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Desperate food gambits and the danger to India

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India’s Republic Day in 2015 will also see the visit of the president of the USA, Barack Obama, accompanied by the usual large delegation of business persons, lobbyists and functionaries of the American government. They will use this visit to demand many things, and amongst the demands will be that the NDA-BJP government ‘reform’ all that is hindering the agriculture and food transformation in Bharat.

A couple tending their stack of rice stalks residue in the Konkan.

A couple tending their stack of rice stalks residue in the Konkan.

We must resist this with strength and perseverance. So far, the NDA-BJP government has not shown that it recognises or understands the threats and dangers, which are very very serious indeed. The American delegation will push this government to clear the way for genetically modified seed and crop (including in food staples such as cereals), for the further industrialisation and mechanisation of crop production (which will mean the removal of smallholder ‘kisans’ from their plots, all in the name of market efficiency), and the deepening of the food processing and food retail industries’ grip on what we eat.

The Prime Minister’s Office, the Union Cabinet and the seniormost bureaucrats of the major ministries involved must wake up to this threat and be firm against it. The signals from elsewhere are many and they are clear about what lies in store for Bharat if the NDA-BJP government at the centre and if state governments do not discharge their duty – which is, safeguard the sovereignty of Bharat.

Already in Europe, the German Environment Ministry is insisting on a complete ban on green genetic engineering in Germany. Under a new European Parliament directive, member states of the European Union will now be able to restrict or completely ban GMO cultivation within their borders. One of the leading proponents of such a legal ban in Germany is its Ministry of Agriculture, which also supports a national ban on cultivation.

soilatlas2015_main_1Moreover, in a position paper from the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Minister Barbara Hendricks said she does not want to leave any back doors open for genetic engineering. The GMO law must be changed, so that controversial green genetic engineering cannot be used under any pretext in Germany, she stated in the document. “Green genetic engineering has turned out to be the wrong track,” Hendricks said. “It is risky for nature and the environment and is not desired by consumers.”

Worldwide, the project to fully industrialise global food production is far from complete, yet already it is responsible for most deforestation, most marine pollution, most coral reef destruction, much of greenhouse gas emissions, most habitat loss, most of the degradation of streams and rivers, most food insecurity, most immigration, most water depletion, and massive human health problems.

Relationships between soil, urbanisation, fertiliser use, farming, ecology and health. Images from the Soil Atlas, 2015, Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Relationships between soil, urbanisation, fertiliser use, farming, ecology and health. Images from the Soil Atlas, 2015, Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Under GM- and tech-centric industrial agriculture and food systems – which is what the Americans will demand from us – countries are becoming literally uninhabitable as a result of the social and ecological consequences.

Wherever industrial and genetically engineered agriculture is found, landscapes are left progressively emptier of life. Eventually, the soil turns either into mud that washes into the rivers or into dust that blows away on the wind. Industrial agriculture has no long term future and is ecological suicide. But those who profit from it cannot allow all this to become broadly understood – and unfortunately that has included our NDA-BJP government. That is why they have continued to peddle the lie of food scarcity in India, which the previous Congress government employed so recklessly.

The agriculture and food problem – which will become a more extreme problem for us if the Obama group is given its way – is closely interlinked with growing demand for land. Land is a lucrative investment and has fuelled the real estate boom in India for the last decade. But for our smallholder kisans it is the source of livelihood, as it is for our shepherd groups and tribal communities. Rising demand for land also harms the ecosystem – as is seen in each and every one of the 63 cities whose populations this year are at least one million. The more intensive the farming, the more damage it does to the environment. This is the main reason for the decline in biological diversity, above and below the ground.

The American push will be for agri-food systems in accordance with the new international trade agreements. These are nothing but colonial ways of thinking – that food should be produced for international export as a tool of foreign policy and to control populations (especially through GM) and as a byproduct financially benefit powerful corporations that act as agents of such colonial ways of thinking. Thus it is a direct assault on people’s sovereignty over their natural resources, farming systems and food access as well as their human right to dignified living standards free of exploitation and dependence.

Such treaties (such as the TTP which is facing opposition even amongst those the USA calls allies) are dangerous because they are negotiated in secret. But what has emerged (thanks to leaks) is appalling. Some of the texts in these treaties wants the outright patenting of plants and animals, many draft agreements come with severe punishments for farmers who break intellectual property laws, they deliberately undermine local agriculture (as seen with NAFTA), commons lands are proposed for privatisation, labelling of GM foods will be prohibited, and the governments of countries that try to undo the damage will be liable to be sued by the multi-national corporations. This is the extent of the danger facing Bharat, which will become more clear come Republic Day 2015.

