Friday, June 29, 2007

Agrofuel market madness

Hundreds of thousands of acres of land, whether in the UK or elsewhere on the planet, will be needed to feed a giant bio-ethanol plant to be opened near Hull by a joint company set up by BP and Associated British Foods. The company claims fuel production is separate from food production and "the impact on food prices is likely to be negligible". But production of bio-ethanol and biodiesel, from vegetable oils such as soya or palm, is already having an impact on the cost of food and on the environment. There have been demonstrations in Mexico, where the maize crop is being sold off for ethanol, pushing up the price of flour. And in China the cost of pork, the main protein source for ordinary people, is rising because feed is being used for bio-fuel. In Indonesia, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Malaysia, Uganda and many other places, crucial CO2 absorbing rain forest is being cut down to make room for palm oil plantations. One fifth of the US corn crop is now used to make ethanol and a study by Goldman Sachs has found that the price of a unit of energy from biofuels has risen to that of petrol.

Roger Higman, campaign co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, said he would like to see mandatory requirements on companies involved in biofuels to ensure that their crop production was sustainable, whether in the developing world or in the UK: "We are neutral (!) on this kind of proposal [from BP and ABF] because we support green fuels, but you have to be careful because you could destroy the British countryside and the habitat for wildlife with the intensive growing of wheat." Being “neutral” on this proposal just about sums up the problem facing the mainstream green movement. They have hitched their wagon to the capitalist star, believing – in the face of all the evidence to the contrary – that sooner or later governments will regulate the corporations, and the corporations will deliver a profitable approach to tackling climate change. But starting with Kyoto and right up until the recent G8 summit, what governments have done is wash their hands of the problem and hand it over to the market. And the market is, of course, the place where global corporations like BP go to make profit, not to make the world a better, or more sustainable, place.

Meanwhile, people in south Yorkshire are digging their belongings out of the mud and of course, the poorest of them have no insurance. And this is nothing compared to the impact of recent floods in India and Pakistan. And in Greece, Italy and Romania, heatwaves are killing people and animals and destroying harvests. We are running out of time, and on tomorrow’s climate change demonstration members of A World to Win will be arguing that we must get far beyond asking the government to improve its Climate Change Bill – particularly since ministers have already made clear to the Commons environmental audit committee that they have no intention of changing it at all. Grain, the sustainable farming group, in a report out today, has denounced what it calls agrofuels for causing “anti-life devastation”, adding: “It is abundantly clear that we can only halt climate change by challenging the absurdity and the waste of the globalised food system as organised by the transnational corporations.” That is why AWTW advocates the development of a mass movement to transform the political state, the system of land ownership, and the economic drivers for production. Only a not-for-profit democracy can tackle climate change and develop into a holistic system for stewardship of the planet and its eco-system.

Penny Cole, environment editor

Thursday, June 28, 2007

You might have imagined that recent media exposure of the CIA’s worldwide programme of torture and rendition flights has curbed what the European Parliament has called illegal acts, massive violation of fundamental human rights and contempt for the rule of law. But in fact the CIA has simply moved its operations from Poland and Romania to other countries and continues to work closely with repressive regimes around the world, including those in North Africa.

Evidence of one CIA interrogation and torture centre surfaced two days ago in the form of a letter from Ramzi Bettibi, a Tunisian prisoner. It is published on a blog site. “This is a call from my imprisonment” Bettibi writes. “It’s a call to the world to save me from imminent danger to my safety. At the end of last April, I was transferred to another prison located 15 minutes driving from my previous Bizerte Civil prison. I was totally shocked when I found myself in a secret CIA detention where other detainees also were held in containers."

Ramzi is serving a four-year sentence at Bizerte, 65 kilometres from Tunis, for copying, onto a forum board he moderated, an online statement from a group threatening terror attacks if former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon attended the World Summit on the Information Society that was held in Tunisia in 2005. Ramzi Bettibi was arrested on 15 March 2005 at the internet café where he worked.

Sami Ben Gharbia, Advocacy Director at Global Voices, describes how Bettibi’s letter was smuggled out of a secret detention facility near Bizerte city, where he has been interrogated by CIA and French-speaking agents about his alleged ties to Jihadist groups in Iraq and online activities.

Bettibi’s letter offers the first concrete evidence of the existence of such facility in Tunisia. It also details the prison’s possible location and the identities of some of the prisoners who are being interrogated and held clandestinely. Ironically, the letter was written on June 9, one day only after the publication of the second report Secret detentions and illegal transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states adopted by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.

“I was interrogated by a French-speaking person about my online relationship with Iraqi Jihadist groups. I mentioned to him that his information is totally not accurate and I’m a free speech prisoner. I also told him that HRW, Amnesty, and many other organizations have talked about my case. The American interrogator so surprisingly yelled at the Tunisian officers. They assaulted and threatened me with fabricating a story of my attempting to escape from prison. They also threatened to relocate me to another secret prison if I talked to my family about what I saw.

“Things didn’t stop at that. They returned two weeks later. Tunisian state security officers cuffed me and an American security officer asked me about my role in ALSAHAB (Al-Qaeda’s media agent). He also questioned me about the ALIKHLAS website and Alansar online forum. They gave me two documents to pick from. The first is my death certificate and the second is my release certificate. They also threatened me to hurt my brother.”

On the day that Bettibi’s desperate appeal surfaced on the Internet, the CIA declassified nearly 700 pages of secret records detailing its illegal activities during the cold war. They are now published on the CIA’s own website. They include a collection called the “family jewels”. Buried in these internal documents is clear evidence that CIA Director Allen Dulles personally approved the agency’s plot to assassinate Castro in 1960 and 1961.

Although the documents are publicly available on the CIA’s website, it has chosen to keep scores of pages partly or totally blacked out. Although the CIA is legally forbidden to spy within the USA, Richard Ober, head of the Special Operations Group and deputy to James Jesus Angleton, former chief of counterintelligence, directed Operation CHAOS, which spied on racial, anti-war and other protest groups inside the United States. Many sections relating to Ober remain blacked out. Inside and outside the US, the CIA continues to operate in close association with secret spy agencies in the UK and elsewhere. Let us take note.

By Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Welcome to Brown's corporate state

Gordon Brown, who becomes prime minister today, may have a different style to Tony Blair, but the substance of New Labour remains the same. In fact, Brown’s politics are in many respects more explicit than Blair’s when it comes to promoting corporate-driven globalisation as the answer to everything. The architect of many of the government’s big business policies over the last decade, Brown is almost fanatical about the alleged virtues of unfettered globalisation. His speech to the assembled bankers and speculators gathered in the City of London for the Lord Mayor’s dinner last week could easily have been written by Goldman Sachs or a director of one of the private equity funds currently rampaging up and down the land. He congratulated the City for the fact that 40% of the world’s foreign shares are traded in London and that over 30% of the world’s currency exchanges (more precisely, speculation) takes place in the City. In a recent study of the top 50 financial cities, the City of London came first. Brown remarked: "So I congratulate you Lord Mayor and the City of London on these remarkable achievements, an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London."

