Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Christmas (war isn't over)

This morning I took part in some direct action against Europe's support for the arms industry.

Wearing a royal blue tie with images of machine guns, tanks and warplanes in bright yellow, I pretended to be a weapons dealer. Money rained down on me -- thrown by a man in a José Manuel Barroso mask. Two guys braver and more agile than me climbed flagpoles outside the European Commission's enterprise department to hoist a banner, thanking the officials inside for aiding the makers of drones.

It was deliberately farcical but it emphasised a very serious point. During their summit in Brussels today, EU leaders are discussing how to increase corporate welfare for the merchants of death, while social welfare payments are being slashed in many countries.

The reason why our protest took place outside the enterprise department is that it has overseen the expenditure of €1.4 billion on a "security research" programme between 2007 and 2013. This programme has involved examining how drones can be used for such purposes as maritime surveillance -- a euphemism for blocking asylum-seekers from reaching Europe's shores. Some of the world's biggest weapons companies have benefited directly from these subsidies.

Nothing to worry about?

The powerful tell us that there is nothing to worry about here. Philip Hammond, Britain's defence secretary, has written an opinion piece for The Guardian claiming that drones -- or "remotely piloted air systems" as he prefers to call them -- save more lives than they end.

Hammond enthused about Watchkeeper drones that the British Army wants to deploy in Afghanistan soon. Yet he neglected to mention a salient fact: the Watchkeeper was largely developed by the Israeli company Elbit.

As a new study by the campaign group War on Want explains, the Watchkeeper system is based on Elbit's Hermes 450, a drone that the Israeli military has used to attack civilians in Gaza. To say the least, it is baffling that Hammond would boast of the British Army's intention to avail of this technology, when it is has facilitated crimes against humanity.

Moral void

Or maybe it isn't baffling. Both arms dealers and senior politicians operate in a moral void. They are happy to overlook the human rights abuses which they abet, provided that they can gain a "healthy slice" of the world's weapons market, to quote Hammond's predecessor, Liam Fox.

The police did not seem too perturbed by our direct action this morning (at least, not by the time I had left for another appointment). Fourteen others were arrested, however, in a related protest, which involved blocking the entrance to the European Defence Agency's headquarters.

It is deeply ironic that these protesters were apprehended, when it is the EDA itself that is trying to upend the law.

Rules pertaining to aviation forbid the flying of warplanes in civilian airspace. With the full approval of the Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the EDA is seeking to overturn that ban so that drones can be flown alongside passenger jets.

The EDA, too, has been less than frank about what it is up to. Earlier this year, it held an experiment on flying drones in Spain. A "fact-sheet" that it prepared stated that the drone tested out then was a Heron. The agency failed to spell out that the Heron is manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries. Like the Hermes, it has dropped bombs on children in Gaza.

Good people throughout the world mark the festive season by taking care of those less fortunate than themselves. The European Union's leaders, by contrast, are plotting ways of boosting an industry that thrives on destruction.

Merry Christmas. War isn't over.

•First published by EUobserver, 19 December 2013.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Don't buy Israeli toys this Christmas

My 11-month-old daughter has an impeccable taste in music. When I played the Motown Christmas album on Spotify, she starting bobbing her head to some vintage Stevie Wonder.

I was delighted, then, that she received a bag of small instruments as an early Christmas present. That was before I picked up one of them and saw the dreaded words "made in Israel."

Halilit, the manufacturer of this "baby band", is headquartered in Or-Yehuda in the Tel Aviv district. Or-Yehuda was built on land belonging to Saqiya, a Palestinian village forcibly depopulated during the Nakba, the vicious ethnic cleansing that led to Israel's foundation in 1948.

I'm sure there are many shoppers who have bought Halilit goods without being aware they are Israeli. It would be easy to do so: I checked the entries for some Halilit products on the Amazon website and didn't see any information about where they were made.


So I'm writing this post as an appeal for vigilance. The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has made tremendous progress since it was first launched in 2005. The decision by the American Studies Association to support the academic boycott of Israel is the latest in an ever-expanding list of victories notched up by BDS campaigners.

Now that the pressure is piling on Israel, let's not undermine our efforts by inadvertently putting Israeli goods in our shopping baskets. Reading the small print is vital.

I recall a speech given by Nelson Mandela to a concert held in London not long after his release. Business leaders were evidently eager for the West to lift the sanctions its governments had imposed (reluctantly) on South Africa. But Mandela insisted that it was not yet the right time for the pressure to be eased.

Israel has not even began the small steps that the white minority government in Pretoria had taken towards dismantling aspects of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s. On the contrary, Israeli racism is becoming increasingly entrenched. A raft of discriminatory bills is being processed by the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, that was elected earlier this year.

By, among other things, according special privileges to those who have served in the Israeli military, these emphasize that Israeli Jews are considered more important by the state than Palestinian citizens of Israel. And it's important to underscore that the Prawer Plan -- a blueprint for the mass displacement of Palestinian Bedouins in present-day Israel -- has not been entirely abandoned, even if the legislation that would have put into effect has been withdrawn.

For tactical reasons, some human rights campaigners have concentrated on advocating a boycott of goods produced on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. That approach is understandable. Yet it overlooks how Palestinian citizens of Israel also live under an apartheid system.

Don't hesitate

That's why we should not hesitate to urge a boycott of companies like Halilit that are based inside Israel. To the best of my knowledge, the movement against apartheid South Africa did not draw distinctions between goods based on what part of the country they were produced in; it sought a boycott of all South African goods. The same should apply to Israel.

