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How the Scot ‘no’ changed Europe and the UK

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Scotland_20140918_IndependentWith results from the 32 councils declared, the ‘no’ voters of Scotland carried referendum day and opted to stay in the union, that is, the United Kingdom. The margin – 55% ‘no’ to 45% ‘yes’ – still means that every other Scot wants independence of some sort from the UK and its London-centric Westminster government.

There are some immediate reliefs for London’s politicos who were besides themselves with worry until early today morning. The Union survives (but not in the same shape). Still, this means that the UK remains a G7 economic power and a member of the UN Security Council. It also means Scotland will get more devolution and David Cameron will not be forced out (which may be a disappointment to many more English people than the number of those who voted ‘yes’).

Those reliefs will not provide cheers until after this weekend. Monday morning, the United Kingdom will have to look back at the last few weeks of referendum mania, and the last few adrenalin and hope-filled days, and realise that the 307-year-old union must change course radically to stay in any shape at all (and even that will be on borrowed time). Here is why:

Scotland_20140918_TelegraphFirst, there has indeed been a victory for Scotland, for those who considered themselves patriots for voting ‘yes’ and for voting ‘no’. The victory is more devolution for Scotland. Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond (who is also the governor of Scotland) is the one who initiated the referendum campaign and who had wanted three options on the ballot papers: independence; the status quo; or more devolution for Scotland.

Until mid-year, the British government led by prime minister David Cameron accepted only the independence question, for more powers to the regional government in Edinburgh was rejected outright, and at the time they thought so, polls were showing a comfortable majority against ‘yes’ – as high as 65% in 2013. That advantage dropped steadily, with a shock poll in early September 2014 putting the ‘yes’ camp for the first time in the lead. This is when Cameron and the leaders of the two other main parties in Westminster – Labour and the Liberal-Democrats – signed a pledge to give more powers to Scotland if its voters chose ‘no’. Cameron and the other leaders – Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and the Labour party’s leader Ed Miliband – will now have to deliver on those promises and also face claims from the other regions – Wales, England and Northern Ireland – for more money and powers.

Scotland_20140918_HeraldSecond, the ‘yes’ camp had painstakingly put together the arguments its campaign needed to show that Scotland could be successful as an independent country. These arguments appealed to many and convinced a good number – just over 44% as it has turned out – to take the leap of faith and thereby stare down the ‘no’ placards which read, “It’s not worth the risk”. Where the SNP fell short was in convincing more Scots about the risks and how to hedge them. But even in falling short, the ‘yes’ camp has proved to UK (and to all those regions in Europe seeking self-determination) that to seek independence is a powerful and uplifting tonic, which is a substance in very short supply all over the continent.

In the end – for so the commentators and observers mutter – it is the respectable middle class in sober dress who have tended to vote ‘no’, and so have the Labour stalwarts of all ages for whom some idea of ‘solidarity’ is apparently more comforting and familiar than the gritty new business of making independence work and dealing with the more obvious contradictions of the Salmond plan. Scottish monetary union with the UK also meant an independent Scotland using the pound as its single currency, but having no control over it.

Scotland_20140918_GuardianThe Euro crisis taught Europeans that a monetary union without a political one is a debilitating project, and so the risks shrewdly exploited by the ‘no’ camp (and the banks and the petroleum industry, let’s not forget them) came to weigh more than placards. Even so, Scottish independence as an idea based upon an implicit assumption of Scottish national and ethnic uniqueness – incompatible with the British identity, as any gent in a kilt would swear – has been considerably strengthened, at the cost of the Westminster style of government, whose days are from today numbered.

Third, the nature of this long demise. Early on Saturday morning political scientists were already saying that for British politics, much thought now needs to be given to constitutional arrangements, that constitutional change will have to be delivered. Such work will have to begin on Monday morning to make a start towards reconciling all the interests – Scots, English, Welsh, Northern Irish and local (however local chooses to define itself in the UK). It is not the kind of “epochal opportunity” that the SNP was waving overhead as a flag until yesterday, but it is for similar movements all over Europe, and the project in UK will be watched very carefully indeed in those countries and territories.

Scotland_20140918_TimesSalmond and the SNP will still govern Scotland until 2016 and the party will need to decide whether to run in 2016 on a stronger pledge for full independence (a two-stage referendum was amongst the eminently sensible suggestion made earlier this year). The question of equality will be raised more pertinently than before – in the Linlithgow Palace, Scotland’s James V built an elaborate fountain to express his equal status with his English uncle, Henry VIII, and amongst the ruins the fountain survives as a vivid reminder of Scottish pride. As for the economics of independence, it was Salmond who told the BBC: “The central mistake that the ‘no’ campaign has made is to tell the people of Scotland that the land of Adam Smith is not capable of running its own matters financially.”

The Scottish ‘no’ therefore is but a punctuation mark in a strong statement of cultural identity that began to be written well over half a millennium ago. A more thoughtful UK may result, one whose political performers learn to understand the union they claim to love. If so, the Scots have indeed won.

[The Khaleej Times published my article here.]