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Gorbachev, democracy and the Berlin Wall

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Der Offizier Harald Jäger trifft unter dem Ansturm der Massen am Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße die Entscheidung seines Lebens: Wir fluten! Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

Der Offizier Harald Jäger trifft unter dem Ansturm der Massen am Grenzübergang Bornholmer Straße die Entscheidung seines Lebens: Wir fluten! Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

The ‘celebration’ of the bringing down of the Berlin Wall (and the militarised border between the former East and West in Germany) is being held. Germany’s Christian Democrat-led government has marked the anniversary with many events, but the question ought to be: what are they celebrating? Is it the demise of communism? Is it the ‘victory’ of Western democracy? Or is it the fragile success of having steered without serious catastrophe a course that has become more unsustainable with every year for Germany’s 80.6 million?

These are the questions that do not hide behind the marketability of an event such as several thousand lit balloons in Berlin tracing the course of the Wall when it divided the city. The ‘installation’ will bring the tourists in, but little else for a city whose government – brazenly arm-in-arm with reckless property speculators – posed as being “poor but sexy” much to the disgust of Berliners.

It is difficult to slide away from the consequences of history. In the early euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany moved quickly to erase the scars of its Cold War division. “But East Germany’s legacy remains visible in statistics,” the weekly newspaper Die Zeit has commented, showing that German unification left scars that have not yet disappeared.

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Gorbachev: Europe is weakening. Photo: RT.com

An editorial blog post related to the article observed: “The border still exists. Nearly exactly where it existed in reality, Germany is still divided in two. Until today, 25 years after the end of the imposed separation, there is an important demographic and economic imbalance, and there are also very different lifestyle habits.”

In the former eastern part of Germany, the income per capita is still considerably less than in what used to be old Federal Republic (the west), and farms are considerably bigger in the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) than in the old West Germany – the legacy of collective farming. Easterners also put their children in day care, and most get flu shots each year, and the eastern population is older.

Those older residents remember ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ more readily than do Germans elsewhere in Germany. These were the concept-words employed by Mikhail Gorbachev which made the reunification of Germany possible. The former leader of the Soviet Union (the USSR) returned to Berlin to speak at a forum organised to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the message he gave was weighed down by his disappointment with the West and was charged by his warning – delivered as clearly and precisely as when he was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – that the new Cold War is the product of the current thinking of the West.

After the Berlin Wall was brought down and Germany began its process of reunification, the leaders of the western world were intoxicated with euphoria of triumph, and they adopted anti-Russian policies that eventually led to the current crisis, Gorbachev said.

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Gorbachev: The West claimed monopoly leadership. Photo: RT.com

Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and a lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world. And they refused to heed the word of caution from many of those present here,” he said. “The events of the past months are consequences of short-sighted policies of seeking to impose one’s will and fait accompli while ignoring the interests of one’s partners.”

Gorbachev gave a list of examples of those policies, including the expansion of NATO and the development of an anti-ballistic missile system, military interventions in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the west-backed secession of Kosovo, the crisis in Syria and others. The Ukrainian crisis is a “blister turning into a bleeding, festering wound,” he said.

Western policies toward Russia championed by Washington have led to the current crisis, and if the confrontation continues, Europe will be weakened and become irrelevant, said Gorbachev. “Instead of becoming a leader of change in a global world Europe has turned into an arena of political upheaval, of competition for the spheres of influence, and finally of military conflict. The consequence inevitably is Europe’s weakening at a time when other centres of power and influence are gaining momentum. If this continues, Europe will lose a strong voice in world affairs and gradually become irrelevant,” he said.

The anniversary of Mauerfall – the bringing down of the Berlin Wall and the militarised boundary between East and West Germany – has been employed by Zygmunt Bauman (professor emeritus of Sociology in the Universities of Leeds and Warsaw) to comment on the hopes of 1989 and the realities of 2014.

“We have seen a steady dismantling of the network of institutions intended to defend the victims of the increasingly deregulated greed-driven economy, and a growing public insensitivity to rampant social inequality, coupled with the incapacity of a rising number of citizens, now abandoned (since no longer viewed as a potential danger to capitalist order or a seedbed of social revolution) to fend for themselves as they might on their own glaringly inadequate resources and capabilities.”

Die größte Demonstration der DDR-Geschichte endete am 4. November mit einer Kundgebung auf dem Alexanderplatz. Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

Die größte Demonstration der DDR-Geschichte endete am 4. November mit einer Kundgebung auf dem Alexanderplatz. Foto: Tagesspiegel / EPD

This has resulted, Bauman continued, among the actual and prospective stake-holders of democracy, in a steady erosion of trust in the ability of democratic institutions to deliver on their promises: a stark contrast to the high hopes of the heady, optimistic aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. It has also resulted in an ever-widening gulf and a breakdown of communication between political elites and the man in the street.

