Monday, April 30, 2012

Why MEPs must rip up trade deal with Israel

Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.

Those words were uttered in the early 1960s by Henrik Verwoerd, the South African prime minister. As an incorrigible racist himself, he had no difficulty recognising the foundation of the state of Israel as a racist project.

Twice over the past few weeks, I’ve seen Roadmap to Apartheid, a powerful new documentary directed by Eron Davidson and Ana Nogueira, which compares Israel with South Africa under white rule. What struck me is that the practises and terminology used in both situations are almost identical. In South Africa, black people were declared as “foreign natives”; Israel considers Palestinians as “present absentees”. In both cases, this obscene language is used to strip human beings of essential rights on the spurious pretext that they don’t belong on the land to which they are indigenous.

The United Nations defines apartheid as the domination of one racial or ethnic group over another. When the definition is applied to Israel, it can be concluded that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is more extreme than South Africa’s oppression of the black majority during its apartheid era. As Roadmap to Apartheid demonstrates, black South Africans were never subjected to a three-week bombing campaign of the type Israel inflicted on Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants in December 2008 and January 2009.

Boycott grows

White rule was eventually brought down in South Africa through a combination of internal resistance and international pressure. It is striking that Israel now faces a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign that is growing faster than a similar international mobilisation against apartheid South Africa. The first call for a global boycott of South Africa was made in the 1950s but did not have a serious impact until the 1980s. The Palestinian call for BDS is a mere seven years old but has already notched up significant victories. Even the European Parliament recently cancelled a contract with the security firm G4S because it provides services to Israeli prisons.

Sadly, the Parliament is not fully signed up to the BDS pledge.

Within the next two months, MEPs are expected to vote on a new EU-Israel trade accord. Known as the Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA) agreement, it would grant quality checks that the Israeli authorities carry out on manufactured goods the same status as checks carried out by authorities within the Union. This would make it easier for Israel to export manufactured goods here. Initially, the accord will be limited to pharmaceutical products but could soon be extended to other categories.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government regards winning the Parliament’s approval for ACAA as a top priority. It has hired the “public relations” firm Kreab Gavin Anderson to assist with its efforts. Karl Isaksson, head of Kreab’s Brussels office, has told me that his outfit is providing Israel with advice on “political messaging”.

The three stooges

Isaksson previously worked as chief adviser to Sweden’s Conservative MEPs. It cannot be a coincidence that one of the most active supporters of ACAA is the current Swedish Conservative MEP, Christoffer Fjellner.

In February, Fjellner and two other MEPs (Poland’s Marek Siwiec and Britain’s Sarah Ludford) put their names to an article that reeked of hasbara (the Hebrew term for propaganda). It inferred that Israel will enable us live longer and help lift us out of recession.

ACAA is necessary, according to the three stooges, to increase the supply of “high-quality and affordable medicines” in Europe. Israel is “a leader in innovation in health care products and services”, their article contends. Boosting trade with “our main partners” is “arguably of increased importance today given the deterioration of public finances and the need to cut government spending across the continent,” it adds.

Karel de Gucht, the Union’s trade commissioner, has been trying to persuade MEPs to rubber-stamp ACAA by presenting it as “no more than a technical agreement”.

De Gucht’s case is disingenuous. In a 2009 “progress report” on Israel, the European Commission stated that ACAA’s entry into force would mark the first step in Israel’s integration into the EU’s single market for goods and services. De Gucht cannot seriously maintain that the single market is simply a technical matter; it is deeply political.

The EU’s governments do not see ACAA as “no more than a technical agreement” either. Replying to an MEP’s query last year, the Council of Ministers said that ACAA is “likely to have a positive impact on EU-Israel bilateral relations.”

Before stepping down as the EU’s foreign policy chief in 2009, Javier Solana described Israel as a member of the Union, without being a member of its institutions. ACAA will make a strong relationship even stronger.

It is insulting for Zionist sympathisers to present Israel as a medical leader. Halla Shoaibi from the University of Michigan in the US has documented how 69 Palestinian women had to give birth at Israeli roadblocks because they were prevented from reaching hospitals between 2000 and 2007. Five of the mothers and 35 babies died as a result.

The state of Israel decides who can go to hospital and, in many cases, who can live or die based on people’s religion and ethnicity. A South African regime once made comparable decisions based on the colour of one’s skin.

Make no mistake, Israel is an apartheid state.

●First published by New Europe, 29 April – 5 May 2012.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pro-Israel hawks clash over history of "Independence Day"

Two of Israel’s most ardent supporters in the European Parliament clashed this week over their interpretations of Zionist history.

I’ve got hold of an intriguing series of email messages sent after an invitation was circulated for a drinks reception in Brussels marking Israel’s so-called Independence Day. The event -- held on Wednesday night -- was organized by European Friends of Israel, a lobby group comprised of various members of the Parliament (MEPs).

Responding to the invitation, Malika Benarab-Attou, an MEP representing France, expressed puzzlement by the name Independence Day. “Does this mean Israel was colonized?” she asked. “By whom?”


The EFI’s chairman, Marek Siwiec from Poland, then gave a slightly condescending lesson to Benarab-Attou. “The word ‘independence’ describes usually the anniversary of the creation of a country,” he wrote. “Sometimes independence means a nation’s assumption of independent statehood after ceasing to be a colony, sometimes it means the end of a military occupation. Just think about Independence Day in the USA, where they commemorate, on 4 July, the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776.