Lured by dirty GM, Europe’s politicians betray public

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RG_GMO_quote_20140603Feckless EU politicians – the shallow brats of Brussels – have struck a deal between themselves and the agri-bio-technology corporations to sweep away the obstacles to genetically engineered crops in the European Union. This group, greasy fingers firmly in each other’s pocketbooks, want to allow (under limited circumstances, they say) individual EU member states to prohibit the growing of GMO crops on their territory, but to boost GMO crops in the EU overall.

The so-called “compromise pact” is likely to make it easier for the manufacturers of GM crops to win approval while allowing some countries to ban them. Not surprisingly, as the British government slavishly follows the White House line on every matter (except fish-and-chips), the deal was welcomed by Britain, which in a typically obsequious statement said it hoped the pact would allow for more rapid approval of GM crops in the EU.

Oddly, France’s agriculture ministry welcomed the “good news”, which coincided with a decision by the French constitutional court to uphold a domestic ban on GM maize. Just as oddly, Germany praised the deal for allowing “opt-outs”, saying it opened the way for a formal ban in Germany.

RG_EU_GMO_pact_201405This pact came following what is called an indicative vote of EU Member State representatives – taken in a closed meeting (obviously). A formal vote will take place at a meeting of Environment Ministers on June 12 and if agreed – very likely it will be – it will then go to the European Parliament for approval.

That approval (or not) may come in an environment riven by weaknesses in the EU’s GMO assessment and approval system and pro-GMO bias at the centre of the European Food safety Agency (EFSA). There has also been chronic failure to implement an EU-wide and rigorous co-existence and liability regime – to date the EU has only produced non-legally binding recommendations for co-existence (of GM and non-GM crops).

The significance of all this is that it breaks the political stalemate that has largely prevented GMO crops from being grown in the EU. The proposal is based on the deceit that both pro- and anti-GMO countries can have want they want, and the unity of the EU Single Market can remain intact.

This is nonsense because under the proposed terms:

* Before banning an approved GMO crop EU Member States have to seek agreement from GMO companies to having their product excluded from a specific territory.
* If the companies refuse, Member States can proceed with the ban but only on grounds that to do not go against the EU approval and assessment of health and environmental risk – which means that if the EU-wide assessment gives the nod to GM, the country must concur despite its own assessment and public opinion.
* EU Member States nevertheless still have specific grounds for a ban which can include aspects like protection of nature reserves, areas vulnerable to contamination, and socio-economic impacts. So EU ‘unity’ can be overridden, provided smaller and weaker EU members states assert that right.

A month into 2013, what will drought do to grain this year?

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The US government in 2013 January declared much of the central and southern US Wheat Belt a natural disaster area due to persistent drought threatening the winter wheat harvest.

The US government in 2013 January declared much of the central and southern US Wheat Belt a natural disaster area due to persistent drought threatening the winter wheat harvest.

Drought has tightened its dry grip on US winter wheat, reducing the condition of crops in Kansas, the top producing state, and neighbouring Oklahoma, said this report by Agrimoney. Estimates of the proportion of the crop in “poor” or “very poor” health at 39%, up from 31% at the end of December. The figures also represented a sharp deterioration from a year before, when 49% of winter wheat was rated good or excellent, and 12% poor or very poor.

The result of the continuing drought has been poor conditions for all fall-planted crops and limited grazing of small grains, Agrimoney quoted officials as having said. Most districts received 50% or less of normal rainfall last month, at a time when they had already been in drought for months.

The US Drought Monitor and the associated long-range forecasts spell trouble for grain stocks, movement and of course prices for 2013. Severe to exceptional drought conditions cover most of the cultivation area for hard, red winter wheat, running from the Texas panhandle to Colorado to South Dakota, the US Drought Monitor shows. Winter wheat crops were in the worst condition since at least 1985 at the end of November, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Bales of corn stalks covered with snow in the state of Nebraska, USA, in late December 2012. Despite some big storms in December, much of the US is still desperate for relief from the country's longest dry spell in decades. Photo: AP / Nati Harnik

Bales of corn stalks covered with snow in the state of Nebraska, USA, in late December 2012. Despite some big storms in December, much of the US is still desperate for relief from the country’s longest dry spell in decades. Photo: AP / Nati Harnik

In Russia, grain exports are expected to slump further, as also reported by Agrimoney. Russia’s farm ministry is to cut to 14m tonnes, from 15.5m tonnes, its forecast for grain exports in 2012-13. Trade at that level would represent half the 28m tonnes shipped in 2011-12 (USDA estimates) and imply only minimal exports for the rest of the season, with the tally already at some 13m tonnes.

In Britain, a third Agrimoney report on the impact of weather on grains has said, crop prices have soared thanks to the poor results from 2012 harvests, which showed the lowest wheat yields in 20 years and smallest potato crop since the 1970s. London wheat futures hit a record high of £227.00 a tonne last month, and remain at elevated levels, of £213.40 a tonne for the spot March contract, while potatoes are selling on the open market at £312.28 a tonne, more than triple their levels a year ago, according to the Potato Council.

Bloomberg has reported that the prices of wheat rose in Chicago as US production prospects “dimmed because of a persistent drought in the Great Plains, the biggest growing region for winter crops”. The Bloomberg report explained that the “central and southern plains [of USA] will have mostly below- normal rainfall in the next 10 days, with no significant relief expected”.