“The ostensible triumph of the democratic mode of human co-existence, in practice brought a steady shrinking and fading of public trust in its potential accomplishments. Such unprepossessing and depressing effects struck, though in unequal measure, all member states of the European Union.”

Amongst the many commentaries in Berlin’s newspaper, one from taz – the short form of Die Tageszeitung – explains the cultural gulf between ‘ossis’ (from the east) and ‘wessis’ (from the former West Germany). “East Germans and immigrants were still commonly referred to as ‘foreigners’, both equally outsiders and underdogs in the West German perspective after the fall of the Wall. They dressed differently, had strange habits and foreign dialects and accents. But culturally East Germans had something in common with many immigrants – both came from societies in which the sense of community was very important.”

This was evident in everyday East Germany (the DDR). There were few telephones and not many public places in the GDR, and hence colleagues and friends met in their own flats and apartments. The result was that close neighborliness was well developed in many migrants at that time. They differed in this from the “distant West Germans”, who even 25 years ago preferred to met each other in cafes or restaurants rather than in their homes.

The frontier between Thuringia and Bavaria near Asbach, in 1950. Photo: Die Zeit / Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Otto Donath

The frontier between Thuringia and Bavaria near Asbach, in 1950. Photo: Die Zeit / Deutsches Bundesarchiv / Otto Donath

Twenty-five years after November 1989 what is Germany recalling? There are many unkept promises rued by a society in which the joy of being “wieder ein Volk” (once more a people) has been eroded by the finance politics of austerity and the creeping ruin of corporate control. At the time it looked so very different.

In 1986, in the journal Widersprüche (April 1986), the sociologist Timm Kunstreich commented: “Especially concerning the understanding and productivity in the seemingly petty bourgeois work ethic conceptions, the prominent idea is one of characteristic blocking of the transformation process in the GDR. The consequence of the reduction of the integral state is that the ‘proletarian’ company is pushed into the ground. To many social institutions such a proletarian society appears as ‘Prometheus in chains’, bound by a rigid state-partisan control machinery based on collectivism and planned democracy.”

What has been transformed, what is blocked and what remain cultural differences? Far too many of the German Volk (especially the youth) are a Prometheus bound despite reunification, the so-called free market and the removal of the spectre of communism. Every trait of the DDR/GDR that was reviled is seen again, 25 years later, through the employment of new tools of technology, finance, the marginalisation of local alternatives, the intrusion of the private sector into the domains of the state.

This has resulted in a stark and saddening contrast to the high hopes of the heady, optimistic aftermath of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. “Twenty five years ago people stormed a barbed-wired wall that epitomised their un-freedom, hoping that once that wall were down, democracy would guarantee them freedom and that freedom would assure their well-being. Twenty-five years after democracy is in a state of unprecedented (and all but unimaginable at that time) crisis,” Bauman has said. The lit balloons that today give Berlin a ghost wall are alas no more than the gaslight of a depression that is palpable, though in unequal measure, in all member states of the European Union.

Written by makanaka

November 8, 2014 at 23:40

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.

World heritage and the agrarian trilogy

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WHR_agri_landscapes_3Agricultural landscapes have been honoured in the quarterly journal published by Unesco, ‘World Heritage’, which has dwelt (issue number 69) on the agro-pastoral landscapes created by human activity and serves to explain the major sites of this type now inscribed on the World Heritage List. The number has said: “The most impressive of these sites are perhaps the terraced fields found around the world, in the Far East, Africa, the Andes and all around the Mediterranean basin, with rice paddies and various wine-growing areas, some of which are also listed as World Heritage cultural landscapes.”

Stari Grad plain - ancient Greek farming in the Adriatic. The farming land is divided into regular sized parcels known as chora (Greek for landscape or countryside), bounded by drystone walls. All this, together with the cisterns and the little beehive-shaped toolsheds was first measured and marked out some 2,400 years ago and they have remained unaltered in their layout and in continuous use since the ancient Greeks created them. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Mark Gillespie

Stari Grad plain – ancient Greek farming in the Adriatic. The farming land is divided into regular sized parcels known as chora (Greek for landscape or countryside), bounded by drystone walls. All this, together with the cisterns and the little beehive-shaped toolsheds was first measured and marked out some 2,400 years ago and they have remained unaltered in their layout and in continuous use since the ancient Greeks created them. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Mark Gillespie

The introductory note has said that human civilisation, throughout its history, “has applied certain principles of adaptation to the environment that are sufficiently resilient to drive nature’s inherent and inexhaustible dynamism by adding a cultural dimension that endows it with uniqueness”. Culture and cultivation has become a reality in the agricultural landscapes, for their age and their continuous evolutionary aspect.

