Monday, January 31, 2011

Think tanks: corporate lobbyists posing as experts

Think tanks can be a godsend for reporters with a looming deadline. Almost invariably, they are staffed with articulate policy specialists, adept at summarising complex issues in a few quotable sentences. Frequently, too, the think tanks have neutral-sounding names, so a reader or viewer of news reports can easily believe that they are independent of vested interests.

Closer inspection reveals that many of these “independent” bodies are in fact heavily reliant on corporate donations. This is especially the case for a number of think tanks working on intellectual property.

In late January, the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) held a conference dedicated to trade and IP issues in Brussels. Most speakers at the event endorsed the broad thrust of the European Union’s external trade policy, which advocates that standards of IP protection applying within the EU should also be applied throughout the world.

A paper written for the event by Frederik Erixon, ECIPE’s director, argued that enforcing patents in foreign countries should be a priority. “This is the area where the big policy problems are for European firms,” he wrote. “They encounter insufficient IP laws and regulatory frameworks in many countries, especially emerging markets.”

Asked why he had not invited speakers from anti-poverty organisations concerned about the possible impact of patent enforcement on such matters as public access to medicines in developing countries, Erixon said: “We are sceptical of having campaign groups [at our events]. We are more interested in having people from parts of the world with different views. For example, we have had people from Kenya and South Africa in the past.”

Erixon said that the centre had a budget of about €1 million last year. Its “base-funding” comes from the Free Enterprise Foundation in Sweden, while a number of companies have made financial contributions to its work. They include Pfizer, Nokia, Unilever, Siemens, Nestlé, Nike, Google and BP.

Hugh Pullen, a representative of the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly, said his firm had given “two one-off grants” to the centre for projects related to IP issues. “The work they do is their work,” said Pullen. “We had very little influence on the direction in which it goes.”

Dieter Plehwe from the corporate watchdog LobbyControl estimates that there are 60 think-tanks in Brussels, as well as several others in the national capitals of EU states that publish material relating to the Union’s policies. Plehwe noted that corporate-funded think tanks generally do not have to publish their accounts in the same way as foundations (such as those linked to political parties) who receive public subsidies.
“Private think-tanks have mushroomed and have now developed a strong base in Brussels under no such regulations,” he said.

ECIPE is one of several think-tanks that have not signed up to a register of lobbyists and “interest representatives” run by the European Commission. “We find the idea that a think tank should register as an interest [representative] insulting,” Erixon said. “Our role is to produce analyses and evaluations, not to lobby.”

Whereas it is mandatory for pressure groups trying to influence lawmakers in Washington to detail their activities on a similar database, the EU’s register is voluntary.

Michael Mann, a European Commission spokesman, said that a new category is being established for that register to cover groups who are reluctant to be considered as lobbyists. “Some think tanks, religious organisations and law firms do not like being labelled with the nasty ‘lobbyist’ word,” he added. “The idea of a joint register is to make it more attractive for people to sign up.”

The revised register will serve both the Commission and the European Parliament. The two institutions have stated that they wish to have their common register established by June this year.

In October last year, the International Policy Network in London published a study contending that high IP standards can be beneficial for developing countries. The paper was authored by Douglas Lippoldt, a staff member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

Lippoldt said there was no conflict of interest between his work for the OECD, a public body, and the IPN, a corporate-funded think tank, as the paper made clear he was writing in a personal capacity. “What is important is to always include the standard disclaimer,” he said. “I am quite observant about that.”

Julian Morris, the IPN’s director, said that his network is “downsizing” and no longer works on IP issues. “We are funded by a broad array of organisations, some of whom do have an interest, none of whom has any say over what we do,” he added. “That is all I can say really.”

IPN’s London office does not disclose which companies fund its work. Yet it has run public relations campaigns in defence of the pharmaceutical industry in the past. In 2004, a group called the Campaign for Fighting Diseases was formed. Run out of IPN’s office, it sought to counter arguments from anti-poverty activists that enforcing patents on drugs in developing countries reduces the availability of medicines at prices affordable to the poor. “Stronger intellectual property protection in poor countries may stimulate innovation by multinationals to serve local needs (e.g. developing drugs to combat tropical diseases),” an IPN paper published in 2005 stated.

Meanwhile, the Stockholm Network presents itself as an alliance of 120 different “market-oriented” think-tanks across Europe. Among the network’s publications is a newsletter on intellectual property issues called Know IP. In 2008, the network ran a campaign against calls by British members of Parliament for the greater use of generic medicines in the country’s health service.

Helen Disney, the network’s director, did not respond to my request for comment. In a letter to the British Medical Journal last year, she wrote: “We are funded by memberships and research grants from a range of companies, foundations and individuals. Not only do we not hide this but we list all sponsors on our website and in our annual reports.”

Her letter was prompted by criticism from SpinWatch, a group monitoring the public relations industry. SpinWatch stated that while drug-makers such as Pfizer, GSK and Merck are known to have given money to think tanks, the Stockholm Network does not say how much it receives from each company.

Tido von Schoen-Angerer, director of the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines run by the humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières, said that pharmaceutical firms have been financing research by think tanks in order to influence the debate on the patenting of medicine. Such think tanks should be required to declare their sources of income, he said, adding: “Part of the problem is that this issue stays concealed.”
·First published by Intellectual Property Watch (, 31 January 2011

The truth about terror

What is the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word “terrorist”? Does he have a bushy beard and a swarthy complexion? Is he Muslim?

Statistics do not prop up this stereotype. According to Europol, only 0.4% of “terrorist attacks” either carried out or thwarted in the EU between 2006 and 2008 could be attributed to “Islamists”. Most of the 500-per-year such incidents considered by the EU’s police office were the work of “separatist” groups in France and Spain. (The data was collated before the Basque organisation ETA announced a ceasefire in September last year).

If the problem is so confined to pockets of Europe, why do our politicians misrepresent it as a global threat? And why has it become synonymous with Islam, when most of its practitioners in this continent come from a Christian background?

