Monday, November 29, 2010

How the ECB wages class war

Dublin’s Kilmainham Jail is not somewhere you can easily forget. Even though I only recall visiting it twice, I have had a morbid fascination with this cold, dark place for most of my life. More particularly, I am obsessed with its Stonebreaker’s Yard, where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule were executed; James Connolly, a socialist visionary who demanded that all children be cherished equally, was so badly injured that he was carried before the firing squad on a stretcher.

When the centenary of the rising occurs in 2016, any celebrations by official Ireland will be a sham. Far from being independent, Ireland’s destiny is now in the hands of a foreign cabal which is callously indifferent to how the children Connolly wished to cherish are reduced to begging on the streets. (Merchants Quay Ireland, a charity, reported a 17% increase in the number of people using its homelessness services in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2009).

One of the most disgusting things I read last week was a presentation given by Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the European Central Bank, to MEPs. Trichet had the gall to boast of the “achievements” made by his institution over the past 12 years at a time when he was forcing misery on Ireland.

It has become clear that Trichet strong-armed the Dublin government into “requesting” a bail-out from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Under its terms, Ireland’s budgets will be determined not by the needs of the Irish people but by the diktats of the ECB and IMF. The new rulers of my country are an unelected and unaccountable elite who use language to obfuscate, rather than illuminate.

Has Trichet spouted so much technocratic gobbledygook that he can no longer speak plainly? What kind of guy can praise cutbacks that will leave the poor even poorer as “confidence-inspiring policies”? Where is the morality in a man who warns that there will be a “lost decade” in Europe unless austerity becomes the norm? Is he happy that there will be a lost generation of unemployed people because of the medicine he has prescribed for millions?

And, of course, this enforced hardship is in no way confined to Ireland. Last week the ECB, IMF and European Commission also concluded a second “review mission” to Greece. It decided that in order to qualify for a €80 billion loan from the euro-zone and a further €30 billion from the IMF, Greece would have to spend less on health. You can be sure that the “missionaries” didn’t trek around inspecting cancer facilities in Thessaloniki before declaring health expenditure in Greece as “inefficient”. As it happens, Greece spends about €225 less per head of population on healthcare each year than the €2,300 average for members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But I doubt that the missionaries worried about the human consequences of applying the cut-throat logic of profit and loss to professions traditionally dedicated to caring and public service.

We journalists are gullible. One falsehood that we have swallowed is that French political figures have an aversion to the unbridled capitalism favoured in the US. This myth becomes untenable when one realises that Frenchmen are in charge of three of the most powerful economic groupings in the world: Trichet in the ECB, Pascal Lamy in the World Trade Organisation and Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the IMF. This inglorious triumvirate are as wedded to the Washington Consensus – that toxic doctrine under which deregulation and market liberalisation should be pursued no matter what the social costs – as any American. In the case of Trichet, he is even more zealous in defending neo-liberal orthodoxy than his nearest US counterpart. Whereas Ben Bernanke, the Republican who heads the Federal Reserve, is injecting $600 billion into the US economy as part of a second round of “quantitative easing” – and has emphasised that the money should be used for fiscal stimulus purposes – Trichet is parroting Margaret Thathcher’s line that “there is no alternative” to punishing the masses for a crime they never committed.

A second falsehood is that the ECB’s economists are simply giving technical advice. In truth, they are class warriors, intent on widening inequality. Indoctrinated in the Ecole nationale d’administration, Trichet hails from a highly privileged milieu. Though ostensibly established by Charles de Gaulle to “democratise” access to the civil service, the ENA serves the same purpose as Oxford and Cambridge in Britain. With few exceptions, its champagne-sipping alumni think they have an innate entitlement to shape the policies that everyone else must live with.

Next year Trichet’s term as ECB head will expire. The frontrunner in the race to success him is Axel Weber, president of the Bundesbank in Germany, although Weber may have damaged his chances by speaking out against the ECB’s decision to buy up government bonds in May.

Regardless of who leads it, the ECB will continue to lack democratic legitimacy. Almost unique among central banks, it is independent of political control and is under no obligation to address what effects its prescriptions may have on employment or poverty. The ECB does not serve Europe’s citizens; it takes decisions solely with the interests of the corporate class in mind. Maybe that explains why it is so contemptuous of the little people in our societies.

·First published by New Europe (, 28 November – 4 December 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

Volvo enables torture of Palestinians

Volvo prides itself on being a byword for sturdiness, safety and reliability. After a careful examination of the vehicle-maker's investment in Israel, perhaps it should also become synonymous with enabling torture.

The Swedish company has a direct shareholding of 26.5 percent in the Israeli company Merkavim, manufacturer of the Mars Prisoner Bus. This bus has been specifically designed for use by the Israeli Prison Authority to transport Palestinians apprehended in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to facilities within Israel's internationally-recognized borders. The remainder of Merkavim is owned by Mayer's Cars and Trucks, which doubles up as the exclusive representative of Volvo in Israel.

Evidence amassed by human rights monitors indicates that torture is widespread within Israeli detention centers. Although the country's high court ruled in 1999 that some interrogation methods should be outlawed, Israel continues to approve torture in cases where it is deemed "necessary," Amnesty International has found. An important loophole in the court's ruling indicated that torture is permissible in cases where Israeli security forces face an imminent threat. Israel's attorney general has been all-too-willing to invoke that loophole in order to approve the use of torture, despite how Israel has ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

Each year Israel locks up an average of 700 Palestinian children, often for offenses no more serious than throwing stones. The organization Defence for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI-PS) says that ill-treatment is common while detainees are being transported to prison. "All are subjected to verbal threats and insults," Rifat Kassis, director of DCI-PS's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said. "Some are beaten up, kicked, made to sit in an uncomfortable way. We have children who are handcuffed and blindfolded as well. All of these are methods of restraining children in a painful way."