“I think that if you looked a bit deeper into the history of Israel, you would discover that only in 1948, Israel got rid of the British protectorate. So, what we will celebrate today, is an independence from the British mandate for Palestine. I will translate it into your terms: this independence means the end of the colonization by the British mandate.”

That explanation wasn’t good enough for another leading light in the EFI, the English Conservative Charles Tannock. He took umbrage at the hint that Britain might have behaved in a less than honorable manner in Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel.

“I cannot let it pass that you describe this independence day of Israel as celebrating the end of British colonisation!!” Tannock wrote (his exclamation marks). Tannock claimed that the British Mandate to rule Palestine from 1923 to 1948 was granted under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations “in order to protect and decolonize” former German and Ottoman-controlled territories after the First World War.

“We were never ‘colonists’ – i.e. claiming national sovereignty and attempting to settle British people in Palestine and in fact we lost British soldiers and civilian administrators due to terrorist actions against the UK as we tried to keep the peace between the different communities in Palestine and arriving settlers from abroad. Sadly 70 years on these matters have not been peaceably resolved yet but I have never heard before from anyone the idea that we British were a ‘colonial power’ as opposed to a ‘mandated power’ in interwar Palestine!!”

Rosy view

Tannock’s rosy view of Britain’s role in the Middle East omits some salient facts. The most salient -- indeed, indisputable -- fact is that in 1917, Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary in London, wrote a terse letter to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland promising the establishment of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. Two years later, Balfour expanded on this pledge by stating: “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.

Imperial behavior

The fact that Britain didn’t try to settle its own population in Palestine is hardly relevant. Britain didn’t move large numbers of its civilians into India either, yet not even Tannock could argue that India wasn’t once a British colony.

More importantly, Britain’s behavior in Palestine bore the hallmarks of an imperial power. Henry Hugh Tudor, inspector-general of police and prisons in British Mandate Palestine, had previously headed the police force in Ireland during its war of independence in 1920 and 1921. A large component of the officers under his command in Palestine had been part of the Black and Tans, British colonial forces that burnt down part of my hometown (Balbriggan, County Dublin) and several other parts of Ireland.

Nor should we forget Britain’s High Commissioner to Palestine, Herbert Samuel, who paved the way for the theft of Palestinian land. Himself a committed Zionist, Samuel issued a series of regulations on landownership that enabled the Zionist leadership to acquire huge chunks of Palestine. Selective Tannock’s reading of the Covenant of the League of Nations would also appear a little selective. Article 22, which he cited, stipulated that the wishes of the indigenous populations in former Ottoman territories “must be a principal consideration” for the mandatory power. Plotting to install a Jewish state in a land with a majority Arab population was hardly in keeping with either the spirit or the letter of that clause.

The disagreement between Tannock and Siwiec didn’t appear to spoil the atmosphere at the European Friends of Israel drinks. The special guest for the evening was Einat Wilf, a member of the Knesset with Ehud Barak’s new party Independence. Earlier this year, Wilf alleged that Palestinians have a “desire to perpetuate the conflict.”

It sounds like she was perfect company for a group known to bend and twist history to suit its own purposes.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 26 April 2012.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The race is on for Burma's resources

Profile writers habitually compare Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela for obvious reasons. Both have displayed immense bravery; both have endured many years of incarceration at the behest of brutal regimes; both are articulate and photogenic.

I fear that it will soon be possible to draw another parallel. Following his release, Mandela and his comrades were persuaded to turn South Africa into a dreamland for global corporations. The ANC proved so “generous” in allowing foreign investors take their profits out of the country that in 2001 George Soros told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “South Africa is now in the hands of international capital.” By some indicators, the poor got poorer.

Is a similar process underway in Burma?

On 1 April, the day of Suu Kyi’s election, a 12-storey “colonial style” hotel in Phonm Penh hosted the second annual business summit between the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Participants, including the EU’s trade commissioner Karel de Gucht, were invited to a side event titled “Building Business in Myanmar” (as Burma is officially known).

Not having previously heard of the event’s organisers, Vriens & Partners, I spent some time examining who is behind this outfit. Eventually, I found a 2009 article from the magazine PublicAffairsAsia, saying it is a joint project between Hans Vriens (previously a bigwig in the communications firm APCO) and Noke Kiroyan, Indonesia director with the mining colossus Rio Tinto. In 2008, Rio Tinto was excluded from Norway’s state-owned pension fund over the environmental damage the Anglo-Australian company’s activities had caused in West Papua (officially part of Indonesia).

Altruistic motives?

You would have to be suffering from an incurable strain of naivety to think Vriens and Kiroyan have an altruistic motive in promoting Burma’s investment opportunities.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch stated that it would favour a gradual easing of the EU’s sanctions on Burma but urged that restrictive measures should remain in place against certain sectors of the Burmese economy for the time being. Mining, gems and timber are still monopolised by the military.

Rio Tinto is the single largest shareholder in the Canadian firm Ivanhoe, which struck a deal in 1994 to exploit the Monya copper deposit in Burma. Thirteen years later, Ivanhoe supposedly withdrew from the project, supposedly selling its Monya assets to an independent trust registered in Canada. Recently, though, WikiLeaks published a US diplomatic cable revealing that Ivanhoe’s 50% stake in Monya was in fact sold to the Burmese military junta. The regime then re-sold the assets to a consortium headed by Norinco, a Chinese weapons firm. Tay Za, a Burmese “regime crony” (as the cable describes him) brokered the deal and was expected to pocket $50 million; he was one of the Burmese ruling elite subject to EU sanctions.