This "golden age" is, of course, the era of obscene wealth, where traders have walked off with seven-figure bonuses, house prices have soared beyond the reach of new households and inequality in Britain has grown sharply. So, forgive us prime minister Brown if we don’t join you in offering congratulations to the City for turning Britain into a rich man’s casino. Or that we don’t cheer when you say: "The financial services sector in Britain and the City of London at the centre of it, is a great example of a highly skilled, high value added, talent driven industry that shows how we can excel in a world of global competition." Or when you applaud the fact that Britain has the lowest rate of corporation tax of the major economies.

Brown talked of Britain being "pioneers of free trade and its leading defenders" with "a deep and abiding belief in open markets" and said that in the next stage of globalisation success will flow to countries which "which are open and not closed, stable, pro competition and flexible, able to adjust quickly to change". Britain, he warned, must be "ready to become even more flexible". To this end, each school in Britain will soon have a "business partner", and employer-led skills academies. A "National Council for Educational Excellence" will be created to implement the new business-driven education agenda. And who are its members? They include Sir Terry Leahy, otherwise known as the chief executive of Tesco, who dominate food retail, and Damon Buffini, a venture capitalist who runs one of the private equity funds currently enjoying the best tax breaks going.

Which brings us to the real mugs in this transition from Blair to Brown – the trade union leaders. They steadfastly refused to countenance any opposition to Brown in the hope that he would offer them some concessions when he became prime minister. To that end, they helped to block the attempt by socialist MP John McDonnell to challenge Brown in an election for the leadership of the party. Instead of concessions, the union leaders are about to receive the order of the boot. Brown intends to curb their power to put motions to the annual conference. Instead, party members will get the final say on policy through individual ballots. In effect, this means ending the conference's role as the policy-making body. Having created Britain PLC as a playground for the global economy and city speculators, Brown is to turn New Labour into a kind of shareholder institution. Welcome to Brown’s corporate state.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

More sinister than cuckoo

Jack Nicholson shot to fame in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He played the heroic rebel McMurphy who defied the Establishment. The mental hospital was itself a metaphor for state authorities. For many people Milos Forman’s film brought to light the cruel imprisonment of mentally ill people and the horrors of electro convulsive treatment (ECT). ECT is still being practised in the UK, by the way, and under the 2006 Mental Health Bill, enforcement of treatment, including medication, can go on even after patients are discharged from hospital, for unlimited periods of time. As McMurphy discovered, being a mental patient was worse than being in jail, because at least prisoners know how long their sentences will last.

More than thirty years on in the UK, psychiatrists and mental health practitioners have united in opposing the Bill presently going through the Report Stage in the House of Commons before it receives its Third Reading. Its provisions make it easier to detain people and force them to undertake treatment, whether or not they have committed a crime.

Late in May, five organisations representing 85% of Mental Health Staff suspended their membership from the Mental Health Alliance UK so that they could air their views independently on the Bill.

Last week the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) condemned the Department of Health for “probably the worst” racial record of any Whitehall department and condemned the “manipulative practices” used to drive through the bill.

At the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Annual Conference in Edinburgh at the weekend, Professor Graham Thornicroft, of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College, London, said “… The last thing we need now is a mental health law that will make social exclusion even worse, especially for black people who feel coerced by the system”.

One out of five mental health patients in the UK are from ethnic minority backgrounds compared to one in ten in the population as a whole. African Caribbeans are 44% more likely to be sectioned, 29% more likely to be forcibly restrained, 50% more likely to be placed in seclusion and make up 30% of in-patients on medium secure psychiatric wards, despite having similar rates of mental illness as British white people.

Suman Fernando, an eminent psychiatrics professor at London Metropolitan University, recently turned down an OBE, in protest against the racist aspects of the Bill. In a letter to the prime minister and Gordon Brown rejecting the Honour, he wrote:

“Failure of mental health services to meet the needs of BME (Black Minority Ethnic) communities results from institutional racism and injustices are evident mostly in the experiences of black Caribbean people who are disproportionately sectioned and subjected to inappropriate – often damaging ‘care’.”

His rejection of the award was welcomed by Matilda MacAttram, director of Black Mental Health UK, and Alicia Spence of African Caribbean Community Initiative, who said: “He is standing up for those who have suffered and died within the mental health system…”.

Those with inside experience of treatment, like Miranda Morland of Bruised UK have also thanked Fernando, describing the Mental Health Bill as “draconian, with no consideration for the patient”. Morland points to the dangerous fusion of functions between the Home Office and the Department of Health:

“We are all terrified by the implications of the Mental Health Bill which has clearly come out of the Home Office and not the Department of Health. In the headlines this week we have found out that the government has secretly set up a VIP stalker squad to identify and detain terrorists and ‘OTHER’ individuals who pose a threat to prominent people. The unit staffed by police and psychiatrists, will have the power to detain suspects indefinitely using mental health laws.

“We always knew we were becoming a police state but it is happening almost over night and we have no way of stopping it, when these bully boy institutions work hand in hand. We need to wake up to the Agenda being set in this country before it is too late, and someone needs to remind the government that they work for us.”

Unfortunately, it’s also time to wake up to the fact that our interests, like those of mental health patients, are not on the government’s agenda.

Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary

Monday, June 25, 2007

Financial 'Katrina' begins to blow

For some days now, banks and finance houses have been watching the unfolding crisis at major investment bank Bear Stearns, as it tries to limit the fallout from the failure of two of its hedge funds. Like many such investors, Bear Stearns had a lot of products riding on the back of property-related debt, and, notably, the US "subprime" mortgage market. Subprime refers to the practice of making loans to borrowers who do not qualify for market interest rates because of problems with their credit history.

The two failed funds have grand titles: the High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Fund, and the High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund. These meant-to-be reassuring names hide a high risk reality. In the trade, such products offered are based on credit with a quality rating politely referred to as "junk", or less politely, "nuclear" or "toxic" waste. The buyer gets the possibility of high returns, but runs the risk of getting little or none of his principal back. The "enhanced leverage" fund was worst hit because, as its name implies, the underlying capital represented only 10%, the rest being borrowed from other sources.

As we have discussed previously, the housing market in the US has been in decline for many months. It is leading the way down not just for the American economy but, behind the misleading appearance of continued worldwide growth, is having a major impact on the rest of the global economy. Subprime mortgages are the most risky ones where the homeowners are at least able to make the monthly payments. The rate of default has been accelerating, and many of the lenders have been forced into bankruptcy. This is a problem for the so-called securities houses like Bear Stearns which despite its reputation as one of the shrewdest actors in the mortgage market, with the best set of controls in place, finds its funds failing, and its customers and creditors scrambling to sell.

As the swirling clouds of credit and debt that have swelled the markets in hedge funds, and more recently private equity, have ballooned in recent years, it could only have been a matter of time before the iron law of value began to make itself felt. There is much speculation about the extent of the impact on the rest of the world’s financial markets. One of Bear Stearn’s investors put it like this: "They didn’t realise this was Katrina, they thought it was just another storm." According to The Economist "perhaps the most worrying thing for financial institutions holding mortgage-backed paper is not the subprime market itself, but the unnerving parallels with an even bigger one to which they are also exposed: leveraged loans to companies. As Daniel Arbess of Xerion Capital Partners points out, corporate lending's giddy leverage echoes the high loan-to-value ratios in subprime; … subprime, says Mr Arbess, might well be ‘a dress rehearsal for something bigger and scarier’."