During September, three children were reportedly given electric shocks by Israeli interrogators in the Jewish-only settlement of Ariel in the West Bank. One of the children was only 14 years of age. A recent investigation by DCI-PS and other anti-torture groups found that out of a sample of 100 children arrested by Israeli forces last year, 69 percent were beaten and kicked and 12 percent threatened with rape or another form of sexual assault.

Kassis also said that by bringing detainees from the occupied West Bank into Israel, the Merkavim buses are facilitating violations of international humanitarian law. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, persons convicted for offenses in an occupied territory may only be jailed within that territory.

A representative of Merkavim told me that the company does "not wish to speak to journalists." According to its website, the Mars Prisoner Bus is "the perfect solution for conveying prisoners under guard." Containing six separate compartments, the bus allows for "full surveillance during the sensitive, high-risk drive from one secured facility to another." Among its features are wide windows "fitted with armored glass to prevent breakouts" and "an advanced intercom system and closed-circuit TV."

Per-Martin Johansson, a spokesman for Volvo Buses, said that the Swedish corporation "can't control" what affiliated companies do. "Vehicles to transport prisoners can be found in every country all over the world," he added. "These buses are not special for Israel. They need them in every country to make sure prisoners are not escaping."

Johansson's statement contrasts with the high ethical standards to which Volvo is nominally committed. In 2003 Volvo's board of directors rubber-stamped a "code of conduct" for the company. It says that the company supports "internationally proclaimed human rights and ensures that it is not complicit in human rights abuses."

Despite that code, Volvo has faced numerous accusations that its products are being used as tools of Israeli oppression. In April this year Israeli forces were photographed operating Volvo bulldozers in the Palestinian village of al-Walaja. The forces were carrying out work related to the massive wall that Israel has continued to build on occupied land in the West Bank, despite a 2004 opinion issued by the International Court of Justice declaring the project illegal. The use of Volvo bulldozers in the destruction of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and in the wider West Bank has similarly been documented, with the work of Adri Nieuwhof, a contributor to The Electronic Intifada, proving valuable in highlighting how Volvo profits from the occupation.

Along with its prisoner bus, Merkavim also produces the Mars Defender Bus. The Israeli public transport company Egged runs a fleet of the latter vehicles in the services it provides to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Like the prisoner bus, the Mars Defender contains a Volvo-made chassis.

Mauricio Lazala, a researcher with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre in London, said that major companies like Volvo should study the impact of their corporate activities. "This is especially important in conflict areas," he added. "In conflict areas, abuses can have very ugly manifestations. Therefore, companies should be doubly careful."

At a session held in London this month, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine -- an investigative body inspired by the late British intellectual and anti-war campaigner Bertrand Russell -- concluded that a number of private corporations "play a very decisive role" in enabling Israel to commit crimes against humanity.

Although Volvo was not one of the companies identified by the tribunal, it is facilitating some of the offenses deemed "reprehensible" by this body. These included the provision of services to Israeli settlements and assistance to the construction of the "apartheid wall" in the West Bank. A statement issued by the tribunal noted that corporations complicit in Israeli violations of human rights have placed themselves "on the wrong side of international opinion, morality and law." As a result, they are "undermining the very integrity and credibility of international law and the institutions that underpin it," added the statement, which was endorsed by former South African government minister Ronnie Kasrils, veteran French diplomat Stephane Hassel, Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire and ex-US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

Frank Barat, the tribunal's coordinator, said that while it can be legally difficult to prosecute such companies, public campaigns can pressure them into changing their behavior. "What people can do is push their governments to divest from those companies," he said. "If a company is helping to build the wall [in the West Bank] it is helping an illegal act, so it should be sanctioned."

Volvo's attempts to justify its investments in Israel are disingenuous. The corporation cannot claim that the activities of a subsidiary have nothing to do with its headquarters in Gothenburg or that Merkavim's buses are no different from other prison buses found around the world. It is abundantly clear that these vehicles are tailored especially to meet the sadistic "needs" of the Israeli occupation; indeed, that is their selling point.

Supplying Israel’s prison services is not analogous to aiding the prison services of any other country. Israel deliberately uses mass imprisonment and torture to deny Palestinians the right to resist their occupation. Addameer, a prisoner’s support group, has documented how 650,000 Palestinians – one-fifth of the population living in the occupied territories – have been incarcerated since 1967.

Whatever Volvo may say, the truth is that it has become a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation. Drivers in Europe and America might feel secure as they slide into the well-upholstered seat of a car made by Volvo. In Palestine, the same company is facilitating the torture of children.

·First published by The Electronic Intifada (, 24 November 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Extradition system wide open to abuse

Robert Hörchner can only sleep for two hours at night before the sweating starts. His wife Annelies wakes up frequently, too; each time she hears a noise outside she opens the curtains, expecting to see police at the front door. The couple are traumatised because Robert spent 10 months locked up in a filthy Polish cell. He has been accused of holding the lease to a property where cannabis was grown but insists that he is innocent.

The ordeal began one evening in April 2007. Hörchner was eating a Chinese meal and sipping wine, when two policemen called to his home in Sint-Michielsgestel, close to the Dutch city of Eindhoven. The officers were courteous and allowed him to finish eating before they brought him to a nearby police station. Yet the only explanation they gave him for the arrest was that he was wanted for extradition by the Polish authorities.

First, he was held for three days in the Netherlands. Then – in October that year – he was flown to Warsaw; upon arrival, he was brought to a detention centre and forced at gunpoint to strip naked by guards with dogs. “They set the dogs on me and let them get really close, then pulled them back,” Hörchner, aged 58, said.

Six days later, he was transferred to a prison in Bydgoszcz, a city in northern Poland where he had previously worked. There were eight or nine others in his cell – all sharing the same toilet - for the duration of his imprisonment. Hygiene was a low priority in the nineteenth century building; each time he returned from the rat-infected exercise yard, he was overcome by the stench of excrement and urine in his cell. He developed a painful rash on his skin; his bedclothes became stained with his own blood. “I survived for only one reason,” he said. “I met a Polish guy in jail, who could speak a little bit of English. He was a parachutist and had done around 400 jumps. He found out that I was also a former parachutist and have done more than 1,000 jumps. His nickname was Grisly. I felt safe with him for the first three months.”