Vriens & Partners has an office in Rangoon (also known as Yangon), the Burmese capital. In a February letter to The Financial Times, its chief representative there Romain Caillaud wrote: “Western companies clearly have many allies among Myanmar’s business and political elite as well as among the broader population, and many more will appear once these companies establish a presence in the country. Having lived and worked in Yangon for more than four years now, I can say that western companies have a positive image here. Their investments are expected by many Myanmar nationals to be made in a more responsible manner than that displayed by some Asian companies not blocked by sanctions, which, in the longer term, are unlikely to face political and consumer pressure to behave more responsibly in Myanmar.”

This notion that European entrepreneurs are more ethical than their Chinese or Indian counterparts is flimsy.

Cameron’s corporate chums

When David Cameron toured south-east Asia, including Burma, earlier this month, he was accompanied by executive types from Shell, BAE Systems and BHP Billiton. It would take a considerable degree of chutzpah to defend Shell’s despoliation of the Niger Delta or the backhanders BAE gave to the Saudi royal family in return for weapons contracts on the grounds that the Chinese might do worse.

BHP Billiton – a merger between Australian and South African resource exploiters – has a strong historical connection to apartheid. Billiton’s parent company Gencor ran the Kincross gold mine, where the worst disaster in South Africa’s mining history occurred in 1986. Some 177 workers were killed in an underground fire. Even in death, they faced discrimination: white victims were named; the only details released for the blacks was the numbers who belonged to Sotho, Xhosa and other tribes.

I have no principled objection to the suspension or step-by-step removal of the EU’s sanctions on Burma. Clearly, the country will need both aid and investment if it is to undergo a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy (or what passes for democracy nowadays). But there should be no illusions about what is really happening here. Far from striving to improve the lot of Burma’s general population, a few corporations are eyeing Burma’s resources lasciviously. In February, BusinessEurope, the most powerful corporate group in Brussels, urged that the sanctions be lifted for pragmatic reasons. Its argument went like this: everyone else is getting a slice of Burma, so why can’t we?

“Just call me a Thatcherite,” Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor, quipped in 1996 as he announced plans to slash government spending and increase privatisation. I just hope Burma doesn’t have a Thatcherite waiting in the wings.

●First published by New Europe, 22-28 April 2012.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why should the ECB have more power?

A few weeks ago, I made a public wish that British politicians will not meddle in Ireland’s referendum campaign on the EU fiscal treaty. My wish was motivated by fear. As a left-winger opposed to the Union’s austerity agenda, I don’t want anyone reminding me that my desire to see the treaty rejected is shared by the xenophobes of the UK Independence Party.

It came as something of a relief that the first English MEP to visit Dublin in connection with the end-of-May vote wasn’t UKIP’s Nigel Farrage but Sharon Bowles from the Liberal Democrats. Bowles backed the treaty on the grounds that it would strengthen the European Central Bank. The ECB was the only institution with “substantial credibility” in solving the euro-zone’s woes, Bowles, chairwoman of the European Parliament’s committee on economic affairs, contended.

Am I alone in finding Bowles’s intervention distasteful? For centuries, Ireland was controlled by Britain (part of the island still is). Now we are being told to accept rule – over key economic matters - from a bank in Germany.

A more condescending attitude has been displayed by the ECB’s own leadership. Mario Draghi, the bank’s president, said earlier this month he was “fully confident” that Ireland, the only country actually putting the treaty to a referendum, will vote Yes. Like a sadistic parent telling a child that corporal punishment is for his or her own good, Draghi told the Irish to accept cuts to public services in order to reboot the economy. “The Irish government and the Irish people have undergone a very, very hard and harsh fiscal consolidation programme and I would say from all angles they deserve to be praised for their efforts,” he said.

The message from Frankfurt to Portugal and Greece, two other countries being forced to swallow social misery disguised as “fiscal consolidation”, has been pretty much identical. In a new assessment of the Portuguese economy, the ECB describes the country’s acceptance of austerity as “remarkable by any standards”. The paper goes on to applaud Portugal for “raising working time flexibility”.

Inaccurate typecasting

Typecasting the Portuguese as indolent is both prejudiced and inaccurate. In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published a survey of working hours in 28 countries. At eight hours, 48 minutes, Portugal had the third longest working day in the sample. (Mexico and Japan were at numbers one and two respectively, both with more than nine hours). The only purpose behind “raising working time flexibility” is to please corporations who would dispense with employment law completely if left to their own devices.

Because many of its reports are turgid, the ECB is able to present itself as focused purely on the technical. “I am not a politician,” Jean-Claude Trichet insisted, when interviewed by Le Monde Diplomatique in 2011. In the sense that he did not stand for elections, Trichet was correct. In every other way, Trichet is a deeply political animal. Before stepping down as ECB chief last year, Trichet urged an end to all automatic wage indexation agreements and “when appropriate the privatisation of services today performed by the public sector”.

What democratic mandate did Trichet have to make such far-reaching recommendations? None.

By virtue of the EU’s treaties, the ECB enjoys a level of independence unrivalled by the Federal Reserve in the US and other central banks around the world. Having a clause in a treaty cannot be mistaken for a democratic mandate; most of the Union’s citizens are given no say over the content of its core rulebooks. Worse, the independence enables the ECB to put the preservation of rotten, sometimes even insolvent, banks and the interests of unnamed bondholders above everything else. A direct link can be made between the unchecked powers of the ECB and the 25% reduction in pensions paid to the elderly in Greece, whose suffering was highlighted so dramatically by the suicide of 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas.

