Friday, February 26, 2010

The British government continue to lie about their policy of intelligence service collusion in torture – and it doesn’t make us safer

Binyam Mohamed – British and American courts found he had been kidnapped and tortured with British and American intelligence agents being involved in his kidnapping and present at his torture in various countries by methods including cutting his genitals

British Foriegn Minister David Miliband MP's shameful defence of MI5 (or more accurately MI6) collusion in the kidnapping and torture of British citizen Binyam Mohamed continued today.

On Channel 4 New (UK) he dismissed the paragraph of the judge's ruling in the relevant court case which said that MI5 had deliberately suppressed or with-held information from Ministers and parliament, including the fact that MI5 (or more probably MI6) officers were present during Mohammed's torture - which took place in various countries he was taken to by the CIA and MI6 - Pakistan, Morocco, Afghanistan and the US occupied part of Cuba at Guantanamo Bay (1) – (3).

Interviewed on Channel 4 news he claimed that it was “absolutely untrue” that MI5 ever “suppressed information”, though “of course they are a secret organisation and rely on secrecy” (4). Now what is the difference between keeping information secret and "suppressing" it? If there's one that’s not just a matter of semantics or playing with words can he explain it to us please?

Can he also explain why his government tried to prevent the paragraph of the judge's ruling that criticised MI5 for suppressing information from being made public? Surely that's suppressing information - or maybe it's just keeping it secret - the nature of the distinction remains unclear to me.

Miliband and the government also argued during the court case that the details of Mohamed's torture under CIA and MI5 oversight - including cutting his gentitals with a razor, pouring acid or some form of stinging liquid on the cuts, beatings and sleep deprivation – should not be released to the British public by the court in case this led to the US government refusing to share intelligence in future. This attempt at suppressing the facts was despite the fact that these facts had already been made public during a court case in the US and were already available – so Miliband was just trying to stop facts already publicly available becoming widely known through media reports, because it would embarrass his government and MI6 (5).

The Times newspaper also reported that :

‘Lt Colonel Yvonne Bradley, Mr Mohamed's US military lawyer, who visited him in Guantanamo Bay last week, said that America wanted to save face. "What the US is doing right now is not so much about national security or intelligence - it's about being embarrassed," she said.’ (6).

The other trick constantly used is for MI5 officers to say things like ‘MI5 would never take British citizens abroad for torture’, which, as Mohamed’s lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, has pointed out is probably true – but only because the officers involved outside of the UK would almost certainly be MI6, who operate abroad – and not MI5, who operate only in the UK (and whose functions, apart from preventing terrorism and espionage by foreign agents, also include propaganda, disinformation and keeping what they’re doing secret) (7).

There is evidence not just from British and American court cases but from US investigations which shows a likely British government and intelligence policy of collusion in ‘extra-ordinary rendition’ (i.e kidnapping) and torture (8), (9).

No-one has presented a shred of evidence sufficient to persuade any court that Binyam Mohamed is involved with any terrorist group; and British intelligence colluded in his kidnapping and torture. Torture is both wrong and completely ineffective – especially when you kidnap people without getting any solid evidence they have any involvement in terrorism. We have a presumption of innocence for a reason – so you can’t have witch hunts and randomly accuse innocent people without evidence.

We’ve seen what happens in policing in the UK when some police think they “know” someone is guilty of being a serial killer, despite having no evidence. In the case of Colin Stagg – innocent of the murder of Rachel Nickell and her daughter was charged and tried based on psychological profiling and letters written to him by a policewoman sent to entrap him (despite him repeatedly telling her he did not like violence and had never killed anyone). A judge threw the case out the next year. The real murderer – Robert Napper – wasn’t identified and charged and tried till 2008. Luckily he had been sent to a Broadmoor prison’s psychiatric wing a few years after he murdered Nickell – otherwise the police involved would have been letting the real serial killer free to keep killing for years on end while they focused on Stagg based on a hunch not backed up by any evidence (10).