Hörchner had set up a textiles company in partnership with a Polish businessman in 1999. The relationship with that businessman – now in prison himself – was troubled. The businessman borrowed heavily from Hörchner. When Hörchner took steps to end the partnership, the businessman threatened him.

In March 2000, Hörchner’s car was burnt out. He was frightened by this incident and decided to leave Poland. One month later a cannabis plantation was found by the police in a building near Bydgoszcz. During Hörchner’s trial, it was stated that he held the lease for that premises. But when his lawyer eventually obtained the lease document recently – after many years of requesting it - the name of the leaseholder was Roberta Harschnera. Hörchner is adamant that the handwriting on the document is not his, that Harschnera is not an accurate Polish adaptation of his name and that he had never authorised anyone to fill out the document on his behalf. The document also suggests that the lease-holder belonged to a company called Albo but Hörcher says he never worked for a firm of that name.

Hörchner denies strenuously that he leased the building and says that he only visited the premises once - then in the company of his Polish business partner. Hörchner did not actually enter the building, he says, but waited in a car outside until his partner returned from the building.

Hörchner’s extradition took place under the European arrest warrant system. Originally approved by the European Union’s presidents and prime ministers in December 2001, the system was presented as part of an EU “anti-terrorism” package in response to the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 that year. Yet rather than being limited to serious crimes, some EU countries are using it to prosecute a wide variety of offences, many of which are trivial, according to civil liberties watchdogs. Poland, for example, has used the system in the past to seek the extradition of a carpenter who had removed a wardrobe door from a client who refused to pay him.

Data published by EU governments earlier this month shows that Poland issues most cross-border arrest warrants in the 27 country Union. During 2009, Poland issued 4,844 arrest warrants, almost exactly the same number as it did the previous year. The number of Polish warrants was over twice the number issued by Romania and France each: the second and third highest users of the system respectively. Unlike many other EU countries, Polish law requires that all suspected crimes are prosecuted, no matter how inconsequential they may seem.

Catherine Heard, a campaigner with the London-based organisation Fair Trials International, argued that a “proportionality test” should be introduced into the arrest warrant system. That test would allow authorities in one EU state to decide against processing an extradition order from another if it does not regard the alleged offence as sufficiently serious.

“The European arrest warrant was intended to improve cross-border cooperation and standards of justice but in too many cases this new system has resulted in grave injustice,” Heard said. “People are being ripped from their homes and families, to spend months awaiting trial in appalling conditions, to face charges based on the flimsiest of evidence, or to serve a jail sentence imposed after a grossly unfair trial. Vital safeguards must be built into the EU justice system or we will see more cases of injustice.”

Tony Bunyan from Statewatch, a civil liberties group, expressed concern about how a proposed new “European investigation order” would “go even further” than the arrest warrant system. Under the new proposal, authorities from one EU country can seek that individuals in another are placed under surveillance.

As EU governments consider broadening the scope of police and judicial cooperation in the Union, Robert Hörchner vows to keep fighting for a retrial. The arrest warrant system should be fundamentally rethought, he argues, so that it is limited to offences which can be defined as terrorist.

His wife Annelies said that their entire family – the couple have twin daughters, who have recently turned 27 – have suffered enormously. “For us, for our children, it’s a horror story.”

·First published by Inter Press Service (, 24 November 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

EU police court abusers in Colombia and Israel

Every once in a while I listen to Computer World, the 1981 album by Kraftwerk, Düsseldorf’s pioneers of electronic music. As the record’s trance-inducing title track opens, I am always struck by the prophetic nature of its lyrics. “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard,” a vocoder deadpans, kicking off three infectiously repetitive verses which capture how much modern technology has been shaped by a paranoid nexus of security and commerce.

From early next year, The Hague is scheduled to host a new “hub for criminal information”, according to a document I have had the misfortune of reading. Europol, the EU’s police cooperation body, will move into a stylish headquarters, with glass walls and exhibits of contemporary art. This supposed temple of transparency has been designed to motivate all who enter to fight such scourges as cybercime and credit card fraud, the aforementioned document intimates.

It would be comforting if we could sleep knowing that the police act in the best interests of humanity. But Europol’s brief history is crammed with instances where human rights are disregarded so that its staff can concentrate on narrowly-defined threats.

Originally limited to the illicit drug trade, Europol has adroitly exploited George W Bush’s “war on terror” to carve out a bigger mandate for itself and greater uses for its vast databases. One of the more unsavoury consequences of its growing responsibilities is that it has struck up alliances with repugnant regimes.

In September, Europol signed an agreement to deepen its cooperation with Colombia. Under it, personal data on “known and suspected criminals” may be exchanged with the Bogota authorities, to ensure that there is “solidarity and common purpose in the fight against all kinds of terrorist activity,” Europol’s director Rob Wainwright said.

Colombia, it should be noted, interprets the category “suspected criminal” liberally. Alvaro Uribe, who stepped down as the country’s president in August, has accused human rights activists of being “rent-a-mobs at terrorism’s service”. Throughout his eight years in power, he allowed a culture of impunity to flourish, where trade unionists could be intimidated and murdered without anyone being brought to justice. Investigators of extrajudicial executions by state forces documented over 3,000 such killings – frequently of peasants - between 2002 and 2009, with officers reportedly rewarded with money or promotion. Yet while Uribe took disciplinary action in some cases, he was generally dismissive of the evidence gathered.

Abuses by the Colombian state have not only been targeted at the country’s own nationals. Papers obtained by the Colombian public prosecutor have shown how its secret service, the DAS, has been spying on political campaigners and devised a strategy for “neutralising” a number of individuals and institutions critical of Bogota’s record of repression. Among those mentioned were French and German citizens and the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights.