Exclusively male

I am weary of attending events in Brussels, where well-fed speakers bemoan the EU’s “democratic deficit” and then endorse measures that widen the same deficit. The fiscal treaty subtly but explicitly puts the unelected ECB higher on the pecking order than the elected European Parliament. Whereas it states the ECB president “shall be invited” to euro-zone summits, it merely provides that the Parliament’s chief “may be invited”.

Sharon Bowles, to be fair, has drawn attention to another way in which the ECB is out of touch with ordinary Europeans. Every single member of the ECB’s executive board and its governing council (which includes the heads of the central banks for the EU’s 27 member states) is male. According to Bowles, this makes the bank one of the EU bodies “where gender balance is most blatantly disregarded”.

Though she is right to be outraged on that point, Bowles must be scolded for how she blatantly disregards many of the ECB’s flaws. Her committee is less than transparent, too. A section on the ECB in a briefing paper it published in December last was written by Daniel Gros from the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). I had to search elsewhere to learn that CEPS’s activities are partly financed by Goldman Sachs, Barclays and Deutsche Bank. Gros, therefore, cannot be considered a neutral “expert”.

And besides, I’ve had enough of “experts” telling me to live with the ECB’s strictures. When we are told to accept something over which we have no say, revolt becomes imperative.

●First published by New Europe, 15-21 April 2012.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Ce que la controverse Günter Grass nous apprend à propos de la censure en Europe

La fureur à propos du poème de Günter Grass sur Israël m’a fait penser à quel point les journalistes sont sujets à la censure en Europe.

Dans un article d’opinion paru dans le journal israélien Haaretz, Gideon Levy rappelle comment les journalistes travaillant pour le groupe médiatique allemande Axel Springer étaient, pendant des années, obligés de signer une convention stipulant qu’ils n’avaient pas le droit de rédiger des écrits remettant en cause l’existence d’Israël.

Non seulement Axel Springer possède le plus grand nombre de journaux circulant à travers le monde (comme Die Welt et Bild), en plus le groupe a joué un rôle important dans les débats sur le renforcement politique et les liens économiques d’Israël avec l’Union européenne.

En 2007, un « dialogue économique » entre l’Union européenne et Israël a été établi, mettant en place un forum annuel où les grands entrepreneurs peuvent réfléchir à la manière de supprimer tous les obstacles qui peuvent entraver la maximisation du profit. Mathias Döpfner, le chef executif d’Axel Springer, a été choisi comme représentant européen au forum.

Responsabilité spéciale ?

Deux ans plus tard, Döpfner s’exprime dans The Jerusalem Post : « Il est important que nous n’oublions jamais le passé allemand et ce que l’Allemagne a fait, et à cause de cela, nous avons une responsabilité spéciale dans le soutien à Israël et c’est quelque chose que nous devons continuer de génération en génération pour nous assurer que cela ne s’oubliera jamais. »

Apparemment, cette responsabilité spéciale implique de garder les yeux fermés sur les crimes commis par vos partenaires de « dialogue » – ou pire de soutenir activement leurs crimes. Les participants israéliens au forum – qui ont le soutien total de l’exécutif de l’Union européenne, à savoir la Commission européenne – dont Elbit, le manufacturier d’armes dont les produits sont souvent utilisés pour tuer et mutiler des Palestiniens. Bank Leumi et les librairies Steimatsky, qui ont tous les deux des filiales ou des magasins dans les colonies illégales en Cisjordanie, font également partie de ces participants, ainsi que le Saban Capital Group.

Haim Saban, qui dirige le Saban Capital Group est un actionnaire important de Bezeq, qui fournit les services de télécommunications à l’armée israélienne. En tant que titulaire d’un média, Saban a été invité à rejoindre le conseil de la télévision française TF1, en 2003. TF1 a été fondé par Bouygues, qui a acquis 23 pourcent d’actions dans l’entreprise d’énergie et de transport Alstom en 2006. En partenariat avec Veolia, Alstom a également développé un tram réservé quasi exclusivement aux colons israéliens dans l’Est de Jerusalem.

Les sionistes et leurs sympathisants contrôlent de larges parts des médias les plus courants dans les trois plus grands pays issus de l’UE : l’Allemagne, la France et la Grande Bretagne.

Murdoch ne comprend pas la Palestine

Une des rares actions valorisantes d’Alastair Campbell, chef de campagne durant le mandat de Tony Blair en tant que Premier ministre, a été adressée à l’humanité : il a expliqué, dans des termes accessibles, la dévotion aveugle qu’a Rupert Murdoch envers Israël. Dans ses mémoires publiés, Campbell rappelle comment Murdoch a dit à Tony Blair en 2002 qu’il ne pouvait pas comprendre pourquoi les Palestiniens avaient des douleurs. En réponse, son fils, James lui a fait remarquer que les Palestiniens avaient été « chassés de leurs putains de maisons et qu’ils n’avaient aucun putain d’endroit pour vivre ». (Il y a de maigres preuves – cela doit être souligné – que James Murdoch a cherché à éduquer les experts de Fox News ou les autres entreprises appartenant à l’empire que possède sa famille, concernant les réalités à propos du Moyen Orient).

Le problème, selon mon expérience, n’est jamais lié à un seul propriétaire. Les journalistes travaillant pour les médias courants ont tendance à biaiser l’information en montrant uniquement le point de vue du plus fort.