In these sites, the territories are structured by agro-pastoral practices known as the ‘agrarian trilogy’: the cultivation of fields – agriculture (from the Latin ager, fields); the cultivation of forests – silviculture (silva, forest); and husbandry – with the use of so-called uncultivated lands
such as sustenance pastures together with their pastoral routes, all of which, taken together, was termed saltus in Roman times.

The journal has found that most impressive of all these landscapes are those devoted to a single operation, “because the structure they impose upon the territory in terms of a single variable results in large expanses of land that are spectacularly homogenous”. This is seen in the various rice fields, in the impressive landscapes of Tequila (Mexico) where the blue agave is cultivated, and uniquely apparent in such vineyard landscapes as the Upper Middle Rhine Valley (Germany), Wachau (Austria), Saint Emilion (France), Tokaj (Hungary), Pico Island and Alto Douro (Portugal), and Lavaux (Switzerland).

The journal number also includes an interview with Parviz Koohafkan, the coordinator of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In response to a question about the global evolution of this heritage category and recognition of the intrinsic interaction between people and nature, Koohafkhan replied that this category of World Heritage is gaining ground because of the importance of the landscape approach and the nature-culture relationship.

The area of the Konso, in Ethiopia, is characterised by extensive drystone agricultural terraces contouring the hills and giving the landscape its unique characteristics. After harvesting in September, the parallel lines of the terraces and their engineering and artistic workmanship can best be appreciated. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Vicki Brown (Solimar International)

The area of the Konso, in Ethiopia, is characterised by extensive drystone agricultural terraces contouring the hills and giving the landscape its unique characteristics. After harvesting in September, the parallel lines of the terraces and their engineering and artistic workmanship can best be appreciated. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage / Vicki Brown (Solimar International)

“In addition, landscapes are evolving rapidly due to agricultural transformation and unless we plan and work with communities for the sustainability of their livelihoods, we will be unable to conserve this agriculture and landscape heritage. FAO, UNESCO and their partner organisations should set up further collaborative programmes to address issues of food and nutrition security within the context of the post-Rio sustainable development agenda and to recognise the important role of small-scale family farms and indigenous communities in providing multiple goods and services,” Koohafkhan has said.

The immense diversity of agricultural systems can be seen in the vegetable, animal and even mineral produce that they include, is a valuable point made in a short article from the International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes (IFLA-ICOMOS). Discussing agricultural landscapes in a heritage context, the ingredients of the trilogy are well supplied: basic foods provided by cereals (wheat, rice, maize, etc.) or tubers (potatoes, manioc, taro, etc.), each of which forms the foundation of a major area of civilisation that subsequently spread around the world.

Then there are fruit-bearing plants (vines, olive and apple trees, citrus fruit, date and banana trees, etc.), the juice of which could be fermented (wine, cider, etc.); oleaginous plants (olives, sunflower, soya, colza, oil palms, coconut and argan trees, etc.), sugar-bearing plants (cane and beet); stimulant plants (coffee, tea, cocoa and tobacco, etc.), which produce alkaloids and undergo elaborate transformation (drying of leaves, roasting of grains, etc.); textile plants (flax, hemp, cotton, jute, etc.); ruminants, which provide milk, meat, wool and leather but are also used as beasts of burden in numerous agro-pastoral systems; equidae, camelids, pigs, poultry and so on.

Monsanto drops GM crop plans in Europe

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'Monsanocchio', by Raymond Burki, a Swiss cartoonist whose works are published in the Lausanne daily 24 heures. Courtesy: Presseurop

‘Monsanocchio’, by Raymond Burki, a Swiss cartoonist whose works are published in the Lausanne daily 24 heures. Courtesy: Presseurop

The signs have been gaining substance over the last two years. In western Europe (Britain excluded), citizens and independent researchers have demanded and end to GM food products. The support given to the seed-biotech-fertiliser conglomerates of the USA and Europe, by their governments has been well met by organised consumer awareness and resistance. It is no wonder then that these cartels have shifted the use of their tactics to Asia, where political establishments can be more easily influenced and where consumer awareness about the dreadful dangers of GM is generally lower than in western Europe.

Europe’s press is reporting that Monsanto, the fertiliser and biotechnology company, is withdrawing all permits requested to the European Commission to grow genetically modified corn, soy and sugar beet because it does not see “a commercial outlook” for these products (that’s what the public relations scoundrels call what we know and practice as informed consumer awareness).

German daily Die Welt reported that only a request to grow genetically modified corn (of the MON810 type) will be renewed. For the moment, this type of corn is the only genetically modified organism commercially cultivated in Europe, said Die Welt. While MON810 corn type is admitted into the EU, several countries including France, Germany and Italy have banned it at the national level, following citizen initiatives. Last year, German chemical firm BASF threw in the towel and relocated its biotechnology centre to the USA because genetic engineering is so strongly contested in Europe.