Roughly 57.64 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least ‘moderate’ drought as of 2013 January 22, reported the Huffington Post, which is a marginal improvement from 58.87 percent a week earlier. But the worst level of drought, dubbed ‘exceptional’, expanded slightly to 6.36 percent from 6.31 percent of the country.

Across wintry Europe, the spectre of creeping poverty

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An Europe darkened. The ESDE 2012 has said that the large unemployment shocks experienced at the beginning of the crisis and the rising shares of the long-term unemployed point towards serious risks of long-term exclusion faced by a significant share of the population.

An Europe darkened. The ESDE 2012 has said that the large unemployment shocks experienced at the beginning of the crisis and the rising shares of the long-term unemployed point towards serious risks of long-term exclusion faced by a significant share of the population.

Five years of economic crisis and the return of recession has pushed unemployment in Europe to new peaks not seen for almost twenty years. Household incomes have declined and the risk of poverty or exclusion is on the rise, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe, according to the 2012 edition of the Employment and Social Developments in Europe Review.

This, the second edition of the Employment and Social Developments in Europe (ESDE), has been released by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. The 2012 Review builds on the integrated approach to employment and social analysis embarked upon in the first ESDE Review of 2011 which did very well to concentrate on cross-cutting themes covering employment, in-work poverty, wage polarisation and income inequalities.

In the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal and Romania the risk of entering into poverty among the population aged 16 to 64 is associated with few chances to get out again, meaning that individuals falling into poverty have limited chances to get back out of it in the following years. Among these countries, this situation is most worrying in Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Greece, Malta, Portugal and to a certain extent Italy. Graphic: EU-ESDE 2012

In the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal and Romania the risk of entering into poverty among the population aged 16 to 64 is associated with few chances to get out again, meaning that individuals falling into poverty have limited chances to get back out of it in the following years. Among these countries, this situation is most worrying in Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Greece, Malta, Portugal and to a certain extent Italy. Graphic: EU-ESDE 2012

The ESDE 2012 has said that “impact of the crisis on the social situation has now become more acute as the initial protective effects of lower tax receipts and higher levels of spending on social benefits (so-called ‘automatic stabilisers’) have weakened”.

This means, the ESDE has added, that a new divide is emerging between countries that seem trapped in a downward spiral of falling output, fast rising unemployment and eroding disposable incomes and those that have so far shown good or at least some resilience. [The link to the full report [pdf 23 MB] is here.]

The situation has been described as “especially catastrophic in southern and eastern European countries” by the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). Previously, only wars have devastated national economies so thoroughly in such a short time as have the austerity measures of the European Union, the ICFI has observed.

This scene, as if from another age of blithe consumption in Europe, is now more likely to be found (instead of in Berlin where I took the picture) in the metropolises of Asia

This scene, as if from another age of blithe consumption in Europe, is now more likely to be found (instead of in Berlin where I took the picture) in the metropolises of Asia

Indeed the ESDE findings are a deep shade of gloom. The average EU unemployment rate climbed to almost 11%. The report confirms a new pattern of divergence, which is most striking between the North and the South of the eurozone. The unemployment rate gap between these two areas was 3.5 points in 2000, fell to zero in 2007 but then has widened fast to 7.5 points in 2011.

Despite the social catastrophe they have provoked with their austerity policies, European governments are intent on tightening the fiscal screws. They are no longer limiting themselves to the periphery of the euro zone, but are ever more ferociously attacking the working class in the core countries. In Greece and Spain, one in four is officially unemployed, and over half of all young people have no work.

Average household income has fallen by 17 percent in Greece over the past three years and by 8 percent in Spain. The health care, pension and social security systems face total collapse. And yet new, draconian austerity plans have been drawn up for Italy, France and Germany. In Britain, where almost a quarter of the population already lives in poverty, the Cameron government is systematically dismantling the National Health System, public education and social welfare.

The year the GM machine can be derailed

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In the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, farmers heap harvest residue, accompanied by a cow, a cattle egret and a dog (yes he's there, behind the stack!).

In the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, farmers heap harvest residue, accompanied by a cow, a cattle egret and a dog (yes he’s there, behind the stack!).

It is looking like a good start to a year in which GM foods and GM crops can be further purged from our fields, shops and pantries. Through 2012 November and December, there were reports from the continents of Africa and South America that such crops and seeds were either being banned or that decisions concerning their use were being discussed, and pending those decisions the use of these crops and seeds would not be permitted.

Writing in The Guardian, John Vidal has barracked the UK government’s enthusiasm for GM and has said this enthusiasm (in Britain’s official, corporatised, retailed decision-making circles) is not matched in developing nations. Vidal has written: “Across the world, countries are turning their backs on GM crops; perhaps the coalition in the UK could learn something from them”.

Early morning in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, and a farmer leads his cattle to fields.

Early morning in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka state in India, and a farmer leads his cattle to fields.

What is remarkable, Vidal’s article has said, “is not that GM crops have, after 20 years and so much money spent, now reached 19 out of more than 150 developing countries, but that most nations have managed to keep out a rapacious industry, and that only a handful of GM food commodity crops like oilseed rape, soya and maize are still grown, mainly for animals and biofuels”. Well, yes and sadly a bit of ‘no’ too.