The 1995 convention regulating Europol’s activities forbids it from processing data that has been obtained through human rights abuses. If this clause was respected Europol would not have signed a cooperation pact with Colombia. Nor would it be negotiating a similar agreement with Israel, Colombia’s best friend in the Middle East. (Israel is the top supplier of weaponry to Colombia).

Europol was given the go-ahead to open cooperation talks with Israel by the EU’s governments in 2005. Although these have not yet led to a formal cooperation accord being finalised, there are strong indications that one could be endorsed by both sides in the near future.

As part of a broader EU policy of mollycoddling Israel, Europol appears willing to overlook the routine use of torture against Palestinian detainees. Although Israel has ratified the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture, the Israeli high court ruled in 1999 that members of the security forces could not be prosecuted if they used coercive methods in “ticking bomb” situations. That loophole has been perceived as a gaping one by Israel’s attorney general who has happily given the army ample legal cover to avail of it, research by Human Rights Watch has concluded.

Photographs posted on Facebook during the summer, meanwhile, depicted a female Israeli soldier posing cheekily beside blindfolded Palestinians. Even if these offered a chilling reminder of how US soldiers in Iraq behaved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, anti-torture watchdogs have made clear that they are the tip of the iceberg. Each year Israel locks up an average of 700 Palestinian children. A recent investigation by Defence for Children International found that out of a sample of 100 such children, 69% were beaten and kicked and 12% threatened with rape or another form of sexual assault in 2009.

Europol’s eagerness to do business with the Israeli police is all the more troubling given how that force has its national HQ in East Jerusalem. In the past few weeks Catherine Ashton, the Union’s foreign policy chief, has criticised the construction of new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, describing them as illegal under international law. Allowing Europol to work closely with an Israeli police force that is actively seeking to uproot Palestinians from their homes would amount to effectively conferring approval on Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. It would be a dereliction of the duty of non-recognition, a core legal principle under which governments must not give their blessing to illegal activities.

Surely, it’s time Europol realised that law enforcers are not above international law.

·First published by New Europe (, 21-27 November 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

Free licences to pollute in Cancún?

Deepwater Horizon. It is an uncannily beautiful name for an oil rig that will be forever synonymous with disaster. A little over six months have passed since the BP facility exploded, killing 11 workers and causing incalculable ecological damage along America’s Gulf Coast. Now that the oil has “vanished” from the sea’s surface – with the aid of Corexit, a dispersant so toxic that it is banned in Europe – the world’s press have for the most part vanished, too. Just occasionally someone who can see beyond the vacuous confines of 24-hour-news cycles grasps that we cannot simply move on from this event. “The scars on the fragile desert of south-eastern Utah, from endless road cuts to the sheared oil patches themselves, will take decades to heal,” writes Terry Tempest Williams in the current issue of Orion magazine. “These are self-inflicted wounds made by a lethal economic system running in overdrive.”

In a fortnight’s time, the world’s climate negotiators will meet in Cancún. Will the sight of dolphins swimming in a turquoise-tinted Caribbean make them realise that our wondrous planet should never have been sacrificed to market forces? Based on all indications to date, the likelihood of such an epiphany appears to be zero.

One major reason why Cancún will fail to deliver a robust agreement is that the polluters are dictating policy. Barack Obama stated – unconvincingly – in June that he was considering “whose ass to kick” over the oil spill. Yet if Washington’s love affair with energy giants was temporarily soured around that time, there was no similar falling out in Brussels.

Among the main objectives for the European Union’s team in Cancún is to convince others to ape its emissions trading system (ETS). That scheme for selling permits to foul up the atmosphere was in large measure designed by BP.

Back in 1997, BP’s then chief executive John Browne was touting the concept of emissions trading as a “business-friendly” way of tackling climate change. The company then set up an internal ETS in 1999, under which its operations were given a yearly emissions threshold and encouraged to buy and sell pollution licenses between them. This experience showed that the “basic idea could work on a wider canvas,” Charles Nicholson, a senior BP representative, said in 2003.

It is now clear that the basic idea has not worked. During the first phase of the EU’s scheme – which kicked off in 2005 - a number of power companies reaped windfall profits by selling unused permits that they had been given free of charge. The European Commission indicated it would rectify the flaws, yet instead it did everything to placate a small club of energy-guzzling industries.

BP had a role in preserving the defects. When the Commission was considering some changes to the scheme, it drafted a recommendation to make oil refineries pay for their ETS allowances through auctioning. Pressure exerted by BP and similar firms meant the relevant clause was removed from the final proposal – published in 2008 - with the result that refineries would get these permits for nothing.

If the ETS is genuinely supposed to bring down emissions, then its track record is abysmal. Between 2005 and 2007, the ceiling on emissions set by the scheme was 2,298 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) – more than 8% above verified emission levels for 2005. This meant that firms were able to increase their emissions or to save unused permits so that they could pollute at a later date.

Corporate interests have similarly prevented tough targets from being set for the second phase of the scheme, which runs from 2008 and 2012. Across the EU, the average ceiling is 2% lower than 2005 emissions. But a recent study by Friends of the Earth illustrated that the 2012 caps established for 17 EU countries – including Britain, France and Poland – are higher than emission levels for 2005.

Last week the environmental consultants CE Delft published a separate report predicting that the situation will not improve in phrase three of the scheme. Starting in 2013, that phrase will theoretically see 50% of emissions being covered licenses that are sold by auctioning. In practice, loopholes applying to energy-intensive industries will lead to only 90% of emission permits for such activities as cement-making remaining free. The CE Delft study, therefore, indicates that the ETS will not drive down emissions but remain a money-spinner for top polluters.

Sob stories from these polluters would have us believe that they will be forced to leave Europe if environmental rules are strengthened. They are playing the same game in the US. ArcelorMittal, the steel company headed by Britain’s richest man Lakshmi Mittal, has not only pressurised the EU into giving him free emissions permits, it has been heavily lobbying Congress to block climate legislation.