More to the point, what is terrorism? It wasn’t until 2002 that the EU had a collective definition of the concept. Activities deemed as “terrorist” included those with the objective of “seriously intimidating a population” and “seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a society.”

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – both supported by all or many EU governments – fulfil all those criteria, the definition had a condition attached. Actions by a state or its army could not be considered as terrorist, it said.

So the official position of the EU is that terrorism is violence by the powerless, not the powerful. Given that the EU’s aversion to violence is so selective, it can be no great surprise that the Union is not only unwilling to tackle the root causes of “terrorism” but is tacitly eager to sustain the problem.

In July 2010, the European Commission issued a paper celebrating the “main achievements” of its “counter-terrorism policy”. Several of the “achievements” listed have little to do with terrorism as it is defined by the EU. These included the introduction of the European arrest warrant, which largely facilitates extradition for offences of a non-political nature. Poland, the top user of the arrest warrant system, has even invoked it in cases of petty theft.

But there is a more sinister side to the story than an effort to claim credit where it is not due. The same paper intimates that the “war on terror” can yield new business opportunities for European firms through “public-private partnerships”. Moreover, it trumpets how €1.7 billion has been allocated to “security” projects between 2007 and 2013 under the EU’s “framework programme” for scientific research. As I document in my book Europe’s Alliance With Israel, many of these research grants involve surveillance equipment that is being tested in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. (Israel is the main foreign beneficiary of the Union’s research activities).

Later this week the Commission will take new steps to make sure we are all spied on. The EU’s executive is scheduled to approve new measures on the transfer of data for airline passengers flying into the Union. This will be the newest addition to a process initiated not in Europe but in Washington. Following the atrocities of 11 September 2011, George W Bush demanded that the EU hand over details about each person who travels to America.

Like lackeys, our governments and institutions are constantly repackaging the Passenger Name Record (PNR) dossier, despite how it was struck down by the European Court of Justice in 2006. The deficiencies in America’s data protection regime have not been remedied since then. Indeed, Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, protested in December about “an apparent lack of interest on the US side to talk seriously about data protection”.

That tantrum aside, Reding has a track record of capitulating to Big Brother when the going gets tough. During 2010, she first expressed misgivings about the bulk transfer of bank account data for European citizens to the US, then gave her blessing to that transfer, after some minor concessions were granted. The concessions did nothing to address how America’s privacy legislation only offers protection against unlawful data processing to US citizens, not to foreigners.

Her colleague Cecilia Malmström, the home affairs commissioner, has a comparable reputation for flip-flopping. When she was a humble MEP in 2005, Malmström spoke eloquently of how liberty should not be sacrificed in the name of security. She opposed another law – it, too, demanded by Bush – forcing phone and internet companies to retain records on each call made or email sent by their customers. Developing extensive systems for such espionage “would be a very major encroachment on privacy, with a high risk of the systems being abused in many ways,” she said, adding: “The fact is that most of us, after all, are not criminals.”

Now that she has been promoted, Malmström has declared the exact same measures as “useful for fighting crime”. She has become so wedded to power that she tramples on the civil liberties she used to defend.

Privacy is recognised as a basic entitlement by the European Convention on Human Rights. This continent’s not-too-distant history should remind us how dangerous it is to deny that right. The former military dictatorship in Greece, for example, used to monitor the population’s political leanings by checking what newspapers they read.

If our politicians want to interfere with privacy, they need solid reasons to do so. The “war on terror” is a lousy excuse.

·First published by New Europe (, 30 January – 5 February 2011.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Israel lobby junket for Euro-MPs

The pro-Israel lobby is seeking to increase its influence among members of Europe’s parliaments by offering them an expenses-paid trip to the Middle East.

Brochures circulated in several elected assemblies invite their representatives to take part in a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, organised by the group European Friends of Israel (EFI). Established in 2006, the EFI has emerged as Europe’s closest equivalent to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group in Washington.

The brochures give no details about how the visit from 5 to 8 February is being financed, other than requesting a €300 contribution from each member of parliament who accepts the invitation. The contribution, which will only cover a fraction of the visit’s costs, is described as “non-mandatory”.

Marek Siwiec, a Polish member of the European Parliament (MEP) who sits on the EFI board, said the organisation has a “fundraising system, where the money is coming from the private sector”. When asked to name its main donors, Siwiec referred me to the organisation’s Brussels office.

But a spokesman for that office said he could only release such details if granted permission by the MEPs sitting on the organisation’s board.

Although the EFI’s website gives viewers links to AIPAC and similar organisations in Washington, the spokesman insisted that it does not receive funding from the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. “I promise you 100% that no [we do not receive such funding],” he said. So far, however, EFI has declined to say how it is financed. It has also not signed up to a register of “interest representatives” set up by the European Commission as part of an initiative reportedly designed to shed light on how pressure groups operate.

The forthcoming visit is being promoted as the EFI’s second “policy conference”. It will commence with a “gala dinner” in Jerusalem, hosted by Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, feature day-trips to the headquarters of arms-makers and technology firms, and conclude with another gala dinner, which Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is scheduled to attend. The visit coincides, too, with the annual Herzliya security conference, which usually attracts the top military and political figures in Israel, as well as eminent guests from abroad.

Other tours on the itinerary include visits to the Israeli settlements of Ofra, Kfar Adumim and Gush Etzion in the occupied West Bank. Those settlements are officially regarded as illegal by the European Union as they were constructed in violation of international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 forbids an occupying power from transferring its own civilian population into the land that it occupies.

Spouses of elected representatives have been invited to join the visit, provided they pay €300 each. A return flight from Brussels to Tel Aviv on El Al, Israel’s national carrier, for the dates in question costs €570.

Piet de Bruyn, a Belgian Senator, said he has decided to take part in the visit, despite how he is critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. “I am curious to find out how it will be,” he said. “Will they be brainwashing us or will they be more subtle?”

De Bruyn stressed that he is taking part in an individual capacity, rather than as a representative of his country’s Senate. He would be particularly interested, he said, to see how the tour of Israeli settlements is presented. “I don’t know what message will be given to us,” he said.