Although Vidal is right about the more rapacious elements of the GM/GE/DNA-manipulation industry (aren’t they all that way though?) may have been kept out of direct markets, the arguments about labelling and about monitoring (independently, which needs civic capacity, which is hardly there in the South, for instance in India) are taking place while food with GM material can be found on shop shelves. Cottonseed oil for example, which is pressed out of GM cotton, is said to be used as an alternative to other edible oils for cooking.

There’s no doubt left whatsoever that the role of genetically modified food in our food chain is a highly contested political issues. In a long, carefully argued and copiously referenced article, the Soil Association’s Peter Melchett dismantles the pro-GM lobby’s staking of the ‘scientific high-ground’. In the essay, intriguingly titled ‘The pro-GM lobby’s seven sins against science’, Melchett has said this lobby has been good at “simultaneously positioning itself as the voice of reason and progress, while painting its opponents as unsophisticated ‘anti-science’ luddites, whose arguments are full of dogma and emotion, but lack scientific rigour”.

Powerful forces in Western society have been promoting genetic engineering (now usually genetic modification – GM) in agricultural crops since the mid-1990s, Melchett has written. I would have added that these “powerful forces” are in no small measure aided and abetted by potentially more powerful forces in the countries of the South (like India) that are interested in the same – vast and detailed control over the cultivation of primary crop and the consumption of industrially processed and retailed food.

Spanking new agricultural machinery on the highway, southern India. A government-industry answer to the loss of cultivation labour that is chivvied into the cities by adverse economics.

Spanking new agricultural machinery on the highway, southern India. A government-industry answer to the loss of cultivation labour that is chivvied into the cities by adverse economics.

These forces, Melchett has written, “have included many governments, in particular those of the USA and UK, powerful individual politicians like George Bush and Tony Blair, scientific bodies like the UK’s Royal Society, research councils, successive UK Government chief scientists, many individual scientists, and companies selling GM products”. They have ignored the views of citizens, he has added, and most sales of GM food have relied on secrecy – denying consumers information on what they are buying. Very true. If there is ignorance to be found in the ‘western’ consumer (let us say the consumer in the western European OECD countries) concerning GM foods and GM crops, then the ignorance quotient is far higher in the consumers of let’s say the BRICS and ASEAN countries – which of course works to the advantage of the alliance of powerful forces.

Despite the efforts of the ag-biotech, industrial agriculture and processed and retailed food sector worldwide (with its dense financial and political inter-linkages), there are 20 states in the USA which are currently embroiled in fierce battles over GM labelling, strenuously opposed by the GM combine. GM cotton is widely grown in India and China, but GM foods are largely limited to the USA and South America. Brazil grows 29 million hectares of GM soy and maize, and Argentina slightly less, but Mexico has delayed the introduction of GM maize until this year, Peru has approved a 10-year moratorium on the import and cultivation of GM seeds, and Bolivia has committed to giving up growing all GM crops by 2015. In Central America Costa Rica is expected to reject an application from a Monsanto subsidiary to grow GM corn.

Written by makanaka

January 5, 2013 at 12:41

Syria in 2013 and the opposition to war

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The mother of a Free Syrian Army fighter mourns as his body brought home during his funeral in Aleppo December 21, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadalla

The mother of a Free Syrian Army fighter mourns as his body brought home during his funeral in Aleppo December 21, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadalla

A newly elected government in the USA is as intent as its predecessors were on deepening war and conflict where it already exists, and on embarking on new campaigns of state aggression and violence. The conflict in Syria has been converted by the United States of America and its partner western aggressors from a civil movement for democratic rights into a bitter and bloody civil war that has killed more than 20,000 and has made refugees of more than half a million people.

Unnoticed almost in the clamour for war that resounds in the capitals of USA and its western allies is new evidence from a United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry which has stated, finally and plainly, that a sectarian civil war is raging in Syria. Its findings are based upon extensive investigations and interviews between September 28 to December 16, 2012. The Commission has detailed massacres and gross violations of human rights that have polarised Syria.

Investigators, headed by Carla del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, have interviewed more than 1,200 victims and refugees. The report produced is a devastating indictment of the United States and other western powers – said International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) – who have worked with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to depose of Bashar al-Assad by recruiting and aiding a Sunni insurgency overwhelmingly made up of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Salafist and Al Qaeda-style groups.

Map of the conflict areas and zones of uprising in Syria from Political Geography Now

Map of the conflict areas and zones of uprising in Syria from Political Geography Now

“The UN independent panel finds more breaches of human rights law by parties to Syrian conflict,” said the UN news service. The Commission has been mandated by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to investigate and record all violations of international human rights law in Syria, where at least 20,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. The conflict is now in its 22nd month and apart from the enormous number of refugees has left an estimated 4 million people inside Syria needing urgent humanitarian assistance. “The Syrian Government has yet to allow the Commission to undertake investigations inside the country,” said the UN news report.