Monsanto has loudly insisted that its genetically modified products, including maize MON810, which is authorised in Europe, are safe for humans. It has an army of compromised ‘scientists’ on its payroll in every single country where it wants to push its GM products, and using its public relations agents has infiltrated media in every country that it sees as a market. But the evidence that GM is dangerous for humans and animals, for insects and plants alike grows by the day. A study conducted on rats for two years by a team of French researchers on Monsanto NK 603 corn revealed an abnormally high tumour and death rate – Monsanto’s own in-house studies, pushed out as counter-evidence by mercenary accomplices, were conducted for no more than three months!

Roadside shacks of people whose land has been taken over for soy fields in Alto Parana, Paraguay, which is among the South American countries with the most unequal land distribution. Paraguay has seen this situation escalate to the point where today, 2% of owners control 85% of the farmland. The regional situation is worse when one considers that the neighbouring countries – Brazil especially but also Argentina – are also experiencing land concentration for transgenic soybeans. Photo: Grain / Glyn Thomas / FoE

Roadside shacks of people whose land has been taken over for soy fields in Alto Parana, Paraguay, which is among the South American countries with the most unequal land distribution. Paraguay has seen this situation escalate to the point where today, 2% of owners control 85% of the farmland. The regional situation is worse when one considers that the neighbouring countries – Brazil especially but also Argentina – are also experiencing land concentration for transgenic soybeans. Photo: Grain / Glyn Thomas / FoE

Greenpeace noted the company will also seek to continue sales of its controversial MON810 maize, which was already approved in Europe and is the last remaining GM crop grown there. “The EU-wide authorisation for the cultivation of MON810 is expiring at the end of a ten-year period and the safety of the crop is due to be reassessed. The company is permitted to continue to use MON810 in Europe until the European Commission announces its decision,” stated Greenpeace.

The GM Freeze campaign welcomed Monsanto’s announcement that it is withdrawing pending applications to cultivate GM crops in the European Union but said this is not the end of Europe’s GM story. GM Freeze pointed out that Monsanto’s GM crops will still be imported into the EU, primarily for use in animal feed and biofuels, so the damage to ecosystems and human health caused by GM will continue elsewhere. The lack of labels on meat, eggs, dairy products and fish produced using GM feed means that Europe’s reliance on GM is hidden from consumers so they cannot easily avoid buying GM-fed products. Food companies should meet the clear demand for entirely non-GM foods by labelling those produced without GM, as is done successfully by many companies in Germany, Austria and France.

In tiresomely typical contrast, the government of the United Kingdom is to push the European Union to ease restrictions limiting the use of GM crops in the human food chain, reported The Independent. Britain’s Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is next week due to announce a UK government drive to increase Britain’s cultivation of GM foods! The newspaper said Britain’s ministers are hopeful of building support in Brussels for a change of heart on GM, with Germany seen as a key swing voter. The government of Britain’s craven attempts to relax the rules will face opposition from countries like Poland which in April became the eighth EU member state to ban the cultivation of GM crops.

Forgetting their ‘commitments’ to get GM out of their supply chains, big British food retailers – Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Tesco – have gone in the opposite direction. Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have joined Monsanto, Cargill and Nestle on the absurd Roundtable on Responsible Soy, a group that has been condemned by organisations around the world as a greenwash of existing bad practice in industrial soya monoculture. The Roundtable ‘certifies’ (judge and jury) GM soya as “responsible” despite growing evidence of adverse health, environmental and socioeconomic impacts in producer countries. Tesco is now backing GM soya production in South America, where it is grown in huge monocultures sprayed frequently with Roundup to the detriment of people and ecosystems there.

United Stasi of America

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A protester in Hanover, Germany, holds up a sign on Saturday reading: "The United Stasi of America," a reference to the feared secret police in totalitarian East Germany. A second sign states: "Those with nothing to hide should not fear whistleblowers." Photo: Der Spiegel/DPA

A protester in Hanover, Germany, holds up a sign on Saturday reading: “The United Stasi of America,” a reference to the feared secret police in totalitarian East Germany. A second sign states: “Those with nothing to hide should not fear whistleblowers.” Photo: Der Spiegel/DPA

In an important news report, ‘How the NSA Targets Germany and Europe’, Der Spiegel has reviewed a series of documents which prove that Germany played a central role in the NSA’s global surveillance network – and how the Germans have also become targets of US attacks. Each month, the US intelligence service saves data from around half a billion communications connections from Germany.

Der_Spiegel-USA_spying_3According to the listing, Germany is among the countries that are the focus of surveillance. Thus, the documents confirm that the US intelligence service, with approval from the White House, is spying on the Germans, said Der Spiegel, and possibly right up to the level of the chancellor.