Jos Delbeke, a high-ranking European Commission official, has been in China lately to advise its authorities lately about how the ETS works. With the EU’s scheme about as useful as a chocolate fireguard, it is hard to see why he is in any position to recommend that it should be replicated in Beijng. But that is what he appears to be doing.

There is an even more fundamental problem with emissions trading. By relying on it so heavily, the EU is showing blind faith in a dubious market instrument. This scheme doesn’t punish the polluter. It rewards him for keeping a lethal economic system in overdrive.

·First published by New Europe (, 14-20 November 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

How the Israel lobby dictates EU policy

There is an easy way for a mediocre politician to grab headlines: upset the Israel lobby. Karel de Gucht, the European commissioner for trade, discovered this to his cost in September when asked about Middle East “peace” talks on the Flemish radio station VRT.

Deviating from the official EU script, de Gucht rated the chances of the Obama administration resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict as extremely low. After describing the Zionist lobby as the “best organised” in US politics and inferring that it was a major obstacle to progress, he expressed a view about how Jews in general perceive Israel. “There is indeed a belief – it’s difficult to describe it otherwise – among most Jews that they are right,” he said. “And a belief is something that’s difficult to counter with rational arguments.”

Clearly, these comments lacked nuance and someone in de Gucht’s position should be wary of making blanket statements about an entire religious or ethnic group. But did they actually betoken hostility to Jews or, as The Wall Street Journal claimed, constitute an “anti-Semitic riff”?

One consequence of de Gucht’s remarks is that they highlighted how the Israel lobby is a force not only on Capitol Hill, but in Brussels, too, and that it is attempting to stifle debate about Israel’s sadistic treatment of the Palestinian people.

It is telling that the European Jewish Congress (EJC) reacted by alleging that sharply-worded criticism of Israel amounted to the same thing as hatred for Jews. “What sort of environment allows such remarks to be made openly by a senior politician?” the EJC’s president Moshe Kantor wondered. “This is part of a dangerous trend of incitement against Jews and Israel in Europe that needs to be stamped out immediately.”

While the overwhelming majority of Palestine solidarity and human rights activists – and indeed millions of decent people – can see a difference between Zionism as an ideology that is little more than a century old and Judaism as a religion dating back several millennia, the Israel lobby has been eager to blur the distinction between the two. Lamentably, it has had considerable success in convincing policy-makers that anyone who dares speak the truth about Israel should be labelled an anti-Semite.

In 2005, the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia – subsequently renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency – accepted a working definition of anti-Semitism. It stated that anti-Semitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews”. As well as being directed towards Jewish religious institutions, displays of anti-Semitism could “target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish entity,” the definition said. Examples of anti-Semitism given in an accompanying document included “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

This definition was not the result of painstaking research by neutral observers. Rather, the monitoring centre has acknowledged that it was drafted in consultation with the aforementioned EJC, along with the American Jewish Committee.

Gauging exactly how much power the Israel lobby wields in Europe is fraught. Most of the relevant organisations are secretive about their activities. The Transatlantic Institute – a Brussels-based front for the American Jewish Committee – appears to be the only such grouping to have entered some details into a voluntary register of “interest representatives” set up by the European Commission. Apart from its address and phone number, all its entry reveals is that it has a reported budget of €255,000 for 2010.

Nor should the power of the lobby be exaggerated. The decision by EU and NATO – both headquartered in Brussels - to forge ever-closer ties with Israel over the past decade are largely explained by geo-strategic factors. Israel has skilfully – and cynically - positioned itself as an indispensable ally to the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush. Moreover, its status as a key EU “partner” for scientific research is due to how Israeli firms have pioneered technologies ranging from instant messaging for the Internet to the drones used by NATO forces in bombing Afghanistan and Pakistan, Turkey in northern Iraq and, of course, by Israel itself in Gaza.

Although this deepening of relations may well have occurred without the growth of pro-Israel lobby groups in Brussels, those groups have certainly acted as a kind of match-maker. Conscious that the US may not dominate global politics during this century as stridently as it did in the second half of the twentieth century, the American Jewish Committee has decided that it must also influence important players outside Washington. And so it opened the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels six years ago, at a time when the EU’s efforts to present more cohesive foreign and military policies to the wider world were bearing fruit.

As well as persuading policy-makers to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, the Transatlantic Institute has acted as an apologist for Israeli war crimes, while simultaneously pounding the drumbeat of war towards Iran. In January 2009, the institute’s then director Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote a piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in which he gloated at how “Iran got a bloody nose” through Israel’s three-week offensive against Gaza. (Ottolenghi’s theory was based on his assertion that because Iran had shown Hamas how to fire rockets further into southern Israel than it previously could, pain inflicted on Hamas could be felt in Tehran).

Like all propagandists, the Israel lobby feels under no obligation to tell the truth. After Israel’s murderous attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla at the end of May this year, the EJC tried to smear the nine Turkish peace activists killed. Moshe Kantor called on the EU to place the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (known by its Turkish acronym IHH) on its list of terrorist organisations. In a letter to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Kantor said that the IHH’s “ties to terrorist activities have been well-documented” yet cited no sources to support that accusation.

Fortunately, the Israel lobby is not yet as influential in Brussels as it is in Washington. Whereas the number of US legislators prepared to berate Israel can often be counted on one hand (a mere five members of Congress opposed the attack on Gaza in January 2009), the European Parliament has occasionally been willing to resist pressure from pro-Israel lobbyists. In March this year, MEPs were inundated with messages from the EJC urging them to reject a resolution endorsing the report of an official United Nations investigation into the Gaza attacks. (Headed by retired South African judge Richard Goldstone, the report stated that Israel had committed war crimes). To its credit, the Parliament still approved the resolution by 335 votes to 287.