That lack of access may change in early 2013 if the movement Peace In Syria is successful. This initiative consists in calling a delegation of high-ranking personalities of the international public to go to Syria with the aim of opening a national dialogue between the main political and social forces involved in the ongoing armed conflict to pave a way for a political solution.

As highlighted by Monthly Review’s MRZine, the peace initiative has said: “We are highly concerned not only because the conflict has been acquiring a dangerous geo-political dimension. The legitimate and at the beginning also peaceful movement of the Syrian people – along with their Arab brothers – for democratic rights is also in danger of being converted into a sectarian civil war with massive regional and international involvement.”

Quick tabulation of the anti-war survey results from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

Quick tabulation of the anti-war survey results from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

Utterly unmindful of the calls for peace within the Middle East and outside, the government of the USA is just as brazenly ignoring the anti-war movement at home. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey whose finding is that the American public continues to say that the USA does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting there.

“And there continues to be substantial opposition to sending arms to anti-government forces in Syria,” said the survey report. “Only about quarter of Americans (27%) say the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria; more than twice as many (63%) say it does not. These views are virtually unchanged from March. Similarly, just 24% favor the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria, while 65% are opposed.”

Far more bluntly, Veterans For Peace has urgently called on the United States and NATO “to cease all military activity in Syria, halt all U.S. and NATO shipments of weapons, and abandon all threats to further escalate the violence under which the people of Syria are suffering. NATO troops and missiles should be withdrawn from Turkey and other surrounding nations. U.S. ships should exit the Mediterranean”.

A fire burns after what activist said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Ain Terma area in Ghouta, east of Damascus December 18, 2012. Picture taken December 18, 2012. Photo: Reuters/ Karm Seif/ Shaam News Network

A fire burns after what activist said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad at Ain Terma area in Ghouta, east of Damascus December 18, 2012. Picture taken December 18, 2012. Photo: Reuters/ Karm Seif/ Shaam News Network

The organisation draws upon the experiences of military veterans in working for the abolition of war. “We have not entered into this work without consideration of many situations similar to the current one in Syria,” said the organisation, and added, “No good can come from U.S. military intervention in Syria. The people of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and dozens of other nations in Latin America and around the world have not been made better off by U.S. military intervention.”

But the USA, its aggressor western allies and NATO are intent on prosecuting war in Syria and gathering for greater, bloodier conflict. On December 17, Israel’s Haaretz reported that US cargo airplanes carrying military equipment landed in Jordanian airports over several days and that US military forces in the country have been significantly built up. The USA, Germany and the Netherlands have dispatched Patriot anti-missile systems and hundreds of troops to Turkey’s border and are seeking a pretext to use them. Hence last week, US officials accused the Syrian government of firing Scud missiles against opposition groups near Maara, north of Aleppo near the Turkish border, a claim Syria denied as “untrue rumours”. [See Al Jazeera’s live diary of events in Syria for more.]

It is now left to the citizens of the USA and its western allies – citizens who are no less bludgeoned daily by the austerity measures imposed by their governments while their criminally-minded banking and corporate elite frame and set policy both national and international – to derail the war machine. A number of good reasons for doing so can be found in the work of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry, whose new 10-page update – the latest in a series of reports and updates produced by the Commission since it began its work in August 2011 – paints a bleak picture of the devastating conflict and continuing international human rights and humanitarian law violations taking place in Syria.

The full 10-page update can be viewed here – it describes the unrelenting violence resulting in many thousands of dead and wounded, and also focuses on arbitrary detention and disappearances, huge displacement and the massive physical destruction in Syria. It describes how World Heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed, as well as entire neighbourhoods of several of the country’s biggest cities. Civilians continue to bear the brunt as the front lines between Government forces and the armed opposition have moved deeper into urban areas. The Commission of Inquiry will present its fourth report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013.

How Britain went from drought to flood in three months

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Britain has experienced a dramatic change in weather over the last three months, during which period ‘hosepipe bans’ and drought have been replaced by widespread flooding and steady rain. The droughts were compounded by a lack of rainfall over previous years, leading to empty reservoirs and lower river flows.

In this pair of maps, rainfall in March 2012 (left) had some areas in Britain seeing less than a fifth of the expected rain. April then saw nearly twice the expected rainfall for that month compared to average rainfall from 1971 to 2000. In June 2012 (right), most of the country experienced more than twice the expected rainfall. Graphics: The Telegraph / the Met Office – UK’s National Weather Service

Written by makanaka

July 14, 2012 at 17:29

A two-speed Europe, chronic unemployment and the Euro experiment

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Illustration: Presseurop / Chinese illustrator and cartoonist Luo Jie (William Luo) works for the Beijing English newspaper, China Daily.

There is worry in Europe about the euro, its ten-year-old currency, and about unemployment, which has stayed persistently high throughout 2011. The Euro press has reflected the worries and concerns of the salaried and the informal workers of Europe, and is now talking about whether there is already a ‘two-speed’ Europe. Presseurop has provided some insight:

In ‘Eurozone crisis – Will the EU end up like Yugoslavia?’ Serbian daily Politika remarks on the similarities with the years preceding the break-up of the federation founded by Tito. The Politika opinion said: “Seen from Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo, the economic and institutional crisis that has struck the European Union has a certain air of déjà-vu. Relatively speaking, the European Union (EU) is beginning in many ways to resemble Tito’s Yugoslavia. As At a time when the EU is attempting to reinforce centralised control of its periphery, its foundations are being threatened by excessive nationalism and accumulated incompatibilities between member states.”