Britain has been revealed as the junior partner in this Orwellian scheme. But the European Commission has reacted swiftly and strongly. In a letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, the Commission vice-president Viviane Reding requested detailed clarifications about the scope of the UK’s spying practices and even hinted at legal action.

The new aspect of the revelations isn’t that countries are trying to spy on each other, eavesdropping on ministers and conducting economic espionage. What is most important about the documents is that they reveal the possibility of the absolute surveillance of a country’s people and foreign citizens without any kind of effective controls or supervision.

The Global Network of Undersea Cables. Graphic: Der Spiegel

The Global Network of Undersea Cables. Graphic: Der Spiegel

Many high-ranking European officials have issued statements of outrage and protest against America’s spying. These representatives of the European ruling class pretend surprise at the revelations but have no doubt acquiesced to, authorised or supported similar surveillance of their own populations and of their American counterparts.

Nevertheless, the unanimity of the response is an indication that European governments have been goaded into voicing the concerns of their citizens. The US dragnet of telecommunications and the internet over Europe has never been so visible, as are now, thanks to Edward Snowden, US efforts to persecute those who have brought the spying to public notice.

The NSA's 'Boundless Informant' Programme. Graphic: Der Spiegel

The NSA’s ‘Boundless Informant’ Programme. Graphic: Der Spiegel

In the USA, the slavish corporate media has condemned Snowden’s actions. Witness a representative reaction in the New York Times, for whom Snowden is the product of an “atomised society” and lacking “respect for institutions and deference to common procedures”! This daily newspaper, like others in its pettyfogging class and like the American national television channels, bloodthirsty and war-mongering now for a decade, has ignored the point made bluntly by the American Civil Liberties Union that these “institutions and procedures” long ago lost their claim to respectability.

Britain has been cast even further into Europe’s data protection wilderness after revelations that its formerly glorious signals intelligence agency GCHQ has been monitoring web and telecommunications on an even greater scale than the NSA. Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has demanded explanations from her British counterpart, asking whether the 30-day retention of signals data is based on concrete suspicion or is warrantless (guess which?).

Yet, as Der Spiegel has commented, among the intelligence agencies in the Western world there appears to be a division of duties and at times extensive cooperation. And it appears that the principle that foreign intelligence agencies do not monitor the citizens of their own country, or that they only do so on the basis of individual court decisions, is obsolete in this world of globalised communication and surveillance. Hence Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency, the American NSA and Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency create a matrix is created of boundless surveillance in which each partner aids in a division of roles.

An inequality chasm is fracturing Europe, warns the OECD

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April in Berlin, Germany. A homeless man sat begging for euros or food in the entrance of an S-Bahn station.

April in Berlin, Germany. A homeless man sat begging for euros or food in the entrance of an S-Bahn station.

Deepening inequalities in income between the richer and poorer families, greater relative income poverty in recent years compared with earlier, a greater burden borne by children and young people than before because of their being relatively poor – these are some of the stark conclusions contained in the OECD briefing, ‘New Results from the OECD Income Distribution Database’.

This is the picture of Europe today (and of the non-European members of the OECD). “Looking at the 17 OECD countries for which data are available over a long time period, market income inequality increased by more over the last three years than what was observed in the previous 12 years,” observed the new briefing, which is sub-titled ‘Crisis squeezes income and puts pressure on inequality and poverty’.

Annual percentage changes in household market income between 2007 and 2010, by income component. Chart: OECD

Annual percentage changes in household market income between 2007 and 2010, by income component. Chart: OECD

The figures and data show that many of the countries recording the most dramatic increases in inequality are European countries which have been subjected to punitive austerity measures by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The OECD report singles out Spain and Italy, where the income of “the poorest 10 percent was much lower in 2010 than in 2007”.

Five percent falls in income (per year) amongst the poorest 10 percent were also recorded in Greece, Ireland, Estonia, and Iceland. The only non-European nation with a comparable level of income decline was Mexico. The report also stated that over the same period, poor families in the United States, Italy, France, Austria and Sweden all recorded income losses in excess of the OECD average.

Indeed the ‘New Results’ briefing has showed that across OECD countries, real household disposable income stagnated. Likewise, the average income of the top 10% in 2010 was similar to that in 2007. Meanwhile, the income of the bottom 10% in 2010 was lower than that in 2007 by 2% per year. Out of the 33 countries where data are available, the top 10% has done better than the poorest 10% in 21 countries.

This is the OECD picture till 2010. Since then, recession has been the companion of inequality. With an average growth of -0.2 per cent in the first quarter (against -0.1 per cent in the EU as a whole) and hardly better prospects for the whole rest of the year (-0.7 per cent), according to Eurostat, the dreaded “double dip” has become a reality. The press attributes the result largely to the austerity policies.