That does not mean, however, that MEPs can always be relied on to defend the rights of the Palestinians. On the contrary, Zionist zealots have pulled off something of a public relations coup within the Parliament. Since September 2009, the assembly’s official delegation to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has been headed by Bastiaan Belder, a Dutch Christian fundamentalist who maintains that Israel does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties when it bombs the occupied Palestinian territories. Under Belder’s leadership, meetings of his delegation have been highly partisan; at one such meeting the main guest speaker was the aforementioned Emanuele Ottolenghi.

Another important initiative within the Parliament has been the foundation in 2006 of the European Friends of Israel (EFI). Functioning as a cross-party alliance of MEPs, it is at least partly modelled on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the best known pro-Israel lobby group in Washington. Dimtri Dombret, the EFI’s first director, has confirmed to me that he has attended several AIPAC events and studied how it operates.

Among the most active participants in the EFI is Charles Tannock, the foreign policy spokesman for Britain’s Conservative MEPs. Tannock is something of a mouthpiece for Israeli diplomats. In September, he urged colleagues to “be unswerving in our condemnation of Iran’s appalling human rights record”. By contrast, he has defended Israel’s human rights abuses; following the flotilla attack, he parroted the whitewash from the Netanyahu government by declaring: “What is sure is that the IDF [Israel Defence Force] had no intention to use lethal force”.

Writing in 1946, George Orwell stated that political language is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” The Israel lobby has elevated this language into an artform.

·First published by Spinwatch (, 6 November 2010

Europe grabs energy sources from poor

Only the brightest and the best will represent the EU as top diplomats, Catherine Ashton has promised. On paper, the Union’s foreign policy chief should have no difficulty honouring this pledge: you can be sure that the recruits to her external action service did a lot more at college than keep a bar-stool warm.

With few exceptions, though, the same recruits leave their intellectual curiosity in the car park each morning. For being a diplomat requires that one swallows assumptions that are demonstrably false and then regurgitate them ad infinitum.

Trade issues inevitably absorb a great deal of any envoy’s time. To an outsider unschooled in jargon, they can seem bewildering, yet for an EU diplomat there is really just one rule to follow: denounce protectionism at all times.

According to the European Commission’s propaganda, it is an unpardonable offence for any country to try and avoid losing jobs to somewhere with lower wages or to shield a home-grown industry from cheaper imports. Yet anyone with even a flimsy grip of history can tell you that protectionism is vital under many circumstances. The United States became the world’s fastest-growing economy in the late nineteeth and early twentieth century, at a time when it slapped some of the world’s highest taxes on imported goods.

Later this week, Karel de Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, will in effect tell China that it is not allowed to use the kind of policies that have helped other economies to flourish in the past. A strategy paper outlining his key priorities for his term in office proposes that retaliatory measures should be taken against countries that forbid EU firms from bidding for government contracts.

De Gucht’s aides are taking aim at a 2002 law requiring that Chinese authorities buy goods or services from Chinese companies. This restriction has clearly paid dividends. Since it was placed on the statute books, China’s public procurement market has tripled. State purchases are now worth at least $88 billion, according to the magazine China Business Review.

Contrary to what Brussels officials claim, Western firms do not have some God-given entitlement to operate wherever they wish. It is clever of the Commission to infer that it merely seeks a “level playing field”. The reality of global capitalism is that poorer countries are at an unfair disadvantage and would be foolish not to favour domestic suppliers.

Indeed, the Commission itself recognised in a separate paper published in October that the “underlying motivation” behind such favouritism was to safeguard jobs. And yet it described a “buy local” law introduced in Brazil as a “worrying development”. Lest we forget, Brazil remains an impoverished country by European standards. The United Nations estimates that gross national income in Brazil per head of population is about $10,000 per year – well under half that of the Czech Republic and one-third that of France.

De Gucht’s strategy document suggests he has tested positive for the same kind of neo-imperial hubris that afflicted his predecessor Peter Mandelson. It resolves to get tough on countries audacious enough to think that their natural resources should be used for purposes other than padding the wallets of European entrepeneurs.

Plans by de Gucht to lean heavily on countries that restrict exports go even further than statements made by Mandelson shortly before he unexpectedly returned to London in 2008. Whereas Mandelson simply undertook to tell off governments that don’t hand over their minerals to foreigners, de Gucht is now committed to achieving international rules that deny poor countries the possibility of lifting themselves out of poverty. “The sustainable and unrestricted supply of raw materials and energy is of strategic importance for the competitiveness of the European economy,” his new paper says.

Never mind, then, that countries need to levy taxes on exports to raise sorely-needed revenue – as Argentina did when it was beset by an economic crisis in 2002. Never mind that Botswana’s diamond industry has illustrated the benefits of banning exports of unprocessed gems, in order to stimulate their processing and provide vital jobs at home. Never mind that there can be good environmental grounds on which to regulate trade – as Mozambique’s parliament decided in May, when it reacted to deforestation by imposing a tax on exports of unprocessed wood. If de Gucht has his way, all such measures would be declared inadmissible by the guarantors of market liberalisation.

De Gucht must have his head in the clouds if he really believes all that blather about how the European economy should have an “unrestricted supply” of raw materials. Although the EU does not measure its resource use or have any targets for reducing it, a 2009 study by the Sustainable Energy Research Institute in Vienna calculated that at 43 kilos each day an average European consumes three times as much of the earth’s resources as an Asian and four times as much as an African. Thinking we are less gluttonous than Americans won’t get us very far: while it’s true that we use up less resources than our cousins in the US, Europe relies more on imports than any other continent.

By genuflecting to a narrow concept like competitiveness, de Gucht is locking the Union into a voracious cycle of exploitation. Rather than acting responsibly – by insisting on a more efficient use of resources and greater recycling – he is refusing to accept that there are bounds to the planet’s riches. When will this madness end?

·First published by New Europe (, 7-13 November 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pharma firms enable executions

European Union officials are reluctant to tighten up rules covering the trade in products designed for torture or the death penalty, despite suggestions that a British company has been exporting lethal injection drugs used in executions.