The “democratic deficit” suggests yet another parallel, according to the Serbian paper: in the one-party system in Yugoslavia, leaders were not elected by universal suffrage, just like the highly placed civil servants that manage today’s EU – in spite of the fact that all of the members of the Union have multi-party systems. In both cases, the fear that the more populous states would have too much influence has prevented the introduction of the principle of ‘one citizen, one vote’.

The 'La Tribune' front page on a 'two-speed' Europe

Presseurop also invokes the ‘two-speed Europe’ meme in ‘Employment – A two-speed Europe’. Mentioning the front-page headline ‘Europe split in two by unemployment’ of La Tribune, Presseurop has quoted the paper’s reporting on the growing gap between Southern and Northern Europe: “The rate in Germany has declined to a level not seen since 1991 while soaring to new high in Spain, where it is now almost 23%.”

The Paris business daily continued: “This European dichotomy is first and foremost a reflection of the state of the continent’s economies. While some countries have sunk into recession (Greece, Portugal, Spain), others have succeeded in maintaining growth, albeit modest.” Citing reforms undertaken before the crisis as one of the reasons for the healthier economies in the North, The Financial Times remarked that changes to labour legislation in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany “have helped make the workers of these countries internationally competitive – a factor which is sorely lacking in the eurozone periphery”. Typically arrogant and dismissive opinionating from the British paper, which is notorious for kowtowing shamelessly before industry and American foreign policy dictates.

The Berlin leftish newspaper Tageszeitung (Taz) takes issue with this argument, and notes that the reforms undertaken by Berlin have not created new jobs, but simply redistributed them to a larger number of workers – a process that has resulted in the creation of a new low-pay sector. Reporting that 8.4 million Germans are ‘under-employed’, the Taz recalls that economic inequality in Germany has grown more rapidly than in other industrialised countries. Finally, the Berlin newspaper notes that to ‘celebrate’ the record of 41 million wage earners, the German government has spent 330,000 euros on a poster campaign ‘Danke Deutschland – Wirtschaft. Wachstum. Wohlstand.’ [“Thank you Germany – Economy. Growth. Prosperity”].

Taz is close to the truth, quite the opposite of what the feckless Financial Times, a speechwriter for predatory capitalism, would have us believe. Almost one in four people in the European Union was threatened with poverty or social deprivation in 2010. This is the conclusion of an official report by the European Commission presented in December. According to the report, 115 million people, or 23 percent of the EU population, were designated as poor or socially deprived. The main causes are unemployment, old age and low wages, with more than 8 percent of all employees in Europe now belonging to the “working poor”.

Single parents, immigrants and young people are worst affected. Among young people, unemployment is more than twice as high as among adults. Some 21.4 percent of all young people in the EU had no work in September 2011. Spain leads all other EU countries with a youth unemployment rate of 48 percent. In Greece, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia youth unemployment is between 25 percent and 45 percent.

In countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, youth unemployment rates are lower only because training takes longer and many unemployed young people are ‘parked’ in all sorts of schemes that exclude them from the official statistics – so much for the crafty and misleading ‘Danke Deutschland’ campaign. But even in these countries the chance of getting a decent-paying job is diminishing. Some 50 percent of all new employment contracts in the EU are temporary work contracts. For workers aged 20 to 24, the proportion is 60 percent.

Written by makanaka

January 8, 2012 at 14:47

Eighty years after Umar al-Mukhtar’s execution, western Europe’s rulers announce the Libyan plunder

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Umar al-Mukhtär (b. c. 1862), a leader of Sanüsi resistance to Italian colonisation until his execution in 1931. Photo: General History of Africa, Vol VII, UNESCO 1985

We do not know if the president of France and the prime minister of Britain were aware of the historic signifiance of the timing of their joint visit to Libya last week. Either David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy had been informed of what had happened there, exactly 80 years before, and chose the date as a symbol of the military might that occupying colonial powers have had in North Africa; or they did not, their presence at the time being coincidence. Whichever the explanation, the Libyans who watched the two western European political leaders in their country could not have failed to have observed the anniversary of the execution of Umar al-Mukhtär, Libya’s legenary freedom fighter and the ‘Lion of the Desert’. It had taken place exactly 80 years ago, on 16 September 1931.

The Cameron-Sarkozy visit recalled all the sordid and bloody traditions of imperialism: untrammelled hypocrisy, rank economic plunder and the ruthless use of force to secure such plunder. They were feted by the leaders of NATO’s local client, the National Transitional Council (TNC), under heavy security in Tripoli. Delivering the ghastly charade, Cameron hailed “free Libya” to the cheers of the assembled crowds. “France, Great Britain, Europe, will always stand by the side of the Libyan people,” his counterpart Sarkozy declared.