Les biais des journalistes

Lorsque j’ai commencé à écrire à propos du Moyen Orient pour le journal European Voice (qui fait partie du groupe The Economist) en 2001, mon rédacteur en chef m’a dit « nous ne devons pas prendre parti » entre les Israéliens et les Palestiniens. Le même rédacteur était un réserviste de l’armée anglaise, qui a personnellement participé à l’occupation de l’Irak. Lors de ma toute première réunion éditoriale, il a fait une blague sur mes origines irlandaises qui feraient que je sois familier aux armes utilisées par les « terroristes ». Bien qu’il se soit excusé pour cet écart, cela reflète son état d’esprit : les Palestiniens étaient des « terroristes », selon son point de vue (je me souviens de lui surnommant Yasser Arafat de terroriste).

Il s’est avéré que ce rédacteur était en fait bien plus ouvert d’esprit que la plupart des autres journalistes anglais que j’ai pu croiser. Il avait, au moins, la volonté d’engager et de travailler avec des reporters de différentes classes et différentes nationalités. Un de ses successeurs pour le poste de rédacteur en chef d’European Voice a mis en place une politique restrictive qui ne permet d’engager que des diplômés de Cambridge. Comme ces brillants jeunes hommes et femmes viennent de milieux très privilégiés, l’idée que les journalistes avaient un devoir de défense envers les plus démunis leur était étrangère. Comme son équivalent américain Roll Call, à Washington, European Voice est l’un des journaux les plus répandus parmi l’élite de Bruxelles.

Pendant trop longtemps, la plupart des journalistes et intellectuels européens ont accepté l’idée de ne jamais traiter Israël d’entreprise raciste. Bien qu’il y ait quelques personnes de bonne volonté travaillant dans les médias dominants, je ne pense pas que le changement viendra de là. Heureusement, Internet offre de nombreuses possibilités pour développer des alternatives. Saisir les opportunités offertes par Internet est vital pour atteindre la justice.

●Traduction :

Comment l'ACTA pue le tabac

Une industrie qui cause cinq millions de morts par an devrait-elle avoir son mot à dire dans l’élaboration des politiques publiques ? Dès le début, Big Tobacco a été une force motrice de l’Accord commercial anti-contrefaçon (ACTA). A mon grand étonnement, cette information capitale a généralement été écartée du débat sur l’accord controversé.

Peu de temps après qu’il soit devenu directeur général de British American Tobacco (BAT) en 2004, Paul Adams a participé à une conférence sur la contrefaçon organisé par l'Organisation mondiale des douanes à Bruxelles. Dans son discours, Adams a fait valoir que la contrefaçon affecte les cigarettes plus que la plupart des autres produits. La contrefaçon "sape la valeur des marques et l'intégrité du produit," a-t-il dit.

Adams a ensuite prononcé une conclusion risible, prétendant que BAT est une compagnie éthique alors que les contrefacteurs n’ont aucun scrupule : « Même dans ma propre industrie où les produits comportent des risques bien connus pour la santé, les contrefaçons réalisées de toutes sortes avec des additifs non testés et parfois illégaux, et sans notre rigoureux contrôle de qualité, exposent les consommateurs à des dangers supplémentaires. »

BAT fait partie de la Chambre de commerce international (CCI) qui s’est sérieusement impliquée dans le processus de négociations de l’ACTA. En 2008, Jeffrey Hardy de l’ICC envoyait un memo à l’UE, aux Etats-Unis et aux autres gouvernements élaborant l’accord. L’ACTA était nécessaire, écrivait-il, parce que « le vol de la propriété intellectuelle n’est pas moins un crime que le vol de la propriété physique ».

Hardy a été fort occupé récemment dans des voyages éprouvants en Australie – un autre signataire de l’ACTA – pour tenter d’empêcher que toutes les cigarettes soient vendues dans des emballages neutres (sans utilisation de logos, de couleurs ou d’images de marque, ndlr). Le fait que la déclaration prononcée par Hardy en avril dernier est presqu’identique à celle avancée par Paul Adams sept ans plus tôt est très instructif. En effet, Hardy a avancé que « les emballages neutres sont plus faciles à copier pour les contrefacteurs, exposant ainsi les consommateurs à des produits aux ingrédients inconnus et potentiellement dangereux ; il en devient plus difficile pour les consommateurs d’identifier le fabricant responsable susceptible de répondre à des plaintes ou des problèmes ».

Depuis son bureau parisien, Hardy s’est efforcé d’empêcher l’introduction de mesures similaires en Europe. Il a, par exemple, conseillé vivement à John Dalli, le commissaire à la Santé de l’UE, de ne pas proposer l’emballage neutre dans la révision prévue de la législation sur le tabac dans l’UE. (Dalli s’est engagé à publier de nouvelles recommandations anti-tabac avant la fin de l’année).

Alors que se passe-t-il ici ? Preuve semble être faite que Big Tobacco entreprend une offensive sur de multiples fronts pour préserver ses gains mal acquis. L’une des industries les plus nocives de l’histoire de l’humanité ne fait pas seulement semblant d’être préoccupée par la santé publique ; elle entend aussi défendre les lois sur la propriété intellectuelle qui sont théoriquement conçues pour stimuler la créativité et l’innovation.

L’introduction des emballages neutres serait un moyen adapté pour rendre la cigarette moins attrayante auprès des jeunes. Certaines marques ont développé une forme de cachet autour d’elles : tirer sur une Gitane aide à cultiver un air d’insouciance gaulois ; Marlboro a longtemps été associé à la liberté de l’Ouest sauvage. Mais si tous les paquets de clopes se ressemblent et que les logos sont interdits, les fabricants de tabac seront privés de ce que les stratèges du marketing appellent « les propositions uniques de vente ».