The same applies in counter-terrorism – if actions are based on suspicion and hunches rather than solid evidence that would stand up in court then our police and intelligence services will be wasting their time on people who aren’t any threat while those who are really a threat will be free to continue unopposed. Torture is not only completely wrong but useless for the same reason. Under torture people will tell you whatever you want to hear, whether it’s true or bullshit. So it will seem to confirm false theories and hunches rather than relying on systematically gathering solid evidence.

All this makes the bizarre columns defending torture and condemning Amnesty International for opposing it by Observer columnist Nick Cohen and others, who seem not even to know that most of the evidence had already been released in American courts, even harder to understand (11).

Apparently Nick sees supporting torture and supporting jailing people not proven to have any involvement of terrorism is a defence of freedom just so long as the victims have been accused of Islamic extremism (without evidence) by the intelligence services, or if you disagree with their views. If not being tortured and not being jailed without fair trial are rights Mr. Cohen reserves for people he agrees with he’s not much of a democrat and might as well be one of the ‘Islamo-fascists’ he constantly condemns , though Mr. Cohen is quick to condemn any Muslim accused of a crime without evidence. What would his attitude be if someone did that with any Jew accused of a crime, even if they were found innocent by a court? He would quite rightly accuse them of anti-semitism. So why are you so prejudiced against all Muslims Nick? Why do you assume any Muslim accused of anything is guilty, even when a court finds them innocent?

If your reply is that torture and kidnapping by British and US intelligence meant their case was thrown out, then isn't that a good reason to drop those methods in future, so that if they do have solid evidence of guilt, they can get a conviction?

(1) = 10 Feb 2010 ‘Binyam Mohamed: text of letter which reveals court's criticism of 'deliberately misleading' security service’,

(2) = BBC News 10 Feb 2010 ‘Binyam Mohamed judgement manipulated, lawyers argue’,

(3) = 16 Oct 2009 ‘Binyam Mohamed: Judges overrule attempt to suppress torture evidence’,

(4) = Channel 4 News (UK) 26 Feb 2010 ‘Binyam torture case: court lifts ban’,

(5) = Times Online 05 Feb 2009 ‘David Miliband denies claims of US threat over Binyam Mohamed's alleged torture’,

(6) = See (6) above

(7) = CommentIsFree 13 Feb 2010 ‘Step aside, Kim Howells’ by Clive-Stafford Smith,

(8) = Observer 20 Dec 2009 ‘Torture claims by British resident are given credence by American judge’,

(9) = 10 Feb 2010 ‘Binyan Mohamed: timeline of torture case and the fight to keep it secret’,

(10) = Guardian 18 Dec 2009 ‘Rachel Nickell killing: Serial rapist Robert Napper pleads guilty’,

(11) = Observer 14 Feb 2010 ‘We abhor torture – but that requires paying a price ; Spineless judges, third-rate politicians and Amnesty prefer an easy life to fighting for liberty’,
By Nick Cohen,

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Haitians need the countries aiding them now to stop starving them through unfair trade and coups in future

A 15-year-old girl shot dead by Haitian police after the earthquake for stealing paintings ; Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

The earthquake in Haiti called the world’s attention to a country whose people have been suffering for centuries – but much of their current suffering started before the earthquake and is caused not by a lack of outside intervention but by too much of it, with the wrong motives. Of course Haitians need all the emergency aid they can get, but the causes of their suffering – including the lack of earthquake proof buildings like those found in California – have a lot to do with the French and US governments and firms profiting from reducing most of them to poverty and starvation – and not just in the past.

Haitians – dying as slaves of France and America then and now

In the 18th century they were slaves whose lives were treated as worthless by owners whose fear of rebellion led to incredible cruelty. Their rebellion was crushed first by the French. Haiti then had to pay an ‘indemnity’ for the costs to the French of crushing the rebels and reduce taxes on French imports and exports. By the early 20th century American forces arrived and occupied the country, taking control of its finances and getting a puppet leader to grant the US the ‘right’ to ‘develop’ Haiti’s ‘natural resources’.