Predictably, Halilit's promotional material is replete with photographs of smiling infants. The images tell us nothing about how Israel treats Palestinian children.

We do not learn that pupils in Gaza have to do their homework in the dark because the besieged Strip is encountering severe power cuts. We do not learn either that an estimated 30 percent of Gaza's children are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because Israel subjected them to eight consecutive days of bombing in November 2012.


And we do not learn about Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi, a 15-year-old boy murdered by Israeli forces near the West Bank city of Ramallah last Saturday.

No doubt, there are Zionists with a ready-made response to my plea for a boycott of Israeli toys. The most likely argument they will use is that Israel has higher labor standards than some Asian countries where so many of the items in the West's shopping malls are made.

I accept that, with the exception of some fair trade products, the range of "ethical" toys available is limited. So long as capitalism reigns supreme, the captains of industry will put profit maximization ahead of all other concerns.

We should not be distracted, though, by any crocodile tears that Zionists may shed for sweatshop workers. The fact remains that Palestinians have asked people of conscience to boycott Israel. It is a call that should be heeded this Christmas -- and at every other time of the year.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 18 December 2013.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Facebook isn't our friend

A few days ago, I was told by the organisers of a "social media" festival that the hashtag was my "new best friend". As I've never hugged a hashtag or cried on the shoulders of one, I felt it was important to question this "wisdom".

Like millions of others, I'm addicted to Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter. I check these websites so frequently that I often forget they are owned by vast corporations.

Some of these firms' activities are inherently anti-democratic.

Facebook's Brussels office is headed by Erika Mann, a former German member of the European Parliament. She has long fought to enable the interests of big business triumph over those of ordinary people.

During her 15 years as an MEP, Mann continuously advocated that the European Union should liberalise its trade with the United States.

At one point, it seemed that her calls were being ignored by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. All that changed in February this year, when Barack Obama expressed his support for such an agreement during his State of the Union address. Talks aimed at reaching a very broad trade and investment deal were formally launched in July.

Now wearing her Facebook hat, Erika Mann is still extolling the apparent virtues of "free" trade at every available opportunity.

In April, she spoke at a conference in Dublin, where Facebook's international headquarters are located. Mann argued that it would be "extremely important" for an eventual deal to make the standards faced by internet companies in the EU and US "more coherent".


While Mann claimed that she did not wish to see standards becoming "identical", it is highly improbable that she will be pushing for more robust rules. Facebook recently submitted detailed recommendations to MEPs about how to weaken a new data protection law.

Information leaked by the courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrated that Facebook has been helping the National Security Agency to undertake espionage on a massive scale.

Before those revelations were made, Erika Mann claimed that Facebook was "leading the way" both in protecting privacy and in helping the digital sector to flourish. Her assurances now appear risible.

Facebook isn't alone in hoping that the trade agreement will lead to "regulatory convergence" on different sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission has drawn up a paper for the talks, which indicates its willingness to copy and paste demands made by the car industry. The paper suggests that whenever either the EU or the US feels the need to have new rules on the amount of pollution vehicles may cause, they will consult each other with a view to finding a common approach.

In practice, this is a recipe for preventing Europe from having tougher emissions standards than the US.

Few qualms

Mann has few, if any, qualms about lobbying her former colleagues. She has spoken at events within the European Parliament's buildings on a number of dossiers.

Last year, she addressed a conference on data protection organised by one of the assembly's committees. She also spoke at a reception sponsored by the beer industry, during which she voiced support for "voluntary initiatives" undertaken by those behemoths of booze eager to portray themselves as responsible.

That wasn't simply a case of Mann meeting some old pals for a knees-up. Facebook had clinched a huge advertising contract with Diageo - owner of Guinness and Smirnoff - a few months earlier.

Her participation in the beer-fuelled reception involved sending a signal to law-makers that they should abandon any plans they may have to ban or restrict the marketing of alcohol. The idea that the drinks industry can be expected to behave responsibly is, of course, daft. The only objective of corporations is to amass as much money as they can.

Breaking the rules

Following a scandal in 2011 in which a few MEPs were recorded stating they would be happy to receive bribes from journalists posing as lobbyists, the European Parliament drew up a code of conduct. In theory, the code applies to both sitting and former MEPs.

And yet a Parliament spokeswoman told me: "from what I gather of your description of Mrs Mann's activities, it doesn't seem that she has breached the code of conduct".

The code states that former MEPs should not benefit from the Parliament's "facilities" if they wish to engage in lobbying "directly linked" to EU law-making. According to the spokeswoman, this clause did not relate merely to accessing the Parliament's buildings but to such perks as use of its car-parks and libraries.

If Mann is undertaking lobbying on the Parliament's premises, there is strong prima facie evidence that she is not playing by the rules. But it seems that the Parliament's administration is happy to overlook how former MEPs are usurping democracy by cajoling their old colleagues into tweaking laws to placate certain vested interests.

A leaked internal paper from the European Commission indicated that it plans to make extensive use of Twitter and Facebook to sell the so-called benefits of a trans-Atlantic trade deal.

Fortunately, the Commission's officials aren't the only people who know to tweet, share and "like".

Given that Facebook's Brussels office wants a trade deal to be concluded, it behoves those of us opposing the deal to flood the pages of Facebook with the unvarnished truth. We should spare no effort in calling out the lobbyists seeking to destroy the last vestiges of our democracy.

•First published by EUobserver, 2 December 2013.