In a lecture given in the Lebanese capital Beirut during November last year, Daud Abdullah from the London-based Middle East Monitor (MEMO) argued that there has been a marked increase in the impact of the pro-Israel lobby in Europe over the past decade. “If the influence of the Israel lobby was manifested in the policies of the individual European countries, it was even more apparent in the collective policies of the EU,” he said.

Abdullah noted that several pro-Israel groups have set up European affairs offices in Brussels and are in regular contact with some of the highest-ranking officials in the EU institutions. These groups include the American Jewish Committee, the European Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith. One of their greatest achievements to date was a decision taken by EU foreign ministers in 2008 to “upgrade” their relations with Israel by integrating Israel into the Union’s single market for goods and services. The pro-Israel lobby had mounted a vigorous campaign for the “upgrade” ahead of that move and is continuing to advocate that the decision be given practical effect, even though work on doing so has stalled because of Israel’s three-week attack on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.

The EFI’s visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories follows its inaugural “policy conference” in Paris in 2008. Israeli politicians taking part in that event were granted meetings with Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner, France’s president and foreign minister.

A spokesman for Israel’s embassy in Brussels said that the EFI has not been given any finance from the Israeli state to organise its forthcoming visit. “We have lots of friends in Europe,” the spokesman said. “We have contacts with like-minded people and we have good dialogue with people who are opposed to our policies.”

Michel Legrand, chairman of the Luxembourg Committee for a Just Peace in the Middle East, complained that the EFI’s activities are “not at all transparent”. Its efforts to win support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine are “really crass”, he added.

·First published by Inter Press Service (, 25 January 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Embracing neighbours, eroding rights

New York, August 2001. It is a few weeks before the 11 September atrocities but I don’t know that yet. I am in a musty old Manhattan cinema, watching a film about the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister after independence. My attention is drifting when a stony-faced US diplomat appears onscreen. America does not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, the character says. The sparse audience erupts in a scornful laughter, a sound that will stay with me for years afterwards.

I was reminded of that laughter when I saw the reactions to the street protests that brought down Tunisian tyrant Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. “We can’t take sides,” Hillary Clinton stated. Her pal Cathy Ashton was more willing to salute the demonstrators’ courage. “The EU will stand side by side with Tunisians as they pursue their peaceful and democratic aspirations,” the Union’s foreign policy chief said.

Was this a glorious moment when the Brussels elite was championing the oppressed against their oppressor? No, it was a moment of sordid opportunism.

Far from despising Ben Ali, the West has courted him assiduously for much of his 23-year-rule. Under his yoke, Tunisia was something of a poster child for market fundamentalism. In 1985 – two years before he seized the presidency in a coup – the country embarked on a “structural adjustment programme” drawn up by the International Monetary Fund. Far-reaching privatisation ensued; the public sector was slashed so drastically that the rate of unemployment among university graduates became one of the world’s highest. Unconcerned about the limited prospects for young Tunisians, France, its former colonial overlord, heaped praise on Ben Ali. Jacques Chirac used to wax lyrical about the “Tunisian economic miracle”.

One part of the public sector was spared the knife wielded over the rest. Under Ben Ali, security would gobble up such a large proportion of expenditure that the country had 150,000 police officers for less than 10 million inhabitants. So it is little wonder that the US and its lackeys viewed Ben Ali as a valuable ally in the “war on terror”. Some of our governments thought nothing about sending Tunisians arrested on their soil home, despite the strong likelihood they would be tortured. The Italian authorities forced Medhi Ben Mohamed Khalaifia, a man previously convicted on terrorism-related charges, back to Tunisia in 2009. Held incommunicado for 12 days, Khalaifia has complained that he was beaten and threatened with rape by his interrogators.

In 2002, Romano Prodi, then the European Commission’s president, presented a plan to have a “ring of friends” around the EU. By that time Ben Ali’s status as one of the EU’s best mates had already been assured. Tunisia was the first of the EU’s Mediterranean neighbours to sign a fancy new type of “association agreement” with the Union in 1995. Entering into force three years later, the novelty in this accord was that it wasn’t only supposed to be about narrow economic issues but contained a legally-binding clause designed to protect fundamental rights.

Although assessments by the Commission’s own staff noted major deficiencies in Tunisia’s human rights record, the EU has contributed directly to propping up Ben Ali’s regime. Tunisia received €330 million from the EU’s budget between 2007 and 2010; it has also been allocated loans worth €3.6 billion from the European Investment Bank since 1978. Stefan Füle, the EU commissioner in charge of the European Neighbourhood Policy, may have signalled his support for the Tunisian protesters last week. One month earlier, Füle spoke about how his officials were in discussions with Ben Ali’s regime on how its relations with the EU could be elevated to an “advanced status”. That would involve bringing Tunisia into the EU’s single market for goods and services.

The caressing of Ben Ali is part of a wider pattern of letting political expediency triumph over the rights and needs of ordinary people in North Africa and the Middle East. In 2008 Morocco was granted the “advanced status” that Ben Ali coveted, despite how it occupies Western Sahara, plundering the territory’s natural resources in defiance of international law. The strengthening of EU relations with Libya, meanwhile, are being driven primarily by a xenophobic desire to keep Africans out of Europe. Tripoli has not accepted the 1951 Refugee Convention, which lays down basic rules on how asylum-seekers should be protected throughout the globe, yet this hasn’t stopped the Union from cooperating with it to push back – often brutally – those impoverished Africans who try to enter Europe via Libya.

Both Füle and Ashton are also involved in talks with Israel about giving practical effect to an agreement reached in late 2008 on “upgrading” its ties to the EU. Work on that dossier was slowed down because of the subsequent attack on Gaza but Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s openly racist foreign minister, is now trying to revive the momentum. When Ashton met him a few weeks ago, she spoke of how Israel-EU links are “strong and solid” and expressed hope that they will become stronger in the coming months. Ashton almost certainly knows that 1.4 million Palestinians do not have enough food to lead healthy lives because of the noose Israel has placed around the necks of an entire people. There are no reasons to believe that the noose will be loosened once the EU gets even closer to Israel; if anything, it could be tightened.