During the last week of October, Jeffrey Landrigan was executed by the U.S. state of Arizona. The state’s attorney general has revealed that the sodium thiopental used to kill Landrigan was imported specially from Britain because of a shortage of the substance domestically.

Opponents of the death penalty are seeking that an EU regulation on the trade in the tools of torture and capital punishment is strengthened so that pharmaceutical companies would be banned from selling sodium thiopental to executioners.

But the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has indicated that it is averse to revising the regulation – dating from 2005 – given that sodium thiopental also has medicinal applications.

Asked if the Brussels authorities would be investigating the use of a British-made substance in Arizona or examining how the regulation can be tightened, a Commission spokesman said that while his institution is opposed to the death penalty, it recognised that sodium thiopental is “widely used” as an anaesthetic in medicine.

“The EU has rules that prohibit the trade in goods used for capital punishment and torture and ill-treatment, as well as the supply of technical assistance related to such goods,” the spokesman said. “These rules, however, do not include sodium thiopental in the lists of prohibited and controlled goods. Sodium thiopental is on the list of essential drugs of the World Health Organisation.”

The 2005 regulation is accompanied by lists of goods that are either banned or subject to controls. While sodium thiopental is not explicitly mentioned on these lists, the regulation prohibits the trade in “automatic drug injection systems designed for the purpose of execution of human beings by the administration of a lethal chemical purpose.” Another possibility, according to human rights campaigners, is for sodium thiopental to be designated a controlled substance that may be exported to hospitals and clinics but not to authorities that carry out executions.

Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington, argued that ways of bolstering the regulation should be examined. “I wouldn’t think that a company would want to be associated with having its drug used to kill people,” he said. “This is sort of like extraditing someone to face the death penalty.”

Reprieve, a human rights group based in London, announced Nov. 2 that it is suing the British government over the exports. The legal action follows an appeal made by Reprieve that an emergency order be issued to regulate sodium thiopental. Vince Cable, Britain’s business secretary, has rejected the call, claiming that if the U.S. did not import lethal injection drugs from Britain it would simply find them elsewhere. “An export restriction imposed by the United Kingdom is very unlikely to be effective in preventing any execution taking place in the United States, given that the drug is generally available and traded globally,” Cable wrote, in a letter to Reprieve’s lawyers.

Reprieve is acting on behalf of Ed Zagorski, who is scheduled to be executed in Tennessee in January next year. Tennessee is one of several states running low on lethal injection drugs; others include Kentucky, Oklahoma and Missouri.

“It is ironic that Ed Zagorski is on death row, accused – falsely, he insists -- of playing a role in a drug deal gone bad,” said Clive Stafford Smith from Reprieve. “If the British government continues to adhere to its policy of gutless inaction, he will die as a result of another drug deal gone bad, this time with a British company pocketing 18,000 dollars in blood money.”

Only one company in Britain makes sodium thiopental. That firm, Archimedes Pharma UK, has insisted it has no control over how the substance is used and denied knowingly providing the drug for use in the Arizona execution.

However, Arizona is known to have bought enough supplies of the drug from Britain for four executions. Despite acknowledging that the drug came from Britain, Arizona has refused to give further details of where and how it obtained the substances used to kill Landrigan. Arizona mounted – and won – a legal challenge in the US Supreme Court, after a lower court had ordered it to reveal the identity of the drug’s supplier.

Nycomed, another European company that produces sodium thiopental, said that it does not distribute the drug in the U.S.

In an appeal to the European Commission, Amnesty International has asked that “urgent assurances” be sought that future exports of sodium thiopental will not be used for executions.

David Nichols, a specialist on foreign policy in Amnesty’s Brussels office, said the Commission had the power to either strengthen the regulation or take action under its current provisions in order to control the supply of lethal injection drugs. “This is something that they could actually do tomorrow,” he added. “Given the fact that other states in the U.S. are also running out of the drug and looking for alternative supplies, it is important that they act now to stop further transfers."

·First published by Inter Press Service (, 4 November 2010

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Israeli insults rewarded by EU embrace

Israel has directed a stream of insults towards its Western allies and protectors in the past 12 months, and has been rewarded with short-lived rebukes followed by an even closer embrace.

A group of foreign ministers representing the EU’s five largest states – including William Hague - was told to stay away by Israel in September because they were going to urge Binyamin Netanyahu’s government to extend the 10 month moratorium on building settlements in the West Bank.

Within a few days of this snub, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, recommended that Israel should be designated a new “strategic” partner for the Union. The fact that Israel had once again bombed Gaza that same week, killing three civilians, did not appear to trouble her.

Ashton’s proposal is designed to put Israel on a similar ranking with far bigger economies like the US, Japan and China in terms of how it is prioritised by EU officialdom. Her move follows last year’s acknowledgement by Javier Solana, her predecessor as head of EU diplomacy, that no country outside the European continent had closer relations with the Union than Israel. According to Solana, Israel’s participation in various EU-run programmes has made it a de facto member state of the Union.

The insult to the foreign ministers follows the murder of the leading Hamas figure, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was shot dead in a Dubai hotel in January by assassins presenting themselves as British, Irish, German and French citizens. After a British investigation concluded that there were “compelling reasons” to believe that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, had used fraudulent versions of ID cards belonging to Britons living in Israel, an Israeli diplomat was expelled from the UK.

The expulsion has turned out to be tokenistic. The European countries whose passport systems were abused had an opportunity to censure Israel in a more meaningful fashion when a vote on its bid to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development took place in May. None of them were prepared to exercise their veto so Israel was admitted into this elite club for industrialised countries, receiving a “very significant seal of approval,” as Israel’s finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, observed.

Then there was the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla when Israeli commandos shot dead nine peace activists on board a ship belonging to Turkey, a country engaged in formal, if protracted, talks aimed at its accession to the EU. Although some EU states condemned the attack, none of them took any concrete measures against Israel.

