a study by the European Renewable Energy Council, which contained a blueprint for how the Union could generate 92% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2050.

The study underlined that reaching that target requires action to be taken now. BP has a vested interested in distracting the EU from this urgent task. Letting it write Europe’s energy policies is a recipe for yet another disaster.

●First published by New Europe, 15-21 July 2012.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Assange case exposes flaws in EU extradition system

Julian Assange puts most journalists to shame. Nobody has made public more embarrassing material about America’s rampant abuse of human rights in Afghanistan and Iraq than he and his team at WikiLeaks. Thanks to their determination and diligence, we now have the means to contrast the silver-tongued rhetoric of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with the unvarnished truth contained in cables and other documents that the powerful would prefer to hide.

None of this turns Assange into a saint. So if there is credible evidence of sex crimes against him, then he should be charged and put on trial. Despite the acres of newsprint devoted to him in tabloid and broadsheet papers over the past few years, no charges have been brought against him. Under principles of natural justice, he is entitled to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

Like everybody else, I don’t know what exactly Assange got up to in Sweden two years ago (prurient tittle-tattle in the media should always be treated with caution). But I have been following the development of the European arrest warrant (EAW) system for more than a decade. And there are serious questions about how it has been used in this and numerous other cases.

Though the idea of a European arrest warrant predates the 11 September 2001 atrocities, it was placed high on the political agenda in response to them. Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, has stated in the recent past that it was intended to be limited to “serious cross-border crimes”, rather than for “petty crimes”.

Rape is a horrible offence. In my view, a zero tolerance approach should be taken towards its perpetrators. Once their guilt is established beyond reasonable doubt, they should be locked away for long periods; treatment is necessary to minimise the risk they will re-offend when eventually released.

Clarity needed

But to take robust action against rape, we first need a definition of what constitutes it. Before it is agreed that rape is covered by the European arrest warrant, all participants in that system should make clear that they have a common understanding of rape. In theory this should be relatively easy: most people would probably agree that rape involves one person performing a sexual act on another without the second person’s consent.

The trouble in the Assange case is that Sweden has different laws on rape than those on the statute books in other EU countries. Assange – I repeat – has not been charged. Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer making allegations against Assange, has not spelled out those allegations. But Borgstrom has indicated that Assange would expect a four year prison sentence if found guilty. This suggests that he accuses Assange of “unlawful coercion” or “minor rape” as it is also known. “Minor rape” is a uniquely Swedish offence covering cases where there is doubt about whether a sexual act was consensual or not.

Let me be clear: Sweden should be commended for having the toughest sexual offences laws in the world. Nonetheless, it is hugely problematic to extradite someone over allegations that he did something that is not recognised as a crime in the country from which is extradition is sought.

George Monbiot, a journalist and campaigner I greatly admire, has been using his Twitter account lately to argue that it’s wrong for political activists to seek that Assange be transferred to Sweden for questioning. I would agree with Monbiot if this was simply a matter of questioning.

But the fact of the matter is that the arrest warrant system has been established without adequate safeguards. There are no limits, for example, on how long a suspect may be detained prior to trial or guarantees that he or she will not be tortured or ill-treated. (The prospect of detainees being abused is not academic: between 2007 and 2010, EU countries were found guilty of violating the ban on torture and cruel treatment in 181 rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg).

Bigger picture

Monbiot’s tweets hint that he accepts the bigger picture. This isn’t simply about what Assange did or did not do on his Swedish sojourn. It’s about the possibility that the US would wreak vengeance on Assange for exposing its crimes against humanity. Monbiot is unconvinced that Sweden would be more willing to hand over Assange to the US than Britain.

Lawyers for Assange, however, point out that Sweden has not rejected an extradition request from America since 2000. Britain, on the other hand, has turned down seven requests made by the US under the 2003 extradition treaty between the two countries. The gap between zero and seven is not vast but it does indicate that Assange has a greater chance of staying out of US custody if he can remain in England.

The torment of Bradley Manning illustrates why Assange deserves the support of decent people everywhere. If the Nobel Peace Prize was worthy of its name, it would be given to Manning, not Barack Obama. Yet in this twisted world, Manning languishes in solitary confinement for helping to make the world aware of his nation’s addiction to war; Obama spends part of his Tuesdays compiling a “kill list” so that drone operators can leave another Pakistani family without a parent or a child.