·First published by New Europe (, 23-29 January 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fake feminism NATO-style

Back in 2002, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy brilliantly satirised the official excuses for the invasion of Afghanistan . “It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas,” she said. “We are being asked to believe that the US marines are actually on a feminist mission.”

The effort to rebrand militarism as compassionate and motherly continues today in NATO’s Brussels headquarters. Stefanie Babst, a senior official in the alliance working on “public diplomacy” (a synonym for propaganda), keeps busy trying to raise the profile of a decade-old United Nations Security Council Resolution on gender, peace and security. It is “extremely encouraging” that NATO is committed to this resolution – number 1325 in case you were wondering – and its call that women and children be shielded from violence during armed conflicts, Babst has declared.

Can it really be the case that NATO is sparing women from the horrors of the war it is waging in Afghanistan? Of course, it can’t.

UN data published in December stated that 742 civilians were killed or wounded by NATO or by Afghan forces loyal to Hamid Karzai’s government in the first ten months of last year. Most of these casualties – including 162 deaths – were attributed to air strikes, a NATO speciality.

Documents made public through the heroic work of WikiLeaks have helped give us a glimpse of what Afghans have to endure. On 16 August 2007 Polish troops mortared a wedding party in a village called Nangar Khel. Four women and one man were killed. A pregnant woman in attendance was among those wounded by shrapnel. Though an emergency caesarean was performed, her baby died.

NATO’s attempts to master the dark arts of spin cannot be allowed to conceal the brazen opportunism of the alliance. When the Soviet Union started to collapse, there was much nervousness among NATO staff that their beloved institution would go out of business. After a lengthy period of scrambling around for reasons why the alliance was still relevant now that the Cold War was supposed to be over, it was given a new lease of life with the implosion of Yugoslavia. In 1999, NATO celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by raining down cluster bombs – weapons so dangerous that over 100 governments have subsequently agreed to ban them – on Serbia. No soldier, general or political leader serving the alliance has ever been held to account for that monstrous war crime.

Afghanistan has helped ensure that NATO will remain alive and kicking for the foreseeable future. In August 2003, NATO took charge of the US-led “stabilisation force” occupying Afghanistan. Karl Eikenberry, now US ambassador to Afghanistan and a former deputy commander of NATO’s 28-nation military committee, stated in 2007 that “the policy of turning Afghanistan over to NATO was really about the future of NATO rather than about Afghanistan, one that could ‘make’ the alliance. The long view of the Afghanistan campaign is that it is a means to continue the transformation of the alliance.”

Transforming NATO “means in the first place expanding it into a global military force, one able to wage wars like that in Afghanistan and others modeled after it,” Rick Rozoff has observed on his excellent “Stop NATO” blog.

In his New Year’s message, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary general, rejoiced in how there are now nearly 140,000 NATO soldiers deployed around the world: in the Balkans, Iraq, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean (off the Horn of Africa), as well as in Afghanistan. Rasmussen would like us to think that all these men and women are working tirelessly to bring peace and stability to trouble spots. But closer inspection of NATO’s track record shows that their primary purpose is to ensure that the US and Europe will have access to energy supplies and other resources that our myopic governments regard as essential for our economies.

NATO’s activities in Africa, for example, have received only a fraction of the media coverage given to Iraq or Afghanistan. But the bit of information that we have available to us is illuminating. James Jones, who stepped down in October as the US national security adviser, paid a considerable amount of attention to Africa when he was a high-level NATO commander a few years previously. In 2006, Jones signalled that NATO was thinking about using the fight against piracy as a pretext to launch a mission off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea. The aim of this mission would be to avert any perceived threats to the energy supply routes for Western nations, he said.

It is about time that journalists grew more sceptical than we have been towards the whole industry of think tanks and self-appointed experts in Brussels and Washington who praise NATO at every available opportunity. For many years, I was naive enough to believe that an influential outfit called the International Crisis Group (ICG) was a credible source of information and ideas on conflict resolution. My illusions have been shattered by an article from its president Louise Arbour last month, in which she argued that greater resources should be allocated to NATO’s war efforts in Afghanistan. Arbour used to be the UN’s high commissioner for human rights but did not direct one word against how NATO’s bombs routinely rob Afghans of that most basic of rights: the right to life. Shame on her.

·First published by New Europe (, 16-22 January 2011.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dutch democracy under threat from Israel lobby

Since I first came here to Amsterdam in 1998, I have been in the Netherlands on many occasions and have always enjoyed myself. While I intend to continue visiting this country, I have realised that I need to reassess some of my assumptions about it.

Until recently, I was under the impression that the Netherlands was a democracy, in which freedom of expression was regarded as sacrosanct. Then I read some comments attributed to your foreign minister Uri Rosenthal.

The minister is putting pressure on the Dutch anti-poverty organisation ICCO to cease funding The Electronic Intifada, an excellent website that consistently defends the rights of the Palestinian people. Rosenthal has indicated that he cannot tolerate how ICCO supports this website, given that the Dutch government is a strong supporter of Israel. He has threatened to withdraw Dutch state grants to ICCO, telling the organisation: “It is alright to be critical but not to directly oppose the government”.

Rosenthal’s comments about The Electronic Intifada follow a report by a Zionist lobby group called NGO Monitor. This group accused The Electronic Intifada of being anti-Semitic without providing any evidence to back up its claims. Sadly, this is a typical tactic of the pro-Israel lobby. As soon as somebody tells the truth about Israel being an apartheid state and a vicious colonial project, it is only a matter of time before the lobby will label him or her an anti-Semite. This is a deliberate move designed to muzzle debate.

When Rosenthal says “it is alright to be critical but not to directly oppose the government”, we need to ask exactly what he means.

I am proud to be a contributor to The Electronic Intifada because I know that it defends the core human values enshrined in international law. It fearlessly exposes how international law is violated by such activities as the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the merciless blockade of Gaza.