A comment in The Guardian has explained that in Libya the long decades of oppression could not be forgotten so easily. The Italians had devastated the old pastoral economy, and depopulated much of the land: the very term Siziliani (many of the settlers had come from Sicily) remained a term of loathing. Memories of anti-colonial resistance helped to legitimise Libya’s new British-backed king, Idris, who as head of the Sanusi order had been a figurehead for the struggle against the Italians. But such memories also helped bolster the 27-year-old Colonel Gaddafi when he accused the king of selling out to latter-day imperialism, toppled him in a coup and set up the republic.

Poster for the file, 'Lion of the Desert' (1981)

This year that republic became the pretext for NATO’s neo-colonial adventure — to protect Libyan lives from the regime of Muammar Gaddafi — one that has almost completely been dispensed with. Based on a blatant illegality [‘Is the resolution on Libya legal under international law?‘], NATO warplanes continue to pound targets around the remaining pro-Gaddafi towns of Sirte and Bani Walid with scant regard for civilian lives as the TNC and its NATO backers push to bring the entire country under their control. The World Socialist Web Site has explained that all the hypocritical claims that the war for “regime change” in Libya was all about saving human lives notwithstanding, the aims of British and French imperialism in Libya, North Africa and the Middle East are no more humanitarian today that they have been for the past 200 years.

Earlier that week, the CEO of Italy’s energy giant ENI, Paolo Scaroni, was in Tripoli to discuss the resumption of Libyan gas exports. ENI was Libya’s largest energy producer before this economic war was illegally launced the energy company wants to defend its dominant position. Libya has the largest proven energy reserves in Africa: 46.4 billion barrels of oil and 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Libyan officials reported to the “Friends of Libya” gathering in Paris on September 2 that five major foreign energy corporations were back in the country.

To compare better the bloody and tragic history of ‘regime change’ carried out under colonial domination then and now, here is an extract that describes the events leading up to 16 September 1931.

“To worsen the situation even further, on 21 December 1922, Emir Idrïs al-Sanusï, the Union’s spiritual leader and supreme commander, went into voluntary exile to Egypt. His unexplained and sudden departure, which is still being debated among historians, completely demoralized the people and caused many of the warriors either to leave the country or surrender to the Italians. However, before leaving, al-Sanusï appointed his brother Al-Ridä as his deputy, and Umar al-Mukhtär as commander of the National Forces in the Green Mountains, and it was under his leadership and because of the efficient guerrilla warfare that he developed that the resistance continued until 1931. He divided his forces into three major mobile companies (adwär) and camped in the mountainous area south of al-Mardj at Jardas. The series of attacks launched against him in the summer of 1923 were all repelled. Another army sent against his camp in March was routed.”

Partie de Tunis et de Tripoli. Afrique no. 3. (Dresse par Ph. Vandermaelen, lithographie par H. Ode. Troisieme partie. - Afrique. Bruxelles. 1827). Cartographer: Vandermaelen, Philippe, 1795-1869. Date: 1827. Collection: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

“It was Tripolitania that fell first. By June 1924, all arable land was occupied. But aware of their weakness as long as they did not control the desert, the Italians began a long campaign to control the desert and finally Fazzän. This was not marked by success despite the use of aerial bombing and poison gas. Several Italian advances were stopped. As late as 1928 the Libyans blocked the main Italian force at Faqhrift south of Surt. But by the end of 1929 and the beginning of 1930, Fazzän was finally occupied and the Libyan resistance in the west and south collapsed.”

“Meanwhile, the resistance in Cyrenaica continued and succeeded in inflicting heavy defeats on the Italians. When the Fascists failed to suppress the revolution of Umar al-Mukhtär in Cyrenaica through direct military attack, they resorted to some measures unprecedented in the history of colonial wars in Africa. They first erected a 300 km-long wire fence along the Tripoli-Egyptian border to prevent any aid coming from Egypt. Secondly, continually enforced, they occupied the oases of Djalo, Djaghabüb and Kufra to encircle and isolate the warriors in Cyrenaica. Finally, they evacuated all the rural population of Cyrenaica to the desert of Sirt where they kept them in fenced concentration camps. This measure was meant to deprive al-Mukhtär’s forces of any local assistance. Other mass prisons and concentration camps were established at al-Makrfln, Sulük, al-Aghayla and al-Barayka. Conditions in these camps were so bad that it is believed that more than a hundred thousand people died of starvation and diseases, not to mention their animals which were confiscated. In al-Barayka prison camp alone, there were 80,000 persons of whom 30,000 are said to have died between 1930 and 1932, according to the Italians’ own statistics.”

“Despite these wicked measures, the revolt continued and hit-and-run tactics were resorted to. The Italians again offered to negotiate with al-Mukhtâr. A series of meetings were held between the two sides. Among them was the one held near al-Mardj on 19 July 1929, attended by Governor Badoglio. At this meeting, the Italians offered to bribe al-Mukhtlr who turned down the offer and insisted on liberating his country.”

One for you, two for me. French President Nicolas Sarkozy (right) greets British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday at the Elysee Palace. Photo: Der Spiegel/DPA

“Later, when al-Mukhtär discovered that the Italians were trying to apply the policy of ‘divide and rule’ among his followers, he broke the talks with the Italians and resumed his tactics of guerrilla warfare which included skirmishes, raids, ambushes, surprise attacks and incursions spread all over the country. In the last twenty-one months before his capture, he fought 277 battles with the Italians as Graziani himself admits. In September 1931, however, al-Mukhtär was captured and taken to Benghazi. He was then court-martialed and executed before thousands of Libyans at the town of Sulük on 16 September 1931.”