Manning and Assange have provided us with a treasure trove of information about US foreign policy and its deadly consequences. No wonder, then, that America wants to punish them.

●First published by New Europe, 8-14 July 2012.

Friday, July 6, 2012

EU chief polishes Palestinians' chains

This weekend’s visit by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, to the West Bank is a calculated insult to ordinary Palestinians and to the taxpayers he purports to represent.

On Sunday morning, Barroso is scheduled to inspect the EU-funded police training school in Jericho. His presence there will be a grotesque celebration of how the Union is picking up the tabs for the Israeli occupation, though it’s unlikely he will put it in those terms.

Barroso’s visit takes place just one week after the Palestinian Authority’s police brutally repressed protests by their compatriots in Ramallah. The bitter irony is that the protests were against earlier instances of police brutality. As the EU “mentors” the PA’s police in “public order” techniques, it is fair to say that my tax euros are being used to deny Palestinians the right to freedom of assembly and expression.

Commending brutality

The recent behavior of the PA police is part of a broader pattern. When Israel bombed Gaza mercilessly in late 2008 and 2009, the PA’s forces suppressed demonstrations in the West Bank. Police who beat protestors in Hebron in January 2009 then impeded the injured from receiving medical treatment. The report by the United Nations fact-finding team headed by Richard Goldstone, the retired South African judge, concluded that the arbitrary arrests undertaken by the PA forces at that time contravened international law. (The UN report remains valid, even if Goldstone has subsequently tried to distance himself from it).

Javier Solana, the EU’s then foreign policy chief, commended the violations. In his contribution to a book called The Path to European Defence, Solana wrote that the PA police “managed very well.” He argued that the way those forces handled the situation offered proof that the EU training mission for PA police had made “progress.”

Jericho also hosts a prison that was opened in 2011 with the aid of the Dutch government. In March this year, the EU supported a training course for 20 police officers on “quelling prison disorder.” The Jericho course focused on techniques for using tonfas, batons traditionally associated with Chinese martial arts.

Propaganda material published by the EU’s Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (COPPS) says that the officers were trained to avoid inflicting injuries and abusing the rights of inmates. I don’t find that reassuring for two reasons. Firstly, it has been documented that detainees held by the PA have suffered widespread beating by sticks and other forms of torture.

And secondly, the the EU is facilitating the detention of political activists opposed to the PA’s acquiescence in Israel’s crimes against humanity. The EU is, therefore, enabling the abuse of human rights on a massive scale.

Blair’s influence

The guidelines for the COPPS “mission” closely resemble a blueprint for “counter-insurgency” in the West Bank and Gaza put forward by Britain in 2003, when Tony Blair was prime minister. The central purpose of COPPS is to boost cooperation between the PA purposes and Israel. Not only does it deny Palestinians the right to resist, it requires them to police the occupation of their own homeland.

COPPS has a new chief: Ken Deane. He is the third former member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland or its precursor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to head the EU’s operation. The other two were Colin Smith and Paul Kernaghan.

The RUC was a predominantly Protestant and pro-British police force, which faced numerous allegations of bias and harassment against the Catholic community in the north of Ireland. It also enjoyed extensive powers under “emergency” legislation: these included being able to search houses without a judicial warrant and to detain people for up to seven days without charge. To this day, those with a pro-British political orientation in the north of Ireland tend to identify more with the State of Israel than with Palestinians.

It is impossible to see how ex-RUC officers could be expected to behave impartially in Palestine. But COPPS was never intended as an impartial mission. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to export the methods of policing used in the north of Ireland to Palestine.

Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop, once said: “We don’t need anyone to polish our chains. We want to break the chains altogether.”

This weekend, José Manuel Barroso will polish the Palestinians’ chains.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada

Monday, July 2, 2012

Face the truth: Europe's biofuels bonanza causes hunger in Africa

For the past few years, a project called “One City, One Book” has been running in my native Dublin. It’s a simple concept: during the month of April everyone is encouraged to read the same literary classic.