Gini coefficient of household disposable income and gap between richest and poorest 10%, 2010: Chart: OECD

Gini coefficient of household disposable income and gap between richest and poorest 10%, 2010: Chart: OECD

“Eurozone sets bleak record of longest term in recession,” reported the Financial Times. The daily noted that “this latest dismal record came after unemployment hit 12.1 per cent in the bloc, its highest level,” and that this data “is likely to add to pressure on the European Central Bank to take further action after cutting interest rates this month, and to revise down its economic forecast predicting a recovery later in the year.”

Moreover, relative income poverty – the share of people having less income than half the national median income – affects around 11% of the population on average across OECD countries. Poverty rates range between 6% of the population in Denmark and the Czech Republic to between 18% and 21% in Chile, Turkey, Mexico and Israel. Over the two decades up to 2007, relative income poverty increased in most OECD countries, particularly in countries that had low levels of income poverty in the mid-1990s.

In Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, the income poverty rate increased by 2 percentage points or more. In Sweden, the poverty rate in 2010 (9%) was more than twice what it was in 1995 (4%). Relative poverty also increased in some countries, such as Australia, Japan, Turkey and Israel, with middle and high levels of poverty.

The OECD briefing has stated bluntly: “Households with children were hit hard during the crisis. Since 2007, child poverty increased in 16 OECD countries, with increases exceeding 2 points in Turkey, Spain, Belgium, Slovenia and Hungary.” The ‘New Results’ briefing added: “Since 2007, youth poverty increased considerably in 19 OECD countries. In Estonia, Spain and Turkey, an additional 5% of young adults fell into poverty between 2007 and 2010. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the increase was 4%, and in the Netherlands 3%.”

Annual percentage changes in household disposable income between 2007 and 2010, by income group. Chart: OECD

Annual percentage changes in household disposable income between 2007 and 2010, by income group. Chart: OECD

Between 2007 and 2010, average relative income poverty in the OECD countries rose from 12.8 to 13.4% among children and from 12.2 to 13.8% among youth. Meanwhile, relative income poverty fell from 15.1 to 12.5% among the elderly. This pattern confirms the trends described in previous OECD studies, with youth and children replacing the elderly as the group at greater risk of income poverty across the OECD countries.

These results only tell the beginning of the story about the consequences of austerity, growing unemployment, the burden on children and youth, and burden on immigrant wage labour. The OECD data describes the evolution of income inequality and relative poverty up to 2010. But “the economic recovery has been anaemic in a number of OECD countries and some have recently moved back into recession”, said the briefing.

Worse, since 2010, many people exhausted their rights to unemployment benefits. In such a situation, the briefing has warned, “the ability of the tax-benefit system to alleviate the high (and potentially increasing) levels of inequality and poverty of income from work and capital might be challenged”. These are unusually blunt words from the OECD and their use reflects the depth and persistence of the crisis of modern, reckless, destructive capitalism in Europe.

Beating the drums of war early in 2013

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The Algerian army has beefed up its positions on the border with war-torn Mali to prevent incursions by armed rebels fleeing north. Algeria, which had always opposed military intervention in Mali, was reluctantly drawn into the conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace, and closed its 1,400-kilometre southern border shortly afterwards. Photo: Reuters

The Algerian army has beefed up its positions on the border with war-torn Mali to prevent incursions by armed rebels fleeing north. Algeria, which had always opposed military intervention in Mali, was reluctantly drawn into the conflict when it agreed to let French warplanes use its airspace, and closed its 1,400-kilometre southern border shortly afterwards. Photo: Reuters

Little noticed by the world’s media, the Munich Security Conference has in 2013 has just concluded. Its organisers and sponsors call it “the major security policy conference worldwide”. In this year’s conference – attended by about 400 participants from nearly 90 countries – a speech was delivered by the Vice President of the USA, Joseph Biden.

Biden mixed deception with aggression. This is what he said about current conflict the USA is prosecuting:

Today, we’re in the process of turning the page on more than a decade of conflict following the September 11, 2001 attack, and we ended the war in Iraq responsibly. And together we’re responsibly drawing down in Afghanistan, and by the end of next year, the transition will be complete.”

And here is what Biden has threatened:

… we took the fight to core Al Qaeda in the FATA, we were cognizant of an evolving threat posed by affiliates like AQAP in Yemen, al-Shabaab in Somalia, AQI in Iraq and Syria and AQIM in North Africa.”

The USA is estimated to have from 700 to over 1,000 military bases of all kinds in the world.

The USA is estimated to have from 700 to over 1,000 military bases of all kinds in the world.