Is it no longer acceptable in the Netherlands to defend international law?

Rather than becoming so exercised about The Electronic Intifada, I would urge Rosenthal and his government colleagues to investigate those Dutch organisations that facilitate abuses of international law.
Perhaps, for example, they could take a trip to the Israel Centre in Nijkerk, which is run by Christians for Israel. I visited this centre myself last summer and discovered how its shop sells many products manufactured by companies who are active in illegal Israeli settlements. These included cosmetics from Ahava, a firm based in the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem.

Perhaps, too, the Dutch government could examine the activities of the Sar-El Foundation, one of several organisations here in the Netherlands dedicated to supporting the Israeli army. Max Arpels Lezer, the chairman of this foundation, has boasted of how Dutch volunteers who take part in training exercises with the Israeli army “help the battle against the Palestinians” as if helping the oppression of an entire people is something admirable.

For some bizarre reason, the Sar-El Foundation is considered to be a charity. Donations to the foundation are, therefore, tax deductible. This is despite how the Israeli army that it supports has committed crimes against humanity, according to the United Nations investigation led by the retired South African judge Richard Goldstone into Israel’s attacks on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Can somebody please explain to me how one Dutch organisation can be treated as a charity, when it supports violations of international law? But when another Dutch organisation – such as ICCO – defends international law, the government threatens to punish it. Where is the justice here?

Late last year a very interesting diplomatic cable from the American embassy in The Hague was released by the website WikiLeaks. Drafted by Clifford Sobel, as he was preparing to step down as ambassador to the Netherlands in 2005, the cable states that Britain and the Netherlands are America’s most trusted allies in western Europe. The cable commends Dutch diplomats for being willing to act as America’s “eyes and ears” in the countries where they are posted and describes the Dutch as “go-to-guys” when the US is seeking a mediator to resolve internal disputes in NATO.

Among the similarities between The Netherlands and the US are that both governments consistently accommodate Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. Some veteran observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict to whom I have spoken have gone so far as to name The Netherlands as Israel’s most steadfast supporter in Western Europe.

Maxime Verhagen, the Dutch foreign minister until last year, proved especially amenable to Israeli propaganda.

During 2008 and 2009, Verhagen blamed the violence in Gaza entirely on Hamas. In doing so, he ignored how Hamas observed an Egyptian-brokered truce with Israel between June and November 2008. It was Israel which resumed the cycle of violence by attacking Gaza on 4 November that year, a day when the world was preoccupied with the election of a new American president.

Almost all of the victims of Operation Cast Lead, the three-week bombardment of Gaza that Israel launched in late December 2008, were Palestinians. In total, 1,387 Palestinians were killed. Almost 800 of these took no part in the hostilities, according to investigations by human rights monitors. These included 320 children.

By contrast, nine Israelis were killed during the violence. Six of them were Israeli soldiers, three were non-combatants.

If gestures of solidarity were required in early 2009, then surely it was the people of Gaza who required them most. Verhagen decided instead to express his solidarity with Israel. In January 2009, he travelled to Sderot in southern Israel, where he voiced concern about the rockets being fired by Hamas. If he had extended his trip by a few kilometres and ventured into Gaza, Verhagen would have witnessed far worse suffering caused by far more lethal weapons. But he refused to visit Gaza, showing no interest in seeing first-hand what was happening.

Could this be the same Maxime Verhagen who had previously presented a strategy paper to the Dutch parliament officially aimed at giving human rights a central role in his country’s foreign policy? Could it be the same Maxime Verhagen who stated in 2008 that “human rights apply to all people, in all places and at all times”?

I have a question for Verhagen and for other Dutch politicians today. Why do the human rights you claim to champion not apply to the Palestinian people?

·Excerpt from a presentation given in the ABC Treehouse, Amsterdam, 15 January 2011. Thanks to the Netherlands Palestine Committee for organising the event.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Israel's crimes, Britain's culpability

Jody McIntyre hit the headlines late last year, when police pushed him from his wheelchair at a demonstration here in London against cutbacks to education. Although I have never met Jody, I am an admirer of his campaigning work on a number of issues, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. I was particularly impressed with a point he made in a recent speech, where he observed that the name Arthur James Balfour is far more readily recognised in Palestine than in Balfour’s native Britain.

As foreign secretary in 1917, Balfour wrote a terse letter to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, stating that his government supported the objective of setting up a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. It is true that the Balfour declaration also said that nothing would be done to prejudice the rights of people from other religions living in Palestine. Two years later, however, Balfour negated that caveat when he said: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

The words of Balfour illustrate how the establishment of the state of Israel can only be viewed as a colonial project based on a toxic notion of racial supremacy. Because Britain gave its blessing to this project three decades before its goals were realised, the ruling elite in this country must share in the blame for everything that has happened subsequently. This includes the ever-tightening embrace between the European Union and Israel.

Some London newspapers regularly convey the impression that Britain has been dragged into the European Union against its will. Yet while the United Kingdom may have a semi-detached relationship with Europe on some economic matters, it plays a central role in shaping the EU’s foreign policies. Five UK representatives have been especially influential over recent years in ensuring that the EU mollycoddles Israel like no other state outside the Union’s borders.

The best-known of the five is Tony Blair. In an abuse of the English language, Blair is routinely described as an international “peace envoy” for the Middle East. Not only did the former prime minister team up with George Bush to launch an illegal war in Iraq, he has consistently accommodated Israel’s war crimes. When Israel subjected the people of Lebanon to a merciless assault in 2006, most EU countries wished to formally call for a ceasefire. The exception was Tony Blair, who blocked the Union from doing so.

In his memoirs, published in the autumn last year, Blair intimates that he did not simply support Israel on that occasion because his puppetmaster in the White House told him to. Instead, he wrote that condemning Israel “would have been more than dishonest; it would have undermined the worldview I had come to hold passionately.” Blair also wrote that he regarded the attack on Lebanon as part of “a wider struggle between the strain of religious extremism in Islam and the rest of us”.