I’ve decided to import the idea to Brussels and give it a political edge. So I call on all folk above the age of 15 to borrow or buy Destruction Massive by Jean Ziegler before the end of July. Those who cannot understand French are urged to check out the book as soon as it is published in English (with the title Betting on Famine) this coming autumn.

Ziegler, a former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, mixes personal observations with sharp analysis to illustrate how global hunger is not an accident of nature but the consequence of deliberate policy choices made by an unaccountable elite. He opens with a heartbreaking account of how nurses in Niger have to turn away starving children due to a lack of resources. That is not a problem suffered by the corporate giants who are the target of his fury. Ziegler emphasises that a small number of leading companies often have more finance at their disposal than the governments of the countries where they are headquartered. Just 10 firms control one third of the world’s market in seeds. Six control 77% of the market in fertilisers.

The European Union is depicted – accurately – as a vassal of big business. There is a slightly comic scene involving Davide Zaru, an Italian diplomat tasked with representing the EU at meetings of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. One morning last year an exasperated Zaru confessed that he was unable to help Ziegler win support for a motion recognising the rights of peasants. The text in question denounced the grabbing of land by private interests and accused both investors engaging in this practice and governments who backed them of causing a rural exodus, mass unemployment and worsening poverty.

For a good clue as to why this message was unpalatable for EU officials, we can go back to a statement Ziegler made in 2007. “Producing biofuels with food is criminal,” he said. Several North American and European trade associations were so incensed with his comments that they complained about him to Kofi Annan, then the UN secretary general.

Murky game

The situation is now a little more nuanced. The production of biofuels is a central factor behind the grabbing of land in Africa. Yet rather than using food crops, many of the players in this murky game have recently chosen jatropha, a poison, as the fuel source for the SUVs congesting our roads. A recent study by the campaign group ActionAid, however, explained how the proliferation of jatropha plantations is causing malnutrition rates to climb.

In 2009, the British-registered firm Sun Biofuels started clearing land in Kisaware, Tanzania, to set up an 8,200 hectare plantation. By the middle of last year, it had planted 2,000 hectares of jatropha. ActionAid undertook a survey of people from the 11 villages whose land was taken over for the plantation. More than 80% of respondents said they had not received any payment from Sun. Meanwhile, the area devoted to food crops has fallen by 14% and local harvests by 11% in order to make way for jatropha. Declining incomes have meant that many villagers, including children, can only afford two meals a day, whereas they previously ate three.

Nearly 5% of Africa has been bought by private interests since 2000, according to Land Matrix, an online database. This means that an area the size of Kenya – one of the continent’s biggest countries – has been snatched up.

The EU appears determined to accelerate the phenomenon of land-grabbing, even if it doesn’t state so openly. In 2007, the EU’s governments agreed a collective target of ensuring that biofuels power 10% of all car and truck journeys by 2020. A chorus of sensible voices have subsequently demanded that the goal be suspended or scrapped. Among them were the European Environment Agency, an official EU body.

Not only has the EU’s top institutions refused to heed these appeals, they have set additional targets for increasing biofuel use. Before Sun Biofuels went into administration in the second half of last year, it received a major contract from Lufthansa. The German carrier is participating in an EU-sponsored initiative to allocate two million tonnes of biofuels for aviation annually by 2020.

No more than a buzzword

EU officials maintain that the biofuels they are promoting will meet “sustainability” criteria. But the way that the discussions have been framed leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the officials consider “sustainability” as no more than one of those buzzwords they utter without conviction.

Some 4.7 billion euros is likely to be spent on biofuel research as part of Horizon 2020, the Union’s next multi-annual science programme. Energy and transport firms are intimately involved in shaping the projects that will be financed. A “biofuels technology platform” set up for this purpose brings together Volvo, Airbus, Total and Volkswagen.

This club of polluters says it wishes to “radically cut” greenhouse gas emissions and wants us to believe that biofuels will enable it to do so. So long as the club rigs the game, the EU will remain in denial. Tackling climate change requires us to become less dependent on the car and plane. The biofuels bonanza prevents that truth from being told.

●First published by New Europe, 1-7 July 2012.