Qu’il soit de contrebande ou légal, le tabac demeure une substance toxique. Dans son nouveau livre Golden Holocaust, Robert Proctor préconise que la fabrication et la vente de cigarettes soient interdites ; j’ai tendance à être d’accord avec cela. Néanmoins, si le tabac doit encore être vendu, il serait préférable que les cigarettes soient réglementées et soumises à une taxation élevée, plutôt que colportées par des gangs criminels (selon moi cependant, l’industrie « régulière » du tabac est aussi criminelle ; il n’y a pas d’autres mots pour décrire précisément ses tentatives de supprimer toutes les informations sur les risques de cancer liés à la cigarette).

Il n’en demeure pas moins que la police et les agents de douanes ont de larges compétences – si ce n’est les ressources – pour sévir contre la contrebande de cigarettes. Il n’y a pas de raison convaincante d’introduire un nouvel accord comme l’ACTA pour lutter contre ce fléau. Et la façon dont l’industrie du tabac a tenté de torpiller les tentatives d’introduire les emballages neutres devrait éveiller nos soupçons sur son agenda et sa tentative de se repositionner comme une entreprise socialement responsable.

La convention sur le contrôle du tabac de l’Organisation mondiale de la santé oblige les autorités publiques à ignorer les intérêts économiques des fabricants de cigarettes dans le processus politique. Les membres du Parlement européen doivent dès lors poser de sérieuses questions sur le rôle que Big Tobacco a joué dans l’ACTA. Si, comme ça semble être le cas, l’industrie de la cigarette a recouru à des arguments trompeurs pour défendre ses intérêts, les parlementaires européens doivent brûler l’accord.

Evidemment, il y a des tas d’autres raisons pour lesquelles l’ACTA devrait être rejeté. Il a été négocié en secret ; il pourrait avoir de profondes implications sur la libre circulation des idées en interdisant de nombreuses formes de partage de fichiers sur internet ; et il pourrait permettre aux grosses compagnies pharmaceutiques de faire restreindre ou même cesser le transport de médicaments génériques vers les pays les plus pauvres.

Les citoyens concernés ont un devoir d’interroger les motivations des supporters de l’ACTA. Johnson & Johnson a fait des pieds et des mains pour empêcher l’OMS d’apporter aux malades du Sida trois nouveaux médicaments pour lesquelles la compagnie pharmaceutique détenait les brevets. L’implication de cette firme dans la coalition pro-ACTA ne devrait pas être analysée séparément de sa position méprisable sur ce sujet.

Plus de neuf millions de personnes atteintes du VIH en Afrique, en Asie et en Amérique latine manquent d’accès aux médicaments dont ils ont besoin. D’ici 2030, huit millions de personnes mourront de tabagisme à travers le monde si la tendance actuelle se maintient.

Hollywood, les Big Pharma et Big Tobacco ont rejoint les forces qui veulent nous vendre l’ACTA. Pourquoi devrait-on acheter n’importe quel produit de cette alliance toxique ?

●Traduction :

Monday, April 9, 2012

What the Günter Grass controversy says about censorship in Europe

The furore over Günter Grass’s poem on Israel has got me thinking about how much journalists are subject to censorship in Europe.

In an opinion piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy recalls how journalists working for the German media group Axel Springer were for many years required to sign a pledge not to write anything that questioned Israel’s “right to exist.”

Not only does Axel Springer own some of this continent’s largest-circulation newspapers (such as Die Welt and Bild), it has played an important role in talks on strengthening Israel’s political and economic ties with the European Union.

In 2007, a “business dialogue” between the EU and Israel was established, providing an annual forum where leading entrepreneurs could brainstorm on removing any obstacles that stood between them and profit maximization. Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive of Axel Springer, was chosen as the European chairman of the forum.

Special responsibility?

Two years later, Döpfner told The Jerusalem Post "it is very important that we never forget about Germany history and what Germany has done, and because of that we have a special responsibility to support Israel and this is something we have to continue from generation to generation to make sure that it will never be forgotten.”

Apparently, this special responsibility involves keeping your mouth shut about the crimes committed by your partners in “dialogue” – or worse, actively supporting their crimes. Israeli participants in the forum – which has the full blessing of the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission – include Elbit, the weapons manufacturer whose products are regularly used to murder and maim Palestinians. Bank Leumi and the booksellers Steimatsky, both of which have branches or stores in illegal settlements in the West Bank, are also involved, along with the Saban Capital Group.

Haim Saban, who runs the latter firm, is a major shareholder in Bezeq, which provides telecommunications services to the Israeli army. As a media proprietor, Saban was invited to join the board of the French television channel TF1 in 2003. TF1 was founded by Bouygues, which acquired a 23 percent stake in the energy and transport firm Alstom in 2006. Along with Veolia, Alstom has been developing a tramway reserved almost exclusively for Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem.

Zionists and their sympathizers control vast chunks of the mainstream media in the EU’s three largest countries: Germany, France and Britain.