Reading these comments has helped me understand that Tony Blair is in some respects the Arthur Balfour of the twenty-first century. He acts as an apologist for Israel even when it slaughters over 1,000 civilians – as it did in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza more recently – because he has swallowed the main principles of Zionism. This explains why despite his veneer of impartiality, he has been recruited as a peddler of propaganda for the Israeli state. Following Israel’s murder of nine peace activists on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May last year, Blair held extensive talks with Binyamin Netanyahu about how to manage the political fall-out. It was Blair, who travelled around praising Israel’s decision to loosen ever so slightly the noose it had placed around Gaza, well before the details of this piecemeal easing of the blockade were announced.

When the invasion of Iraq was being prepared, Tony Blair’s top adviser on foreign policy was a diplomat called Robert Cooper. As Cooper is now a top-level foreign policy strategist in Brussels, he is the second UK representative I wish to speak about.

Fancying himself as an intellectual, Cooper clearly enjoys putting his thoughts about global affairs down in writing. His 2003 book The Breaking of Nations offers a highly readable and highly frightening insight into the thinking that pervades the British Foreign Office. Cooper contends that a new form of imperialism is necessary for the twenty-first century. His book, for example, lauds the “limited form of voluntary empire” that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund embody, without expressing any concern about how these two American and European-dominated institutions have subjected whole countries to misery.

Cooper enjoys close relations with several pro-Israel lobbyists in Brussels. He has penned joint pamphlets with Ronald Asmus, a leading figure in the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who has been campaigning for Israel to be admitted to NATO. Cooper has proven amenable to the core arguments of the Israel lobby. He has been advocating behind the scenes that the European Union should take a strident approach towards Iran over that country’s nuclear programme. This chimes with the sabre-rattling towards Iran from both Israel and the United States. And it is brazenly hypocritical. It was not Iran that introduced nuclear weapons to the Middle East. It was Israel. It is not Iran that refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is Israel. And yet it is Iran that has been subject to sanctions from the European Union over its nuclear programme. Not Israel.

At the beginning of December 2010, Cooper was appointed as a top adviser to the new diplomatic corps – external action service in Brussels parlance. That service is run by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s current foreign policy chief, and the third UK representative on my list.

Ashton kicked off the New Year by choosing Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for her first working trip abroad for 2011. Ashton used this trip to boast of how the EU is invariably generous to the Palestinian people. She announced an initial aid package of €100 million (£83 million) to the Palestinian Authority, signalling that more will be released to the PA during the course of this year.

It is true that the EU is the largest provider of aid to the Palestinian Authority and is helping to finance the provision of vital services, including healthcare and education. But it is entirely wrong of Ashton to portray such aid as evidence of generosity. International law – in particular the Hague Regulations of 1907 – makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the occupying power to meet the basic needs of the people under occupation.

What Ashton has failed to spell out is that the European Union is relieving Israel of its responsibilities under international law. The EU has a legal and moral duty to send the bills for its aid to Israel, especially when Israel causes damage to EU-financed infrastructure. The Union has had many opportunities to sue Israel when such destruction occurs, such as after the attack on Gaza in 2008 and 2009, when at least €11 million worth of damage was inflicted on EU-funded projects. Yet the EU’s institutions have repeatedly backed away from holding Israel to account.

Ashton deserves a modicum of credit for speaking out last weekend against the demolition of the Shepherd hotel in East Jerusalem. Yet while she has issued several robust statements about the expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, it should not be forgotten that she is eager to bring Israel even closer to the EU than it already is. During the autumn of last year, she recommended that Israel should be designated a “strategic partner” for the Union. This would put Israel on a similar ranking to larger economies like the US and China in terms of how it is prioritised by EU officialdom. Last week she described the EU’s relationship with Israel as “strong and solid” and expressed hope that it will become even stronger in the coming months.

I will forgive you if you have not heard of the fourth and fifth UK representatives on my list. They are two police officers: Colin Smith and Paul Kernaghan. As younger men both Smith and Kernaghan were members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a police force which many Irish people, myself included, regard as synonymous with harassment of the Catholic community in the North of Ireland. This background alone should be sufficient to render them unsuitable for any policing role in the Middle East.

Yet both men have headed an EU body called the Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (COPPS). Propaganda would have us believe that this police training mission is designed to pave the way towards a Palestinian state. Documents drawn up by the Israeli authorities, however, have revealed the mission is subservient to Israel. One such document – from April last year – boasted of how there had been a rise of 72% in “coordinated actions” between Israeli and Palestinian police between 2008 and 2009.

Just as significantly, the police mission is being used to drive a wedge between the political representatives of the Palestinian people. Human rights monitors have reported that the clashes between Fatah and Hamas have helped turn the occupied Palestinian territories into a “police state”. The EU mission has refused to deal with Hamas in Gaza and has instead confined its operations to the West Bank for the past few years. Police in the West Bank are known to have resorted to torture of Hamas supporters. Despite how the EU is nominally opposed to torture wherever it occurs, its representatives have been mainly silent about torture perpetrated by the very police officers in the West Bank who they are in charge of training.

Political and economic relations between the EU and Israel are covered by an “association agreement” which came into effect in 2000. Article 2 of that agreement stipulates that both sides must respect human rights. Even though that condition is legally-binding, the EU has turned a blind eye to many of the crimes that Israel has committed against the Palestinians over the ensuing decade. After the attacks on Gaza in 2008 and 2009, for example, the EU extended the scope of trade preferences that it offers to agricultural goods from Israel. As a result most Israeli food exports, both fresh and processed, can enter the EU without having to pay customs duties. The EU is already Israel’s largest trading partner and both sides have expressed an interest in increasing the volume of that trade. The European Commission has gone so far as to set up a body known as the EU-Israel business dialogue, where chief executives can brainstorm on how to overcome any obstacles they encounter when trying to make profits.

Britain is the third largest destination for Israeli exports. Peter Mandelson, the former business secretary, voiced hopes during his time in office that the volume of British-Israeli trade will be worth more than £3 billion per annum by 2012. If realised, that would be an increase of £700 million in the volume of trade over a five-year period.