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Friday, June 22, 2007

Post strike and globalisation

At the heart of the looming confrontation between Royal Mail management and New Labour on one side and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) on the other, is the nature of public services in a period of free-market globalisation. Although still state owned, the Royal Mail is an arms-length company that is actually run as a business concern by extremely overpaid executives. They insist that the business has to "modernise" to face up to more efficient, cheaper competitors in Britain and internationally. The CWU fears that up to 40,000 jobs are at risk. A one-day strike on June 29 is planned over pay and in an attempt to put pressure on Royal Mail to change its plans to make thousands redundant. Following a breakdown in talks yesterday, CWU admitted that management had refused to negotiate a settlement higher than 2.5% or change its plans. Dave Ward, the union's deputy general secretary, accused the Royal Mail of "deliberately misleading" the public by claiming that the union was demanding a 27% pay rise and opposing modernisation. Ward said: "What Royal Mail are doing is not modernisation. The truth is, they are intent on cutting services, cutting jobs and cutting pay. We have tried to reach an agreement but Royal Mail are refusing to negotiate."

If the CWU believes that a series of one-day strikes will force meaningful concessions from Royal Mail or the government they are sorely mistaken. Trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling condemned the planned strike, saying it would be "extremely damaging" for the Royal Mail and its customers. The stoppage will take place just two days after Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister, and he is in total support of competition and "open markets" and will not yield to the CWU. The government is already shutting down thousands of post offices claiming that they are losing money, and ignoring their function as a vital public service. Ministers agree with Royal Mail chief executive Adam Crozier when he says: "We are losing business because we have failed to change and modernise - and as a result, our costs and therefore our prices are higher than those that rivals are charging in the intensely competitive business mail market, which makes up 90% of all postings." What’s at stake, therefore, is control of the Royal Mail. So long as it remains a profit-centred business competing with capitalist rivals, jobs will go and services will be cut. The CWU is therefore engaging in a political strike against a government which champions globalisation and which is standing behind bosses like Crozier, who is understood to have received a bonus of up to £370,000, taking his total package to more than £1 million. Isolated one-day strikes are inadequate and a poor response to a massive 77% majority for strike action. To widen support for their action, CWU leaders have to bring these issues out and put forward alternative, democratic, not-for-profit ways of running the Royal Mail. The CWU has to involve the rail unions and others in mounting a full-scale challenge to the government if it is to succeed.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Honours, lingerie and liberties

Joseph Corre, co-founder of the lingerie company Agent Provocateur, turns down an official honour because of the war in Iraq and the government’s attacks on human rights in Britain. In doing so he shames Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, who was only too pleased to accept an award from the Blair regime. Corre at first accepted his MBE – or, to give its full title, Member of the British Empire (!) – before deciding to hand it back. While the honours are ostensibly handed out to mark the Queen’s birthday, they are in fact drawn up by a committee attached to the Cabinet Office and merely sent to Buckingham Palace for signature. In other words, they have the government’s fingerprints all over them. Corre admitted that initially he was flattered "to have my work with Agent Provocateur recognised by the establishment. It even gave me a kick to imagine what some of the bureaucrats and censors I have had to fight up to now must think". Then he added: "However, after some serious reflection I have decided that I cannot accept it. I have been chosen by an organisation headed by a prime minister who I find morally corrupt, who has been involved in organised lying to the point where thousands of people including children have suffered death, detention and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq." Writing in today’s Independent, Corre explains: "People are disillusioned with democracy. They feel helpless and powerless, and the reason has been Mr Blair. There was a huge march against his war. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, and he took no notice. No wonder people feel disenfranchised from the political process, when he will allow nothing to stick. Mr Blair has caused many miserable deaths, and tortures. He has presided over extraordinary rendition, and has been happy to see people imprisoned without trial, on barely a scrap of evidence. In his Britain, habeas corpus is no longer sacrosanct, and at a personal level this means that I simply cannot accept this honour."

Which brings us to Shami Chakrabarti. Just at the time she would have been sent a letter inviting her to become a Commander of the British Empire, the director of the human rights organisation was sitting on a platform in Clapham at the preview of the film Taking Liberties. The film exposes the relentless attack on human rights by the New Labour government since it came to power in 1997. If she knew at the time, Chakrabarti never felt bold enough to share the news with the audience. For her to have turned down the honour and made a statement like Corre’s would have been extremely powerful. Instead, Chakrabarti, claimed she was astonished to get a CBE, saying: "No one was more surprised than me, particularly when it must have been recommended by this government that I have fought so hard." Trying hard to justify accepting the award, Chakrabarti suggested it was an "official royal invitation to do more", knowing full well that the Queen has nothing whatsoever to do with the award. In accepting her CBE, Chakrabarti has lent credibility to the most authoritarian government of modern times. It was left to the founder of a lingerie firm to say it how it is. Perhaps he and Chakrabarti should swap jobs.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Global cities - divided cities

Global Cities, the new exhibition at Tate Modern, raises big questions about the future of humanity. In the vast Turbine Hall, a banner announces that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Originally made for the 10th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, Global Cities provides a bird’s eye tour of Cairo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, Sao Paolo, Shanghai and Tokyo. There are presently over 20 mega-cities with populations of over 10 million people, including places like Tokyo (with Yokohama it runs to 33-35 million) and Mexico City with 18 million souls. It is expected that three-quarters of us will live in cities by the year 2050. Films, computer-generated models, architects’ designs and art works and statistics show the speed of growth which has transformed human existence on the planet earth during the last couple of decades of rampant corporate globalisation and the heavy costs. In Sao Paulo 1,000 new cars are registered each day; Mexico City faces a water crisis; Los Angeles has one in five families living in poverty in one of the wealthiest cities of the world; Mumbai is in the "throes of civic emergency", lacking sanitation for half its population. One out of three city dwellers lives in slums.

Curator Ricky Burdett’s take on this process is refreshingly humanist – he does not point to human reproduction as the source of crisis. On the contrary, he focuses on the extraordinary inventiveness and flexibility of humans as social animals as well as the harmful sides of urbanisation. The intention is to stimulate debate about London at a turning point in its long history. Skyscrapers are transforming London’s cityscape as property prices continue to rocket while the surrounding green belt is under enormous pressure from government and developers. But as Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota formally opened the event yesterday, he specially thanked its sponsors - Land Securities, Savills and Derwent London. Land Securities is Europe’s largest property development and investment company with a £15bn portfolio. It focuses on "maximising the opportunities to be found in the commercial property sector". With over 140 offices and associates world-wide, Savills is one of the leading international property advisors. Its website claims: "A unique combination of sector knowledge and entrepreneurial flair give clients access to real estate expertise of the highest calibre, across the UK, Continental Europe, Asia Pacific and Africa. Our distinctive collegiate culture and highly motivated staff ensure that we are committed to getting the very best results for our clients - every time." Derwent London describes itself as a leading central London office specialist with a combined portfolio valued at over £2.5 billion, and says its strategy "is to add value to buildings and sites… to deliver an above average annualised total return to shareholders." The cultural paradoxes of today’s corporate-driven globalisation could hardly be sharper. With most Londoners priced out of the property market and 62,000 households in temporary accommodation, the profit-driven control of the property market results in vast fortunes for some and misery for many others. Not so much a global city but a divided city.

Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Climate change makes you sick

As predicted, a rise in temperatures is causing a surge in cases of dengue fever. There are signs that climate change, combined with rapid urbanisation, could make 2007 the worst ever year for this low-profile serious health risk. Classic dengue — known as "bonebreak fever" — can cause severe flu-like symptoms, excruciating joint pain, high fever, nausea and rashes. More alarming is that a deadly hemorrhagic form of the disease, which adds internal and external bleeding to the symptoms — is becoming more common, especially in South America. South East Asian nations are battling a massive increase in the disease, and the cause is not in doubt: "The threat of dengue is increasing because of global warming; mosquitoes are becoming more active year by year and their geographical reach is expanding both north and south of the Equator," said Lo Wing-lok, an expert in infectious diseases. "Even Singapore, which is so affluent and modern, can't exercise adequate control," Hong Kong-based Lo added. The number of dengue cases in Singapore last month was nearly three times that in the same period a year ago. Indonesian experts warn that 2006's record 106,425 cases could easily be overtaken. Neighbouring Thailand had more than 11,000 cases of dengue fever and 14 deaths by this month, up 18% from the same period of 2006. In Malaysia, 48 people died from dengue during the first five months of the year, health officials said, up 71% percent from 2006.

South America is facing a similar epidemic after 16 years without the disease. The deadly hemorrhagic form of dengue fever is increasing dramatically in Mexico, and experts predict a surge throughout Latin America fuelled by climate change, migration and faltering mosquito eradication efforts. Overall, dengue cases have increased by more than 600% in Mexico since 2001. It accounts for one in four cases in Mexico, compared with one in 50 seven years ago, according to Mexico's public health department. There's no drug to treat hemorrhagic dengue, but proper treatment, including rest, fluids and pain relief, can reduce death rates to about 1%. But the region’s hospitals are ill-equipped to handle major outbreaks, and officials say the virus is likely to grow deadlier, in part because tourism and migration are circulating four different strains across the region. The rapid growth of cities has added to the crisis. They are accompanied by large areas of slums where the absence of proper sanitation is a factor in the outbreak of dengue fever. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world's leading climate scientists, predicted that climate change would cause an upsurge in dengue. The globalisation process means that the fever is transported around the world by tourists and business travellers. Meanwhile, world leaders, compromised by corporate interests, sit back as if the planet had time on its hands to tackle climate change. The outbreak of dengue fever shows that the very opposite is true.

Penny Cole, environment editor

Monday, June 18, 2007

Coming to a field near you: Zombie and Exorcist seeds

A new crop of genetic engineering technologies are being promoted as a solution to the unwanted spread of transgenes from genetically-modified (GM) plants. In practice, these technologies will allow the transnationals to tighten their grip on proprietary seeds and further restrict the rights of farmers. The European Union is pushing one project forward, despite opposition from its own parliament and other groups who reject what is known as ‘terminator’ technology. These are seeds developed by biotech corporations that have built-in destruction after one application. The ETC Group, which promotes agricultural diversity and human rights, is warning in a new report Terminator: the Sequel about the implications of the EU’s “transcontainer” project. This is aimed at developing GM crops and trees for Europe that could be "biologically contained" through "reversible transgenic sterility." ETC’s Hope Shand says: “We've always known that terminator technology is simply too lucrative for the seed industry to abandon but it's outrageous that the European Union is using public funds to develop genetic seed sterilisation." ETC rejects the claim that the transcontainer project’s aim is not to restrict seed use but to contain transgenes, and that the technology under development differs from terminator because the seeds' sterility will be "reversible"- most likely through the application of a chemical. ETC Group dubs these “Zombie seeds” which would create a scenario in which farmers would have to pay for a chemical to restore seed viability.

If you thought “zombie seeds” were bad news, you haven’t heard of new research on gene excision technologies. Molecular methods are used to snip out transgenes at some point in a plant's life. Dubbed Exorcist by ETC, the excision process can be triggered by an external environmental or chemical stimulus, or it can be designed to occur automatically at a particular stage in the plant's life. ETC’s Kathy Jo Wetter explains: "In its current state, Exorcist is far from a failsafe biocontainment strategy - it won't work 100% of the time - but even if Exorcist can't fully contain transgenes, it could still function as a biological method to enforce patents by restricting access to proprietary traits." And there are "extreme" biocontainment methods - molecular methods involving "conditionally lethal genes" capable of terminating plants and their transgenic DNA in the event that other containment strategies fail.

The strategy of the biotech corporations like Monsanto is clear. They want to convince governments and the public that biological containment of genetically-modified organisms is possible using one of these new techniques - or a combination of them. It would then open the floodgates to new markets for biotech plants, particularly GM crops and trees grown for biofuels. The result will be a drastically increased risk of transgenic contamination. What the ETC investigation demonstrates is that as soon as one door is closed on the corporations, another one opens, facilitated by the actions of the EU and other pro-market states. The ETC advocates better regulation and governance as a way of halting this process. This is a laudable but, quite frankly, hopeless ambition. The corporations rule the planet and only a massive social transformation of capitalist society is going to put an end to that.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, June 15, 2007

Oil men warm to plans for recycling climate victims

The Yes Men, masters at corporate identity theft who once posed as the World Trade Organisation on the world stage, have pulled off another triumph. Posing as representatives of Exxon-Mobil and the National Petroleum Council( NPC), yesterday they presented a product with a difference to 300 oil industry representatives in Calgary, Alberta. The speech was billed beforehand by the organisers as the major highlight of the conference. In it, the "NPC rep" was expected to deliver the long-awaited conclusions of a study commissioned by US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. The NPC is headed by former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond, who is also the chair of the study. In the actual speech, the "NPC rep" announced that current U.S. and Canadian energy policies (notably the massive, carbon-intensive exploitation of Alberta's oil sands, and the development of liquid coal) are increasing the chances of huge global calamities. But he reassured the audience that in the worst case scenario, the oil industry could "keep fuel flowing" by transforming the billions of people who die into oil. "We need something like whales, but infinitely more abundant," said "NPC rep" "Shepard Wolff" (actually Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men), before describing the technology used to render human flesh into a new Exxon oil product called Vivoleum. 3-D animations of the process brought it to life.