[Extract from the chapter, ‘African initiatives and resistance in North Africa and the Sahara’, by A. Laroui, in Volume VII of ‘General History of Africa – Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935’, UNESCO-Heinemann, 1985]

From the very start of the Gaddafi regime, the Guardian comment observes, present and past merged as the anti-colonialist Gaddafi ordered British and American air bases to close and kicked out the 20,000 Italians still living in the country, nationalising their property. As his regime became more and more unpopular, so it found new uses in Libya’s history of oppression. Even as it razed the monuments of the Sanusi leadership, now seen by regime propagandists as feudal usurpers of a popular nationalist movement, so it sent researchers into the countryside as part of a vast oral history project to collect memories of the guerrilla war and Italian atrocities.

Such moves not only wrapped the regime in the heroic mantle of the anti-Italian jihad, they served geopolitical purposes too. Two years after forcing the Italians to leave, the socialist Gaddafi was inviting Italian corporations back in, turning the former colonial oppressor into Libya’s chief European business partner. And when in 2004 he sought new respectability in Europe, Italy became a crucial ally and history was part of the deal: Berlusconi apologized publicly for Italy’s past crimes, and in return, Gaddafi promised to keep Italy’s unwanted illegal migrants locked up in camps inside Libya.

There is more on Libya here: The bloody cost of ‘democratic transition’ in Libya ; A time before the pillage – what North Africa should mean to us ; Mussolini and Ethiopia, Italy and Libya, the mill of history ; Libya, the economic reasons for invasion ; Nato’s fascist war and the Black Code of the West ; So, why did the powers now attacking Libya easily tolerate Gaddafi for the last 10 years? ; The West’s Libya campaign has begun

Tottenham and beyond, when the disadvantaged got angry

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A firefighter sprays water on the furniture store set on fire by rioters last night in Croydon, south London, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011.A wave of violence and looting raged across London and spread to three other major British cities Tuesday, as authorities struggled to contain the country's worst unrest since race riots set the capital ablaze in the 1980s. Photo: Sang Tan

Some very straight talk from the country of straight talkers, superior essayists and lambent poetry. The Irish Left Review explains what the supine and corporatists British mainline media will not, that the Tottenham riots is, in large measure, the angry reaction of those from whom much has been taken away, year after year, by the state and its industrial-financial sponsors, in the name of neo-liberal ‘reform’. Here are a few paras from a bristling, sobering commentary:

“So capitalism is looting the public sphere. Services that citizens have for a hundred or more years considered to be public goods and not to be exploited for the profit of a few – health care, care of the elderly, education, unemployment benefit, old-age pensions, fresh water, sewers, waste disposal, roads and footpaths, urban and rural planning, the postal service, the telephone service, the police, and so on –  are subject to systematic and sustained pressure aimed at breaking the link between the citizen and the service. No longer should we think of these things as ‘ours’, except in the sense that we can say a bank is ours. These things are provided to us as goods and services by companies which exercise their right to make a profit out of them – out of us really, out of our pain, our parent’s old age, our children’s childhood, our money troubles, our environment. Citizens are to be redefined as consumers of services. The sole function of the state is to regulate the activities of companies so that monopolies do not develop.”

British police officers arrest a man as rioters gathered in Croydon, south London, Monday, Aug. 8, 2011. Violence and looting spread across some of London's most impoverished neighborhoods on Monday, with youths setting fire to shops and vehicles, during a third day of rioting in the city that will host next summer's Olympic Games. Photo: Sang Tan

“The police function as the guarantor of profit. The police are ‘ours’ only in the way the taxman is ours. The police thus find themselves increasingly (for it was ever thus) with their backs to the corporate wall facing a disinherited citizenry for whom the state is a hostile force. This makes the police political for it is a mistake to think that the looting of the public sphere by corporations and individuals is not political. Of course, nobody on the corporation side wants to call it that. They want it to be understood as common sense. The state is ‘broken’, they say, or it has ‘failed’. Only profit-making companies can do the job efficiently and give good value for money to the consumer. What they really mean is ‘We’re going to take the money and run’. When you’re down and out, feeling low, check your credit rating.”

“All the talk from Cameron and his cohorts is of crime and punishment and ‘the full force of the law‘ – as if these young people did not encounter the full force of the law on a daily basis. We are told variously that there is no political context, no political motive, no political enemy – it is ‘criminality pure and simple‘. This is because violence against the police (and therefore the state) is not considered in itself to be political. It is because the envy of, the desire for and the acquisition of luxury goods such as plasma TVs and jewellery is not considered political. The political class and the commentariat cannot conceive of themselves as enemies of the people who live in areas like Tottenham where Tory cuts are closing youth centres, which suffer massive unemployment even while the City is booming, and which are the objects of legislation designed to disadvantage them even further.”

Written by makanaka

August 13, 2011 at 15:21