This pattern echoes the response of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who accused the Israeli government of delivering an “insult to the United States” when it announced the planned construction of new settlements in East Jerusalem while vice president Joe Biden was visiting the Middle East in March.

While her comments might have upset some of the wealthy Zionists who had previously bankrolled her election campaigns, Clinton soon resumed her usual practice of fawning to neocons. Later the same month she told the annual conference of AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, that her devotion to Israel was “rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever.”

Why is Israel being treated with kid gloves by our governments? Privately, Brussels officials say that the EU needs to be on good terms with Israel because it is the kind of hi-tech economy that they wish Europe to emulate. The same officials are less willing to recognise that many of the Israeli innovations they profess to admire were developed through cruel experiments, in which the Palestinian people were treated as lab rats.

Israel is the leading foreign participant in the EU’s multi-annual “framework programme” for scientific research, which has been allocated €53 billion (£44.2 billion) between 2007 and 2013. Among the Israeli firms pocketing EU grants are Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries, the manufacturers of pilotless drones – also known as unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) – that were used to inflict terror on civilians during Israel’s three-week bombardment of Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians meets the definition of genocide enshrined in a 1948 UN convention: a crime designed to destroy a national, ethnic or religious group by causing serious physical or psychological harm on members of that group or by imposing intolerable conditions of life on them.

Under the terms of an “association agreement” with Israel that came into effect in 2000, the EU is legally obliged to sanction Israel for systematic abuses of human rights. Not only has the Union refused to honour that commitment, it is actively supporting the arms companies that profit from the murder of innocents. It is no exaggeration to conclude that the EU has become an accomplice to genocide.

·First published by Palestine News, magazine of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Autumn 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010

Killing by remote control

Top Gun, the 1980s blockbuster that made Tom Cruise’s bank account as large as his ego, was a blatant recruiting video for the American military. Following its success, the number of young men who applied to become fighter pilots rose by 500%, according to the US Navy.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Top Gun director Tony Scott is talking about making a sequel that will address how much warfare has changed in the interim. For his research, Scott plans to hang out in Nevada, the launching pad for drone attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan. His sources will be “these geeks”, who operate unmanned aircraft “then party all night,” he told HitFix, an entertainment website.

Officials working for the European Defence Agency (EDA) lead far less glitzy lives than Hollywood film-makers. Yet they share Scott’s priapic fascination with digital-era killing machines.

With military spending being shrunk in many EU countries, the agency is strenuously advocating that governments should “compensate” for cutbacks by focusing on improving their technological capabilities. Speaking in early October, the EDA’s deputy chief executive Carlo Magrassi identified the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as pilotless drones - as a priority for his team.

Magrassi tried to make drones sound respectable by stating that they can be used for “border control, environmental purposes or disaster relief”. But if he thinks they have been developed to monitor dolphins and rescue earthquake victims, I suggest he checks out the Irish-language documentary “Ag Filleadh Ar Gaza” (“Returning to Gaza”; watch it with English subtitles on Its most harrowing scene was filmed among the rubble of the al-Dayah family’s home in Gaza City. Twenty-two members of that family – including 12 children and a pregnant woman – were murdered early one morning in January 2009 when they were attacked by an Israeli drone. Some of their corpses were burned so badly that they could not be identified; others have still not been recovered.

Last week a European Commission spokeswoman tried to avoid saying anything about the death sentence imposed on Tariq Aziz by claiming that the EU’s position on the death penalty is well-known. If the Union’s opposition to capital punishment is really so well known, why don’t we hear it denouncing the extrajudicial executions carried out with the aid of pilotless drones? The EU’s silence might have something to do with the complicity of its governments in such killings.

Britain, for example, has been using armed drones called Reapers in Afghanistan since 2007. By the summer of this year, these aircraft had discharged weapons almost 100 times.

A bigger reason for the EU’s reticence could be its subservience to the United States. During 2009, US drones killed no fewer than 700 Pakistani civilians. The slaughter which Barack Obama is authorising there appears all the more abominable when you consider that the floods which devastated Pakistan in recent months have been used as a pretext to intensify drone strikes. The 22 drone attacks carried out in September this year were the highest number during a single month to date.

Although Leon Panetta, the CIA’s director, has argued that the drone programme is “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership”, several learned scholars view America’s policies as unlawful. Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor with the Notre Dame Law School in Indiana, said recently that the US has no legal right to resort to air strikes in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan because it is not formally engaged in armed conflict in those countries. David Glazier from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles has argued that troops involved in drone attacks could be prosecuted for any deaths or injuries they cause under the domestic laws of the countries where the attacks occur.

Perhaps the most astute observations on drones are those of Philip Alston, a former United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Alston has voiced his disquiet at the “Playstation mentality” surrounding these killings. “Young military personnel raised on a diet of video games now kill real people remotely using joysticks,” he wrote earlier this year. “Far removed from the human consequences of their actions, how will this generation of fighters value the right to life? How will commanders and policymakers keep themselves immune from the deceptively antiseptic nature of drone killings?”

The arms industry is intimately involved in the EDA’s work on drones. At the moment unmanned aerial systems (UAS) may only be flown in airspace where no other vehicles are allowed. But the EDA is determined that passengers on Ryanair and Easyjet flights will see drones whizzing past them before too long. And so it has launched SIGAT (Study on the Insertion of UAS in the General Air Traffic). Its partners in this endeavour include BAE, Dassault, Sagem and EADS.

Sagem, a French company, is especially active. Next year it is scheduled to start designing new drones as part of a “joint venture” with Elbit, the Israeli company which manufactured some of the most lethal weaponry tested out in Gaza in 2008 and last year. Elbit has signalled that it hopes this initiative will help increase its sales throughout Europe.

The result of this cooperation could be that Europe’s arsenals are stocked with arms invented with the specific aim of inflicting suffering in Palestine. Just because these weapons are remote controlled doesn’t mean our governments won’t have blood on their hands.

·First published by New Europe (, 31 October-6 November 2010