"Vivoleum works in perfect synergy with the continued expansion of fossil fuel production," noted "Exxon rep" "Florian Osenberg" (Yes Man Mike Bonanno). "With more fossil fuels comes a greater chance of disaster, but that means more feedstock for Vivoleum. Fuel will continue to flow for those of us left." The oilmen listened to the lecture with attention, and then lit "commemorative candles" supposedly made of Vivoleum obtained from the flesh of an "Exxon janitor" who died as a result of cleaning up a toxic spill. The audience only reacted when the janitor, in a video tribute, announced that he wished to be transformed into candles after his death, and all became crystal-clear. At that point, Simon Mellor, an executive for the company putting on the event, strode up and physically forced the Yes Men from the stage. As Mellor escorted Bonanno out the door, a dozen journalists surrounded Bichlbaum, who, still in character as "Shepard Wolff," explained to them the rationale for Vivoleum. "We've got to get ready. After all, fossil fuel development like that of my company is increasing the chances of catastrophic climate change, which could lead to massive calamities, causing migration and conflicts that would likely disable the pipelines and oil wells. Without oil we could no longer produce or transport food, and most of humanity would starve. That would be a tragedy, but at least all those bodies could be turned into fuel for the rest of us." "We're not talking about killing anyone," added the "NPC rep." "We're talking about using them after nature has done the hard work. After all, 150,000 people already die from climate-change related effects every year. That's only going to go up - maybe way, way up. Will it all go to waste? That would be cruel." Security guards then dragged Bichlbaum away from the reporters. Later "Shepard Wolff" (Bichlbaum) said:" "Putting the former Exxon CEO in charge of the NPC, and soliciting his advice on our energy future, is like putting the wolf in charge of the flock." Quite.

Paul Feldman, communications editor.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Double standards over Israel boycott

The denial of education, of work, of any possibility of a future lies behind the communal fighting raging in Gaza today. The Israeli, US and British governments are guilty of fomenting these tragic events by refusing to recognise the democratically-elected Hamas government, cutting off vital aid to the Palestinian territories, while funding and arming rival Fatah forces. To criticise the Israeli government, however, is to risk bringing down the wrath of Zionism on your head, as the University and College Union (UCU) has found out. UCU members at their conference last month, instructed their (unwilling) leaders to circulate a call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to UK universities and colleges. Dr Sue Blackwell, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Birmingham, is a key supporter of the resolution, and told the conference: "We have voted to discuss how best to help our Palestinian brothers and sisters who often are not allowed to get to college or university and that is what we will do."

Timed to coincide with the UCU resolution, four Israeli university presidents and a number of prominent authors including Amos Oz and David Grossman, called on their government to lift all restrictions on Palestinian students. Palestinian students in Gaza are banned from travelling to universities on the West Bank. The Birzeit university is calling for a worldwide campaign to "break the siege" of education. The university is battling to survive under pressure of the occupation. It usually receives $1.5m a year from the Palestinian Authority. But since the economic blockade of Palestine that followed the election of the Hamas government, they have received just barely a fifth of that. Staff go unpaid and courses are suffering. Some 3,000 students have not been able to pay their fees – 43% of the student body.

Since the UCU conference, Zionists have launched a vicious campaign against Dr Blackwell and her supporters, hurling the ludicrous charge of anti-Semitism at them. As a linguistics professor Dr Blackwell will no doubt be struck by the astonishing double standards around the phrase "academic freedom". Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, has been recruited to a legal campaign by British lawyer Anthony Julius against any boycott. Dershowitz says that if the union goes ahead with this "immoral petition", it will "destroy British academia" and warns he has recruited "100 lawyers to break the boycott". Julius claims that British Jews are appalled by the UCU decision and believe there are "double standards when it comes to Israel". What about double standards when it comes to Palestinian academic freedom? Not an issue for him and his 100 lawyers, clearly. And what about double standards when it comes to the academic freedom of Jews who do not support his position. Julius must know that Dershowitz has successfully orchestrated a campaign to have an American Jewish academic Norman Finkelstein sacked from his post at De Paul university in Chicago. Finkelstein was subjected to a vicious campaign to prevent him being offered tenure, The reasons are simple. His books, including The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, have shown how the accusation of anti-Semitism is used to prevent any criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, has condemned the decision to deny him tenure as an act of political aggression. He had the support of his own department, but the De Paul board caved in under external pressure. He will lose his job at the end of the academic year but says: "They can deny me tenure, deny me the right to teach. But they will never stop me from saying what I believe."

Penny Cole

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Climate change takes its toll in Asia

As torrential rains continue to sweep across South China and Bangladesh, Sir David King, the UK government's chief scientist told a committee of MPs that global warming has already altered the climate and the country will have to prepare for extreme weather such as heat waves and "torrential downpours". Flash floods in Britain are likely to be the biggest immediate problem caused by climate change, he warned. In China, roads have been turned into rushing rivers, flooding cities, towns and villages in the provinces of Hunan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Jiangxi and Fujian. The death toll has risen to at least 76 and three-quarters of a million people have been forced from their homes, with rain forecast to continue to the end of the week. Nine million people are affected by the worst flooding in 50 years. In some areas the torrential rain has triggered land and mudslides, destroying crops, roads and houses. Meanwhile, some northern regions of China are being hit by heatwaves, with temperatures in parts likely to reach 40 degrees. And to add to the country’s predicament, the glaciers which feed China's great waterways, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, are beginning to melt. The Chinese government says the glacier area around Mount Everest has shrunk by some 21%. In the short term, glacier melt will increase flooding downstream, but in the long term it will lead to drought as the source of the great rivers of Asia dries up.

In Bangladesh, predicted to be among the countries worst affected by global warming, heavy rain caused further havoc in the port city of Chittagong on Tuesday where rescuers have recovered at least 87 bodies but more feared missing following the biggest storm in decades. Officials and witnesses said the deaths were caused mostly by landslides and the collapse of ramshackle dwellings in the city of nearly 5 million. The flooding was so extensive that survivors were having difficulty finding dry ground to bury the dead. A Chittagong survivor said Monday's landslides struck so quickly that nobody had time to react. "The hills just came crushing down on us," one said. "It looks like we are living in a ghost city," a rescuer said. "Never before in my life have I confronted such a calamity," said another. Millions living on the banks of other rivers are also threatened. In Australia, where the ‘thousand-year’ drought led Prime Minister John Howard to threaten a ban on irrigation for farming and to ‘hope and pray for rain’ in April, a major storm has battered the east coast for days, causing the worst flooding in the Hunter Valley for 30 years, beaching a coal ship and flooding coastal towns. In Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, temperatures have risen and glaciers are melting - causing floods, pollution, disease, landslides and migration. Tajik glaciers provide water for the whole of Central Asia.

Just in case you think this is someone else’s problem, a report this week said London’s flood defences would only cope for another 20 years and that £20 billion would have to be spent to keep rising sea levels at bay. In the meantime, having announced the world’s highest profits earlier this year, Exxonmobil continues to fund the climate change denial industry - to the tune of $22 million since 1998. And while the rest of us are trying to reduce energy use, the company is counting on global oil consumption rising by 50% by 2030. Despite all the talk at the G8 and elsewhere, there can be no action on climate change until the grip of the corporations is broken.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Google bowls a googly

Google, the world’s most used internet search engine has been rated ‘hostile to privacy’ and placed bottom of the pile of Internet based service companies, whilst other big names like AOL, Apple and Yahoo! are identified as companies with policies and techniques that pose substantial threats to privacy.

The word “googling” officially entered the English language a year ago in June 2006 as billions around the planet got into the habit.