Many of the companies trading between Britain and Israel are directly involved in the occupation of Palestine. Travellers on the London Underground are under surveillance from video equipment manufactured by Verint, a subsidiary of the Israeli firm Comverse Technology. Verint has also won a contract to install a closed circuit TV system in Earl’s Court as part of preparations for next year’s Olympic Games.

BT, meanwhile, has a special partnership with Bezeq, an Israeli company that provides telecommunications to illegal settlements and military checkpoints in the West Bank. Around this time last year, Bezeq was admitted into the BT Alliance programme, under which it enjoys access to BT services on preferential terms.

Worse again, some of the components used by Israel’s most lethal warplanes are manufactured on British soil. Elbit, the maker of the pilotless drones that have killed numerous civilians in Gaza, has invested considerably in this country. Engines for one of Elbit’s drones, the Hermes 450, are made at its factory in Lichfield, north of Birmingham.

Earlier today, I was scheduled to give a separate talk to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation in King's College London. I decided, however, to withdraw from this event when I learned that this centre is a partnership between four different academic institutions, including the Herzliya Inter-Disciplinary Centre in Israel.

After consulting with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, which represents a wide cross-society of Palestinian society, I learned that the Herzliya centre reserves 10% of its places for veterans of elite combat units in the Israeli army and that it has expressed pride in how its students work for Israeli arms companies. I support the campaign to boycott institutions that enable the occupation of Palestine and for that reason I felt that I had no choice than to boycott the partnership between the Herzliya centre and King's College London.

I was similarly shocked to learn that Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, was given an honorary doctorate by King’s College in November 2008. The authorities who decided to give this award to an inveterate war-monger like Peres should be ashamed of themselves. I salute those students in King's College who have called for this honour to be revoked.

By coincidence, I also stumbled across a remark from Shimon Peres over the past week in a feature about Israeli cinema published in The Sunday Times last summer. “Israel grew like a miracle and fought like a tiger,” Peres said. “She is the only utopia of the twentieth century that became a reality. She was born in drama and she never stops being dramatic.”

Israel is certainly dramatic but it is no utopia. Rather, it is state established as a result of a vicious colonial project. Six decades after its establishment, Israel is continuing to oppress an entire people. Ending that oppression is one of the greatest moral challenges of our age.

·Text of a presentation given to the Islamic Human Rights Commission’s book shop in Wembley, London, 12 January 2011.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Barroso's growth delusion

I have a guilty secret to confess. Despite loathing the tittle-tattle about celebrities that routinely masquerades as journalism, I sometimes pay too much attention to ephemera. On Saturday mornings, my eyes tend to ignore the news headlines in The Financial Times and instead fix themselves on a feature called Lunch with the FT. The only justification I have for this weakness is that it affords me an opportunity to scoff at the powerful diners portrayed.

Among the recent beneficiaries of the FT’s expense account was José Manuel Barroso. The European Commission president chose an old haunt for his free meal – York House in Lisbon – and insisted that the menu of foie gras and John Dory was chosen not by him but by the restaurant’s manager. Yet the fact that he was sating himself on such delicacies at a time when more than 85 million people in the EU – or 17% of its population - live below the poverty line illustrates how aloof he is from the citizens he purports to champion.

Barroso also claimed that one of the guiding principles in his life is to embrace things that are new and different. Although this may be true of his penchant for experimental jazz, it is impossible to detect any signs of fresh thinking in the two most important activities on his schedule this week.

On Wednesday, Barroso will present the Commission’s annual “growth survey”. This will be heralded as the beginning of a cycle of economic governance, under which EU governments coordinate their national budget plans with unelected officials in Brussels. The paper will also contend that the savage cutbacks to public spending being taken across the Union must continue in order to please the goddess TINA (there is no alternative).

The “survey” will be a follow-up to the “Europe 2020” strategy agreed by the Union’s key bodies last year for achieving “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth” this decade. Barroso and his ilk tend to recite those buzzwords as if they amount to an incantation. Experience proves, however, that economic growth as it is currently defined can be neither sustainable nor inclusive. This is because it is measured using a crude and antiquated indicator called gross domestic product (GDP).

Back in 2007, Barroso himself acknowledged that using GDP - developed during the Great Depression era of the 1930s - as an economic compass was “not sufficient” today. Addressing a conference in Brussels, he pointed out that GDP calculates market activity, rather than well-being and intimated that relying on it alone can be catastrophic. He inferred, for example, that policy-makers could refuse to take measures essential for the survival of the human species – such as protecting the rainforest – if they were harmful to growth.

Some work has been undertaken by the Commission – mainly by its environment department – since then on devising measures to “complement” GDP. Similarly, the governments of Britain and France have sought studies on how the impacts of economic policies on the environment and even “happiness” can be gauged. It is telling, however, that the EU as a bloc still attaches more importance to GDP, a three-letter acronym, than to ensuring that each child realises his or her potential.

The notion that the EU will find a magic formula to make growth “inclusive” is particularly fanciful. The neo-liberal orthodoxy to which the Union is wedded has resulted in a situation where the world’s 200 companies account for 28% of global GDP, yet employ less than 0.25% of the global workforce. All of the euro-zone economies now in severe difficulty saw significant GDP growth per head of population between 1990 and 2010 – Ireland by 107%, Greece by 53%, Spain by 38% and Portugal by 32%. Yet none of these countries witnessed any comparable narrowing in the gap between rich and poor. Eurostat, the EU’s in-house number-crunchers, has published data indicating that the levels of income inequality recorded for Spain and Greece were higher in 2009 than in 2000.

Barroso has identified energy as “the next great European integration project” and as a “growth-enhancing sector”. Yet while he is extolling the virtues of renewable energy and of energy efficiency, the other important item on his schedule this week proves that his talk about steering Europe in a more “sustainable” direction cannot be taken seriously. As part of a visit to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, he and Günther Oettinger, the EU’s energy commissioner, will discuss the future of the 3,300km Nabucco pipeline project for bringing gas from Central Asia to Europe.