At the Munich Security Conference leading political, military and defence industry representatives of the major powers, along with invited officials from other nations, met to discuss current and future military operations and geo-strategic issues.

That’s the sanitised version. The unsanitised version is plain to see in the speeches, such as Biden’s, and the statements. What this perverse gathering of war-mongers demonstrated is the consensus that exists among the countries of western Europe, amongst the USA and its allies, for an expanded political and military drive to install puppet governments and seize control of land, water and energy in the Middle East, in Central Asia and in the African continent. [See the map of US military bases, courtesy of the New Humanist.]

Biden in his speech revealed the growing darkness of widening conflict planned by this group:

As President Obama has made clear to Iranian leaders, our policy is not containment – it is is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The ball is in the government of Iran’s court, and it’s well past time for Tehran to adopt a serious, good-faith approach to negotiations …”

And:

“The United States is taking difficult but critical steps to put ourselves on a sounder economic footing. And I might add, it’s never been a real good bet to bet against America.”

The American vice president then went on to allege that “Iran’s leaders need not sentence their people to economic deprivation and international isolation”.

Who in truth is responsible for that deprivation, what is the human cost of that designed deprivation and isolation?

US Vice President Joe Biden in a helicopter over Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 11, 2011.  Photo: White House

US Vice President Joe Biden in a helicopter over Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 11, 2011. Photo: White House

Less than a week before this Munich Security Conference began, Iranian Mothers for Peace in an open letter to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, and Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Heath Organization, alerted them to the critical shortage of vital medication due to the US/EU-led sanctions on Iran and their deadly impact on the lives and health of the Iranian population.

Excerpts from the letter written by the Iranian Mothers for Peace:

Dear Dr. Margaret Chan
As you know, the illegal and inhumane actions led by the US and the EU, targeting the country and the population of Iran, with the stated intention to put pressure on the government of Iran, have intensified in the past two years and increasingly harsher sanctions are imposed almost on a monthly basis. The regulations governing these inhumane and arbitrary sanctions are executed with such strict inflexibility that Iran is now excluded from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) and the sanctions on banking transactions are preventing Iran from even purchasing its needed medical supplies and instruments. On the other hand, to avoid suspicion for dealing with Iran, the European banks are fearful not to engage in any kind of financial transactions with Iran and, therefore, in practice, refuse any transfer of payment for medical and health-related items and raw materials needed for the production of domestic pharmaceutical drugs, even payment for well-recognized drugs for the treatment of Special Diseases, which are not of dual use.”

We ask you: What could possibly be the intended target of the wealthy and powerful US and European statesmen’s ‘targeted’ and ‘smart’ sanctions but to destroy the physical and psychological health of the population through the increase of disease and disability? The right to health and access to medical treatment and medication is one of the fundamental human rights anywhere in the world. Please do not allow the killing of our sick children, beloved families, and fellow Iranians from the lack of medicine, caught in instrumental policies of coercion and power.”

The Munich Security Conference 2013 in session,

The Munich Security Conference 2013 in session,

Unheeding of the clamour for peace worldwide and blind to the appalling cost in life, the gathering of war-mongers in Munich listened to Biden:

“That’s why the United States applauds and stands with France and other partners in Mali, and why we are providing intelligence support, transportation for the French and African troops and refueling capability for French aircraft. The fight against AQIM may be far from America’s borders, but it is fundamentally in America’s interest.”

Representatives of the countries of western Europe – of the same governments bent on now impoverishing their own people just as surely as they have wreaked havoc in the countries of the South with neo-liberal mutations of the ‘structural adjustment’ doctrine of the 1980s – made clear that they were only too willing to participate in the re-colonialisation of the Middle East and North Africa in cooperation with the USA. The German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere stressed the importance of cooperation with the US and their support for the Western intervention in Syria, as well as the war in Mali.

Scholar Horace Campbell in his new book, ‘Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya‘, has argued that the military organisation is the instrument through which the capitalist class of North America and Europe seeks to impose its political will on the rest of the world, “warped by the increasingly outmoded neoliberal form of capitalism”. The intervention in Libya, he said, characterised by bombing campaigns, military information operations, third party countries, and private contractors, exemplifies this new model.

At the time, they called it ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Libya, they tolerated suppression in Bahrain and Yemen, and then they supported civil war incitement and escalation of violence in Syria. The results have been: dangerous new urban geopolitics and the militarisation of city spaces as can be seen in Aleppo, Benghazi, Cairo and Manama; the privatisation of state violence through private security firms and mercenaries; the overuse of the democratic carrot and the economic sticks of debt, fiscal discipline, and international investment; the violence with which new forms of political and social participation, organisation, and representation (which include women, the unemployed, the urban poor) are met. This is the militarised world that has been described anew by the Biden speech.

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.

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.