We enjoy it for the seamless way in which we can surf and trawl the oceans of the web. But the free lunch offered by internet companies comes with a price - the notorious “cookies”. These are files which are stored on our computers every time we use the web and note the details of our computer as we access a webpage.

A report published this week by Privacy International, the result of a six-month investigation, places Google, which handles 75% of all search referrals, at the bottom of its “race to the bottom”. It falls into the category of “comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy”.

Google is seducing cash-strapped university authorities with offers of email services they can’t refuse. Google hopes that students will be locked into “a relationship for life”. Students at Trinity College Dublin are being provided access to Google Apps for Education, an email network which they can retain throughout their life. Arizona State University in the US and Linkoping in Sweden already have such networks, while in Africa universities in three countries are using the company’s education package.

The data acquired by search engines provides a comprehensive idea of internet users’ lifestyle, tracking and recording products searched for, news items, video clips, images and maps as well as recording when we actually use the search engine itself. Plus they have the personal details you have to supply when registering for their services.

Google’s dirty-tricks department has hit back accusing Privacy International of being biased towards Microsoft. But PI’s conclusions indicate the scale of abuse throughout the industry in the race for market share. It says: “The current frenzy to "capture" ad space revenue through the exploitation of new technologies and tools will result in one of the greatest privacy challenges in recent decades. The Internet appears to be shifting as a whole toward this aim”.

Another Google critic, Googlewatch, has pointed out that the information gathered by search engines can be put into the hands of government and the police and that the boundaries between commerce and government are dangerously blurred.

In Britain the government can demand encryption keys to any and all data communications, with a prison sentence of two years for those who do not comply with the order. And, since 9/11 and the Bush-Blair “war on terror”, the issue of consumer protection and government surveillance have become dangerously inter-twined.

Googlewatch points out that: “Google's relationships with government officials in all of the dozens of countries where they operate are a mystery, because Google never makes any statements about this. But here's a clue: Google uses the term ‘governmental request’ three times on their terms-of-use page and once on their privacy page. Google's language means that all Gmail account holders have consented to allow Google to show any and all email in their Gmail accounts to any official from any government whatsoever, even when the request is informal or extralegal, at Google's sole discretion.”

Internet companies’ willingness to sacrifice freedom of speech to their commercial interests and comply with government demands is ultra clear in China. “Google’s statements about respecting online privacy are the height of hypocrisy in view of its strategy in China”, said Reporters Without Borders which campaigns for journalists’ rights to press freedom. Organisations like Privacy International and others are campaigning for a responsible attitude to privacy by the corporate giants. But with an increasingly authoritarian state this is utopian. What is needed is a commonly-owned and co-operatively driven internet, owned and controlled by its users and free from commercial and state imperatives.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Monday, June 11, 2007

Rendition: lies and their liars

Who would you rather believe when it comes to "extraordinary rendition" – the British government and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) or the respected human rights body, the Council of Europe (CoE)? New Labour’s denial that British airports were used by the CIA for refuelling en route to torture camps is worthless. ACPO’s endorsement only shows that the police are lying too on behalf of their paymasters. The ACPO statement has been described as "miraculous" in its timing, for it appeared just as a CoE report was published showing how the CIA ran torture prisons in Poland and Romania after 9/11, with Britain providing support by allowing the agency’s planes to land at military and civilian airports. ACPO’s spin on behalf of New Labour is flatly contradicted by recent events. On 2 June a plane repeatedly linked to CIA torture flights was spotted at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Watching aviation experts said the aircraft, piloted by crew clad in desert fatigues, was immediately surrounded on the runway by armed American guards. Its registration number identifies it as a plane which the European Parliament says has been involved in "ghost flights" to smuggle terrorist suspects to torture camps around the world. The American Federal Aviation Authority lists the plane as being operated by two companies, Aviation World Wide Services and a sister company, Presidential Airways. These are shell companies operating as subsidiaries of Blackwater USA, "an important contractor for the CIA and the US military", according to the European Parliament. A recent book on Blackwater by American author Jeremy Scahill, described the company as the world's "most secretive and powerful mercenary firm". It was founded in 1997 by Erik Prince, a fundamentalist Christian millionaire.

The CoE dossier, compiled by Swiss senator Dick Marty, said the US had used Britain's help to establish a "global spider's web" of jails and airports to pursue a war on terror without rules. So-called US "high-value" detainees (HVD) were held in secret CIA detention centres in Poland and Romania between 2002 and 2005. It describes in detail the scope and functioning of the US’s HVD programme, which it says was set up by the CIA "with the co-operation of official European partners belonging to government services". A secret agreement between the US and NATO allies in October 2001 provided the framework for the CIA to do its dirty business in Europe. The programme "has given rise to repeated serious breaches of human rights", the report by the CoE’s parliamentary committee declared, including the torture of detainees. The report said that only Bosnia and Herzegovina and Canada, a Council of Europe observer state, had fully acknowledged their responsibilities with regard to the unlawful transfers of detainees. Marty said: "The fight against terrorism must not serve as an excuse for systematic recourse to illegal acts, massive violation of fundamental human rights and contempt for the rule of law. I hold this view not only because methods of this nature conflict with the constitutional order of all civilised countries and are ethically unacceptable, but also because they are not effective from the perspective of a genuine long-term response to terrorism." His report, which is worth reading in full, contrasts with the statement from the British Foreign Office, which said: "We have been through the records, and there is no evidence of detainees being rendered through the UK since 1997." Who would you rather believe?

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, June 08, 2007

G8 all talk on climate change

Pressure on the G8 to act now on climate change has failed. The world’s richest countries are not committed to a single target to reduce emissions as a result of yesterday’s announcement. While there was talk of the need for “for strong and early action” to tackle climate change through a "substantial global emissions reduction", the only serious target agreed was that more talks would be held. No mechanisms exist for the carbon cuts to be implemented. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, wanted a statement that global warming needs to be kept below 2C. Even this proved too much for the G8. Friends of the Earth admitted that the agreement was "weak and lacked substance". They were victims of the G8’s iron fist when German police boats rammed a Greenpeace protest flotilla, injuring some of the crew. No one should be surprised by this global lack of interest, since all the G8 participants are guided by the principles of the capitalist free market economy championed by the Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman who died in November. According to Friedman: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

So we’ll have to look elsewhere for solutions to the bombshell of the acceleration in the effects of global warming like the melting of most Andean glaciers in the next 30 years. Small glaciers are scattered across the Andes and have for long been a crucial source of fresh water in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, thawing in summer months and replenishing themselves in winter. But global warming has driven them into retreat. Over 2 million people in the La Paz region depend heavily on the thawing of Chacaltaya and neighbouring glaciers for tap water and, indirectly, for electricity supplies. Glaciologist Edson Ramirez says: "This is a process that unfortunately is now irreversible." Even if measures to cut emissions were taken now, it would take “many, many years to replenish these glaciers, because unfortunately the damage has already been done", he adds.