Murdoch doesn’t get Palestine

One of the few valuable services that Alastair Campbell, the chief propagandist during Tony Blair’s stint as UK prime minister, has performed for mankind was how he explained in accessible terms the blind devotion of Rupert Murdoch to Israel. In his published diaries, Campbell recalls how Murdoch told Blair in 2002 that he could not see why the Palestinians had any grievances. In response, Murdoch’s son James pointed out that Palestinians had been “kicked out of their fucking homes and had nowhere to fucking live.” (There is scant evidence, it should be emphasized, that James Murdoch has sought to educate the pundits on Fox News or other outlets in his family’s empire about Middle Eastern realities).

The problem, in my experience, isn’t confined to one of ownership. Journalists working in the mainstream media tend to be biased on the side of the powerful.

The bias of journalists

When I began writing about the Middle East for the newspaper European Voice (part of The Economist group) in 2001, my editor told me that “we mustn’t take sides” between Israelis and Palestinians. The same editor was a reservist in the British army, who went on to take part in the occupation of Iraq. In my very first editorial meeting, he made a joke about how as an Irishman I would be familiar with the weapons used by “terrorists.” Though he apologized for that quip, it clearly reflected his mindset: Palestinians were “terrorists,” in his view (I recall him labelling Yasser Arafat with the “t” word).

As it happened, this editor was actually slightly more open-minded than other British journalists I have encountered. He was, at least, willing to hire and work with reporters from different nationalities and classes. One of his successors as European Voice editor, in contrast, introduced a de facto policy of only recruiting graduates from Cambridge. As these bright young men and women came from a highly privileged background, the idea that journalists had a duty to champion the underprivileged seemed alien to them. Like its sister paper Roll Call in Washington, European Voice is one of the most widely read publications among the Brussels elite.

For too long, most journalists and intellectuals in Europe have accepted that you cannot call out Israel as a racist endeavor. While there are some good people working in the mainstream media, I don’t believe it can be changed from within. Fortunately, the internet offers many possibilities to develop alternatives. Seizing the opportunities offered by the internet is vital if justice is ever to be achieved.

●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 9 April 2012.

How ACTA stinks of Big Tobacco

Should an industry that causes five million deaths per year be given any say in drafting public policy?

From the outset, Big Tobacco has been one of the driving forces behind the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). To my astonishment, this crucial nugget of information has been generally overlooked in the debate on this controversial accord.

Shortly after he became chief executive of British American Tobacco (BAT) in 2004, Paul Adams attended a conference on counterfeiting hosted by the World Customs Organisation in Brussels. In his speech, Adams argued that counterfeiting affects cigarettes more than most other products. Counterfeiting “erodes brand values and product integrity,” he said.

Adams then made a risible inference that BAT is an ethical company, whereas counterfeiters lack scruples. “Even in my own industry where our product has its own well known health risks, counterfeit versions made with all manner of untested and sometimes downright illegal additives, and without our rigorous quality control, clearly expose consumers to added dangers,” he said.

Intimately involved

BAT is part of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which was intimately involved in the ACTA negotiation process. In 2008, the ICC’s Jeffrey Hardy sent a memo to the EU, United States and other governments drafting the agreement. ACTA was necessary, he wrote, because “intellectual property theft is no less a crime than physical property theft.”

Hardy has been kept busy lately challenging moves by Australia – another ACTA signatory – to require all cigarettes be sold in plain packaging. It is instructive that a statement issued by Hardy in April last year is almost identical to the case put forward by Paul Adams seven years earlier. “Plain packaging makes it easier for packaging to be copied by counterfeiters, exposing consumers to products with unknown and potentially dangerous ingredients, and it makes it more difficult for consumers to identify the manufacturer responsible for responding to complaints or problems,” Hardy said.

From his Paris office, Hardy has been striving to prevent the introduction of similar measures in Europe. He has, for example, urged John Dalli, the EU’s health commissioner, not to propose plain packaging in a planned revision of the Union’s tobacco legislation (Dalli has pledged to publish new anti-smoking recommendations by the end of this year).

So what’s going on here? From the available evidence, it appears that Big Tobacco is undertaking a multi-pronged offensive to preserve its ill-gotten gains. One of the most harmful industries in human history is not only pretending to be concerned about public health; it is posing as a defender of intellectual property rules that are nominally designed to stimulate creativity and innovation.

Make smoking unsexy

The introduction of plain packaging would be a sensible way to try and make smoking less attractive for the young. Certain brands have a cachet about them: puffing away on Gitanes helps cultivate an air of Gallic insouciance; Marlboro has long been associated with the freedom of the Wild West. But if all packets of fags looked the same and logos were banned, tobacco manufacturers would be deprived of what marketing strategists call “unique selling points”.

Whether contraband or legal, tobacco remains a toxic substance. In his new book Golden Holocaust, Robert Proctor advocates that the manufacture and sale of cigarettes should be outlawed; I’m inclined to agree. Still, if tobacco must be sold, it’s better that cigarettes are regulated and subject to high taxation, than peddled by criminal gangs (in my view, though, the “legitimate” tobacco industry is also criminal; there is no other word that accurately describes its attempts to suppress information about how smoking causes cancer).

But the fact remains that police and customs officers already have ample powers – if not resources - to crack down on cigarette smuggling. There is no compelling reason to introduce a new agreement like ACTA to tackle this scourge. And the way that the tobacco industry has been seeking to thwart plain packaging initiatives must raise suspicions about its agenda and its attempted rebranding of itself as socially responsible.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) convention on tobacco control obliges public authorities to ignore the economic interests of cigarette makers when setting policies. Members of the European Parliament must, therefore, ask tough questions about the role that Big Tobacco has played in ACTA. If – as seems to be the case – the cigarette industry is using misleading arguments to defend its interests, then MEPs must rip up the agreement.