The project underscores just how skewed the priorities of EU energy policy are. The consortium behind the project – which includes Germany’s RWE - is seeking a €2 billion loan from the European Investment Bank. Yet in 2009, that bank allocated a mere €190 million for measures ostensibly promoting energy efficiency in EU’s 12 newest entrants from central and Eastern Europe.

Once completed, the Nabucco project would mean that a large proportion of the EU’s energy comes from Turkmenistan, a country where the ruling regime brooks no opposition and where human rights organisations are forbidden. You can be sure that Barroso is not going there to tell the authorities that the condition of buying Turkmen gas is that they become less repressive. For all of his rhetoric about Europe’s commitment to values like human rights and democracy, it is the value of business contracts that concerns him most.

·First published by New Europe (, 9-15 January 2011

Friday, January 7, 2011

New year, new lies from Israel lobby

One of Israel’s most dubious inventions is a form of public relations generally unconnected to the truth. It is called hasbara, a Hebrew term that has no “real, precise” translation into other languages, according to a senior Israeli diplomat Gideon Meir.

The hasbara machine was cranked into action early in 2011. On New Year’s Eve, Jawaher Abu Rahmah collapsed from inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli troops during the weekly protest against the massive wall that penetrates deep into her native Bilin, a West Bank village. After she died the following morning, the Israeli army spread malicious rumours – reported faithfully in some newspapers – that she may not have attended the demonstration and instead perished from cancer.

The practice of hasbara is not restricted to official organs of the Israeli state, as a recent article by Daniel Mariaschin from the Zionist lobby group B’nai B’rith illustrated (“Europe’s misguided meddling in Israel”, EUobserver, 5 January). In taking a swipe at 26 former office-holders who have appealed for EU sanctions against Israel if it does not halt the expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian land, Mariaschin attempts to dress up several falsehoods as facts.

Mariaschin asserts that the signers of the appeal – including Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief for most of the past decade – “all know Israel well and are surely familiar with its desire for peace”. Yet he provides not one shred of evidence to prove that Israel, the world’s third highest spender on the military (as a proportion of gross domestic product) and the only Middle Eastern country with nuclear weapons, has a “desire for peace”.

He defends the construction of exclusively Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem by claiming that Jerusalem has been the “capital of Israel for 3,000 years”. This perception has no basis in international law. In 1980, the United Nations Security Council declared Israel’s claims over East Jerusalem to be “null and void”.

Just as absurdly, Mariaschin argues that Israel’s control over Jerusalem “enables Jews, Christians and Muslims each to freely worship at their own holy sites in the city”. Where was that magical freedom in 2010, when Israel sealed off crossings in order to stop Christians in the West Bank from celebrating Easter in Jerusalem?

And Mariaschin regurgitates the trite Israeli line that it “withdrew” from Gaza in 2005, only to be bombarded by rockets from Hamas. He neglects to mention that Hamas observed an Egyptian-brokered truce with Israel between June and November 2008. It was Israel which resumed the cycle of violence by attacking Gaza on 4 November that year, a day when the world was preoccupied with the election of a new American president. Israel’s dismantlement of its settlements in Gaza does not alter the area’s status; the 1907 Hague regulations make clear that a territory is occupied when a foreign power exerts “effective control” over it. As part of its determination to maintain control of Gaza, Israel has imposed a brutal blockade by land and by sea. Gaza’s fishermen, for example, are regularly fired at by Israeli naval vessels while doing nothing more sinister than trying to earn a living.

Nonetheless, I have some sympathy for Mariaschin’s observation that the Palestinian leadership “is on its way to betraying its own people”. If the “leadership” Mariaschin is referring to is the Palestinian Authority, then I would go further by saying that it has been engaged in a steady process of betrayal. A US diplomatic cable made public lately by WikiLeaks indicates that Mahmoud Abbas, the authority’s “president” (his mandate expired in 2009) was told in advance about Israel’s plans to bomb Gaza in late 2008 but that he was so fixated on the rivalry between Hamas and his party Fatah that he kept silent.

To its shame, the European Union has been pressurising Abbas to act as a quisling. The late scholar Edward Said drew a distinction between how Fatah has behaved in the occupied territories and the African National Congress behaved in South Africa. Even after the ANC was granted recognition by the apartheid regime, it refused to supply police “in order to avoid appearing as the white government’s enforcer,” Said wrote. This in stark contrast with the situation in the West Bank; during 2011, the EU will give more than €8 million to the Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (COPPS). This “mission” is confined to a sliver of the West Bank; Palestinian police trained under it may only arrest their kinfolk, not Israeli settlers on stolen land. In other words, the Palestinians are being required to police their own occupation – with unwitting assistance from the European taxpayer.

Shamefully, too, the EU has been helping Israel to hone a neo-colonial “divide and rule” strategy in the occupied territories. Catherine Ashton, the Union’s current foreign policy chief, has chosen Israel and the West Bank for her first working trip abroad this year. Although she met Fatah representatives, she refused to talk to anyone from Hamas, the victors of parliamentary elections in 2006 that official EU monitors deemed to be free and fair. The EU’s decision to ostracise Hamas – originally taken under pressure from Washington – does nothing to advance the search for peace to which the Union is rhetorically committed. Rather, it advances Israeli imperialism and the attendant dispossession of the Palestinians.

It is telling that senior politicians wait until they have left office before they criticise Israel. Before stepping down in 2009, Javier Solana exulted in how Israel enjoys a closer relationship with the EU than any other state outside the Union’s borders. Participating in EU programmes ranging from archaeology to enterprise promotion, Israel is a member of the Union, without being a member of its institutions, Solana noted.

The widespread public revulsion in Europe at how Israel treats the Palestinians as subhuman is not shared by our leaders. True, they feign concern every so often from one side of their mouths. From the other, they give Israel all the support it needs to keep subjugating an entire people.

·First published by EUobserver (, 7 January 2010