Anyone looking to business to respond to mounting public concern will also be disappointed. In a new worldwide survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit for the British government, less than 10% of executives admit that their organisations monitor their overall carbon footprint and just 18% have a carbon reduction plan in place. Nearly one-half of firms have no intention of implementing carbon-reduction plans within the next three years. A total of 634 executives worldwide took part in this survey. Around 31% of respondents were based in western Europe, 28% in the Asia-Pacific region and 26% in North America. Radical action is needed and it isn’t coming and won’t come from the governments of the rich industrialised countries, or from the UN who are all committed to profit-led growth. Join us tomorrow to discuss how we turn the world upside down (or right-side up, as some say).

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Thursday, June 07, 2007

40 years in an Israeli jail

Forty years ago this week, Israel launched an unprovoked attack on Egypt and Syria. By 10 June, Israeli forces captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, along with the Sinai and the Golan Heights. At the end of the war Israel had succeeded in almost doubling the amount of territory it controlled. Today, the misery of the Palestinians continues as they live in what is effectively a prison camp with Israeli guards. The Israeli state knew full well that their war was illegal (much the same as Bush and Blair did over Iraq). About one million Palestinians remained in those parts of Palestine occupied by Israel in 1967 while tens of thousands were forced into other countries. It was the second tragedy to befall the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis. In 1947, Palestine was partitioned between the Jews and Arabs. But the Zionist strategy was to roll-out a systematic reign of terror, massacres, dispossession and expulsion. This drove out the Palestinian population in a horrific episode of ethnic cleansing that saw over 750,000 or two-thirds of the indigenous people at that time becoming penniless refugees. By the 1949 armistice, the Israeli state had expanded to 78% of the territory. In 1967, it captured the remaining 22%.

After 1967, the military government prevented the return of refugees who had been displaced during the war and also enabled Israel to take control of large amounts of land without granting citizenship and civil and political rights to the Palestinians living in these areas. A year after Israel occupied the remaining part of Palestine it began to establish settlements in these areas. Following the 1967 war, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242 calling for the end of the occupation. In 1979 the UN Security Council in Resolution 446 condemned the policy and practices of establishing settlements. To this day, these resolutions remain a dead letter. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, the Palestinians in the occupied territories are considered a protected population with the right to freedom from indiscriminate use of force against civilians, wanton destruction of property, torture, collective punishment, the annexation of occupied territory, and the establishment of colonies. Violation of certain of these rights is considered a war crime. The United Nations as well as numerous Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organisations, have documented extensive war crimes by Israel.

Earlier this year, an independent report commissioned by the United Nations compared Israel’s actions in the occupied territories to apartheid in South Africa. In the report, John Dugard, a South African lawyer who campaigned against his country’s white minority rule, said: “Israel’s laws and practices in the (Palestinian territories) certainly resemble aspects of apartheid.” The Israeli state raises the flag of anti-Semitism to fend off any criticism of its policies like Dugard’s. Its supporters claim that attacking Zionism – a right-wing, nationalist political creed – is synonymous with aggression towards Jews in general. This is about as truthful as the reasons given for the Six Day War in 1967 and is a puerile argument. It is the equivalent of saying that being against the Republicans or Democrats in the United States is the same as hating all Americans! In many ways, Israel itself is actually an anti-Jewish state. Its Zionist rulers manipulated the legitimate desire of the Jews for a homeland free from persecution and then turned the country into an exclusively Jewish state at the expense of other ethnic groups. Like the apartheid South African regime before it, the Israeli state has no long-term future, as increasing numbers of Jews are beginning to recognise. A secular Palestine where Jews and Arabs will live together as citizens is the only vision worth fighting for.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Taking liberties with our rights

Taking Liberties
Director Chris Atkins says he wanted to achieve two things in making Taking Liberties: To make people laugh, and to make them angry. This powerful indictment of the assault on human rights and civil liberties by the New Labour government achieves both and more. It opens this Friday and everyone should go and see it. Using the words and experiences of ordinary people, alongside the comments of people as diverse as Tory libertarian Boris Johnson and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, the documentary systematically takes apart Blair’s ‘legacy’. Taking Liberties begins with a chilling, police-state style action to stop three coachload of campaigners heading for a US airbase. They are forced to drive back to London under police escort, not even allowed to stop for a toilet break. The faces of smirking police appear more than once in the film, revealing in their demeanour their role as state enforcers of overtly political decisions designed to snuff out protest and dissent. During the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the police assumed the mantle of Thatcher’s Boot Boys. Today, they are proud to work for Blair, crashing through doors in East London, shooting to kill innocent people, asking for more powers and making political statements of their own.

Taking Liberties shows how the Blair government has ripped up the right to protest, to freedom of speech, to privacy, the right not to be detained without charge and sanctioned the use of torture against its own citizens in Guantanamo. American CIA flights are allowed to refuel in Britain en route to torture camps around the world, where thousands of the disappeared are never heard from again. Yet ministers say they know nothing about this. There are some real poignant moments in the film, none more than when an Algerian man under virtual house arrest is championed by two elderly women who are disgusted at his treatment by the state. The man was framed with others, charged with plans for mass murder using the poison ricin. When the case came to court, the prosecution produced no evidence of even the most minute trace of ricin. The jury threw the case out. Then the state struck back, seizing the Algerian on the grounds that he was a potential terrorist. Disgusted by this, a number of jurors broke cover and spoke to the director. They also meet the Algerian regularly to offer him their support. The humour, and the dynamic soundtrack, saves Taking Liberties from becoming too oppressive a watch. Comedian Mark Thomas’s mockery of the need to get official authorisation to protest in Parliament Square by organising a mass lone protest, is particularly good.

Taking Liberties leaves the audience somewhat numbed as well as angry because there is no obvious remedy. The slide to the police state will continue under Gordon Brown’s premiership, as he has already made clear with proposals for 90-day detention without trial alongside draconian stop and question powers for the police. No one seriously expects the Tories – who started down the authoritarian road under Thatcher – to restore human rights to what they were. The state is largely immune to protest and pressure because it has undergone a drastic change in its character during the last 30 years, emerging as a ruthless, authoritarian and intolerant market state in place of the former parliamentary democratic state. That the most significant changes have been directed by New Labour only confirms the extent of the political transformation that has taken place in Britain. The case for remaking the existing state and political system from top to bottom, creating new democratic processes and structures, grows stronger each day. This will require substantial mass action and a new constitutional settlement in Britain, which transfers power out of the hands of the economic and political elites who currently hold sway. In showing how the state has assumed extraordinary powers over its citizens, Taking Liberties has made an important contribution to understanding the challenges that confront us. If you want to take the discussion on remaking the state further, you are invited to attend Turn the World Upside Down this Saturday, June 9

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Missile shield and oil supplies

The threat by Russian president Vladimir Putin to target Western Europe with nuclear missiles underlines a growing international instability, which increasingly revolves around the availability and supply of energy for the global economy. Putin’s riposte to America’s decision to site interceptor missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic is not surprising. Both these countries were until recently Moscow-controlled buffer states on what was then the border of the Soviet Union. Now they are part of Nato and outposts for the interests of the United States. These interests are primarily about maintaining the flow of oil and gas. Russia holds the world's largest natural gas reserves and the eighth largest oil reserves. Russia is also the world's largest exporter of natural gas, the second largest oil exporter and the third largest energy consumer. In 2005 the oil and gas sector represented around 20% of the country’s GDP, generated more than 60% of its export revenues and accounted for 30% of all foreign direct investment in the country. Significantly, about a third of oil exports are via a pipeline that takes in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as Germany and Ukraine. Russia is tightening its grip on its resources, taking action against foreign corporations like BP and Shell. Putin has just warned BP that it could soon lose its licence to exploit the massive Kovykta gas field in eastern Siberia, which exports gas to China.