Toxic alliance

There are many other reasons, of course, why ACTA should be rejected. It has been negotiated in secret; it could have far-reaching implications for the free circulation of ideas by forbidding many forms of file-sharing on the internet; and it could enable large pharmaceutical companies to demand that the transportation of generic medicines to the world’s poor be restricted or even ceased.

Concerned citizens have a duty to query the motives of ACTA’s supporters. Johnson & Johnson has been obstructing the WHO’s efforts to bring three new drugs, for which it holds patents, to people with AIDS. The firm’s involvement in a pro-ACTA coalition should not be viewed separately from its despicable stance on that issue.

More than nine million people with HIV in Africa, Asia and Latin America lack access to the medicines they need. By 2030, eight million will die from tobacco use throughout the world, if present trends continue.

Hollywood, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco have joined forces to sell ACTA. Why should anyone buy anything from that toxic alliance?

●First published by New Europe, 8-14 April 2012.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Casino capitalism unthreatened by Michel Barnier

The City of London is more than a financial centre. It is a laboratory for market fundamentalism.

Following the Second World War, Alfred Suenson-Taylor, chairman of an insurance company in the City, played an important role in setting up the Mont Pèlerin Society. By championing the anti-socialist doctrine of Friedrich Hayek, this club helped paved the way for the slash-and-burn economic programmes eventually implemented by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The worldview espoused by Mont Pèlerin grandees remains the prevailing one in the City to this day.

So it is little wonder that the Conservative Party claims it has a patriotic duty to defend the City against meddling from Brussels. A new paper by Fresh Start, the Tories’ internal campaign group on European affairs, warns about 49 proposed EU regulations, “a great many of which are aimed at constricting rather than enabling the [financial services] industry”. Fresh Start infers that this is part of a Gallic conspiracy to undermine British power, recalling a boast made by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 that the appointment of his compatriot Michel Barnier as the Union’s commissioner for the single market represented a defeat for Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

The Tories are, to use a technical term, getting their knickers in a twist for no reason. His apparent hyperactivity notwithstanding, Barnier has not introduced any measures that would alter the City’s status as a giant casino. As he said himself in January, “contrary to what I often read there is no plot to undermine the City”.

Tinkering at the edges

In October last year, he recommended a revision of the markets in financial instruments directive (MiFID), which came into effect in 2007. Rather than actually dealing with the harm caused by speculation over the price of food and other commodities, Barnier has merely recommended some tinkering at the edges. He wants, for example, an “organised trading facility” to shed greater light on derivatives. Will that vague plan lead to the decommissioning of these weapons of mass destruction (as Warren Buffet has called them)? Of course, it won’t.

Barnier is on record as describing speculation in basic foodstuffs as a “scandal when there are a billion people starving in the world”. Yet he has not matched his rhetoric with action. The revised MiFID proposal would not definitively ban any form of commodity speculation. Barclays Capital, an investment bank active in the City, bets routinely on the prices of wheat, corn, soybean and sugar. Its activities have helped increase the grocery bills of the world’s poor. Sadly, it has nothing much to fear from Barnier’s plans, which fail to recognise that every human being has the right to food and that this right must never be violated by speculators.

Barnier has been even less willing to address the problem than the US Congress, an institution buried deep in the pockets of Goldman Sachs. Across the Atlantic, the Dodd-Frank Act on financial market regulation stated that one of its aims was to stop “excessive speculation” on food.

Confronting special interests?

Speaking at a conference hosted by the organisation Finance Watch recently, Barnier indicated that “confronting special interests” is often necessary. He proceeded to pat himself on the back for giving consumer and trade union representatives a say in drawing up regulations.

Yet he appears to have no appetite for putting an end to the practice where the most important regulations are largely the result of a few cosy chats between EU officials and the titans of finance.

In February, he announced the establishment of a new “expert group” on the structure of banks. Chaired by Erkii Liikanen, governor of the Bank of Finland, its composition posed no threat to the City or to “Anglo-Saxon capitalism”. One member, Carol Sergeant, was head of risk at Lloyds when it was Britain’s largest mis-seller of payment protection insurance. The need to compensate customers affected by the mis-selling was one of the main reasons why Lloyds incurred a pre-tax loss of £4 billion in 2011. Why has someone associated so closely with this scandal been tasked with advising on the future of European banking?

Come to think of it, this is not the first time in recent years that the European Commission has turned to individuals connected with British banking controversies for counsel. In 2008, a group of eight “wise men” were requested to draw up a report on the supervision of banks by the Commission and the EU’s governments. Among these men was Callum McCarthy, who had been chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority for the previous five years. On his watch, the FSA declared Northern Rock as solvent and McCarthy dismissed calls for greater regulation of the financial services industry as “mad dog” overreaction.

In no hurry

Barnier may deserve some kudos for being less averse to regulation than his predecessor Charlie McCreevy. Yet that is a bit like praising Sting for being less bland than Phil Collins. Barnier has not exactly been in a hurry to put safeguards in place to prevent another financial crisis from erupting. A new EU law on capital requirements for banks will not come into effect until 2019 – more than a decade after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Little Englanders were always going to resent having a Frenchman in charge of EU financial regulation. The resentment is increasing now that relations between David Cameron’s government and the Union are strained. Yet these prejudices are not grounded in reality. Far from challenging Anglo-Saxon capitalism, the EU institutions accommodate it.

●Originally published by New Europe, 1-7 April 2012.