By creating a missile shield located in central Europe, the Bush presidency, supported by the New Labour government, is stoking the fires of a new nuclear arms race. This is aimed at intimidating not just Russia but Iran too, another country with substantial oil reserves. Washington would dearly love to see a non-nationalist, pro-Western leadership in Moscow instead of Putin’s regime, which is tied closely to the oil and gas oligarchs in Russia, and a friendlier government in Tehran. They could then relied upon to supply the United States and its allies with oil and gas at a time when the world’s reserves are reaching, or may have already attained, their peak. Iraq and Afghanistan were the opening shots in the resources wars of 21st century global capitalism. While Iraq has substantial oil reserves, Afghanistan borders several former Central Asian Soviet republics with oil where the United States now has a military presence. The escalating war of words between Moscow and Washington over the missile shield and human rights fits into this picture of emerging international conflicts over oil and other resources in short supply. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and capitalism was restored after an absence of more than 75 years, the world was promised peace and stability. Now that London and other British cities are certain to be included as targets for Russian nuclear missiles once more, the reality is somewhat different.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Monday, June 04, 2007

Unions face up to globalisation

It’s been a long time coming, but there are signs that sections of the trade union movement in Britain are prepared to take an internationalist approach to the challenges posed by the advance of corporate-driven globalisation. Until now, the unions have generally taken a nationalist, keep-our-jobs British, view. Leaders like Tony Woodley of Unite (TGWU) have pleaded with New Labour to protect manufacturing jobs which the corporations want to transfer abroad. Naturally enough, he has failed to impress a government that is actually the facilitator of the operations of the global corporations in Britain. The first signs of a change were apparent at the conference on globalisation and internationalism organised by the South-East Region of the Trades Union Congress (SERTUC) at the weekend. As far as anyone is aware, it is the first time the official union movement has organised such an event. Barry Camfield, the assistant general secretary of Unite (TGWU) said that the trade unions had to create "new international forms and nothing less" if they were to take on the corporations on a global scale. He suggested that the existing rule books were no longer fit for purpose and that a "new global strategy" was required. For example, shop stewards needed an international handbook that enabled them to develop a strategy of effective and practical collaboration with workers in other countries. The days when internationalism consisted mainly of foreign junkets by general secretaries were over, he said.

Tens years of New Labour under Blair and Brown have taken their toll on the unions. The rate of union membership (union density) for employees in the United Kingdom fell by 0.6% to 28.4% per cent in 2006, the largest annual decline since 1998, when the total was around 31%. Union density of skilled trade occupations has continued to decline sharply – from 30.1% in 2001 to just 24.0% in 2006. This figure in particular reflects the shift of manufacturing jobs from Britain to cheaper-labour areas like China and India. Only one-third of UK employees are covered by a collective pay and conditions agreement. This figure, Professor Keith Ewing of the Institute of Employment Rights told the conference, is by far the lowest total in the European Union. In 1979, over 85% of UK employees were covered by collective bargaining agreements. Ewing described how under New Labour, with Chancellor Brown in the driving seat, Britain had become a place of minimum rights. These emphasised a flexible labour market, where for example workers would be helped to find another job but had no rights to challenge closures or redundancies. There was a minimum wage, but it was not a living wage. There was a right to belong to a trade union, but rights to workplace recognition were well below the standards set out by the International Labour Organisation. There was a right to strike, but no right to take solidarity action in support of workers employed by the same transnational corporation. Unlike in previous periods, he said, the unions could not depend on the state or governments for support. They were on their own. This stark message had the merit of telling it how it is. Trade unionists have watched the party the movement founded over 100 years ago abandon them to manage the globalisation process in favour of corporate power and seen New Labour create a market state in place of the welfare state. If the trade unions are serious about challenging the power of the global capitalism, they will, therefore, not only have to defy the state’s ban on solidarity action but also break with New Labour and launch a campaign for new forms of political representation for their members.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Friday, June 01, 2007

Climate change: rhetoric and reality

Two statements, one in Washington and the other in Stansted, yesterday restated the gap between rhetoric on climate change and doing something about it. President Bush issued a vague call for 15 nations to agree targets by 2008 for cutting greenhouse gases but categorically rejected a binding treaty. In any case, America has still not signed up to the 1997 Kyoto protocol! In Stansted, campaigner Paul Stinchcombe, said: "Global warming is a threat of such gravity that we must make decisions now to dramatically reduce emissions, not increase them incrementally."

Apart from his mate Tony Blair, Bush’s hot air didn’t impress anyone. Pressure groups who concentrate on getting governments to take action on climate change were scathing. "This is a transparent effort to divert attention from the president's refusal to accept any emissions reductions proposals at next week's G8 summit," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust in America. "After sitting out talks on global warming for years, the Bush administration doesn't have very much credibility with other governments on the issue," Clapp added. Tony Juniper, head of Friends of the Earth, said: "This is a deliberate and carefully crafted attempt to derail any prospect of a climate change agreement (at the G8 summit). "The prospects of him getting this to some form of conclusion in 18 months are extremely slim. Basically we should see this as a delaying tactic to keep the climate change issue off his back in terms of any real decisions until he leaves office (in early 2009)."

Meanwhile, the public gallery at Endeavour House at Stansted was packed for yesterday's opening day of the public inquiry into the Essex airport's future. British Airport Authority, which owns the airport, is appealing against a decision by Uttlesford District Council to refuse permission to expand the airport. Michael Humphries QC, representing BAA, said that the plans, which would increase the number of passengers using the airport from 25 million to 35 million a year and the number of journeys from 241,000 a year to 264,000 a year, were in line with government policy. He cited the recent New Labour white paper on transport, which identified an "urgent need" for extra runway capacity in the South-east. So much for this government’s commitment to fighting climate change.

Thomas Hill, QC, representing the council, said that there were 3,700 listed buildings and 75 conservation areas in Uttlesford, as well as the 1,000-year-old Hatfield Forest. He accused BAA of being "in denial" about the environmental impact of its plans. Another organisation in denial is the GMB trade union. It is supporting the appeal on the grounds that the expansion would create 5,000 new jobs. Just like Bush and Blair, the GMB leaders are opposed to any measures that might threaten the capitalist mantra of economic growth at all costs.

So who is going to take action on climate change? Not the G8 leaders meeting in Germany next week, nor the corporations that are painting themselves green while continuing to plunder and pollute the planet. Stansted is only one of many examples in Britain and around the world where people are prepared to challenge corporate power and greed. Transforming these actions into a movement that has as its aim the creation of democratically-controlled, not-for-profit production and distribution systems is the next challenge.

Paul Feldman, communications editor