The US has became the dominant foreign power in Haiti, though the French government still believes that Haiti is in it’s ‘sphere of influence’. ‘Papa Doc’ Francois Duvalier went from saving thousands of lives as a doctor to having thousands killed as a US-backed dictator. Under Carter’s Presidency in the US the ‘Baby Doc’ Jean Charles Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti briefly felt the need to restrain itself from murdering too many of its critics and opponents in case it lost some foreign aid, but on the night of Reagan’s election Duvalier’s ‘tonton macoutes’ (hired thugs with machetes and guns) poured into the streets of the Haitian capital Port Au Prince shouting ‘The Cowboys are in power – human rights are over’. Once Reagan took office in January 1980 the killing began again in earnest (1).

While there is a great deal of controversy over the past Presidency of Jean Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest in Port Au Prince, there is no doubt about one thing – US policy under both Republican and Democratic Presidents and congresses has been to demand ‘free trade’ in Haiti – privatisation, cuts in public services and access to Haiti for US based firms. In 1980 Haiti produced enough food to feed it’s own population. Pressure from the US and European governments through the IMF got import tariffs on rice imports to Haiti slashed. While demanding Haiti end all subsidies and protection for Haitian farmers the US government increased subsidies to American farmers.

So while in the past Haiti produced 80% of the rice eaten there, now it imports 80%. Under IMF conditions on loans run up under US backed dictatorships in the past Haiti also began exporting cash crops to the US while having to import Us-subsidised American rice, putting its own farmers out of business. The wages paid in Haitian factories, mostly by American based multinationals, had fallen to 20% of their 1981 levels by 2000, partly due to the US trained military targeting trade unionists and governments banning trade unions (see the Oxfam website and Professor Peter Hallward’s book ‘Damming the Flood’ on this) (2), (3).

This has had everything to do with benefitting investors from the US, France and their allies and little or nothing to do with helping the majority of Haitians, who, reduced to an income of under 50 pence a day, couldn’t afford food and were buying ‘mud cakes’ made of mud mixed with salt to fill their own and their children’s stomachs as they starved by July 2008 (4). This was before the hugely exaggerated ‘credit crisis’ or the earthquake.

Aristide came to prominence as a critic of the Duvalier dictatorships – and continued to criticise the military government of General Namphy which replaced the younger Duvalier. On September 11th 1988 tontons macoute burst into his church at San Jean Bosco during a sermon in which he as usual denounced the dictatorship for its repression, its corruption and for doing nothing for the poor majority. The attackers shot and hacked the congregation and set fire to the church, killing dozens. This echoed the US-backed military and death squads in El Salvador and their assassination of Bishop Oscar Romero in March 1980 and the murder of many of his supporters before and after his death. Aristide, unlike Romero, survived the attempt on his life – and several attempts before and after it. Both Aristide and Romero were outspoken on behalf of the poor. The Haitian military, like the Salvadoran, was (and is) US-trained.

Aristide – Liberator or corrupted by power?

However Aristide refused to call for reconciliation with his enemies. Instead he told his supporters that they were weak alone, but strong together, that together they were Lavalas (the flood). He is accused by his critics of encouraging violence against his political enemies with public speeches that included lines like "do not forget to give them what they deserve" and "a machete is a useful tool in many situations". However Aristide feared his enemies were preparing to kill him and his supporters. Pre-empting this may have been morally wrong or unwise or paranoid, but he had every reason to feel paranoid. If Aristide is not a saint it’s hard to know how any of us would have reacted when people close to us had been killed and we feared for both our own lives and those of our families and allies. Haitian politics is very different to American or European politics in which the losers know losing doesn’t mean possible death for them, their families and those who supported them. His defenders also say he only approved of violence in self-defence against the tonton macoutes and the army – and that his movement is primarily non-violent as it could never hope to beat the automatic weapons of his enemies.

The US government was critical of the Namphy regime over the San Jean Bosco massacre and cut aid to it as a result. In 1990 Aristide was elected President and began to carry out major reforms to benefit the poorest, including increasing the minimum wage

The French government was greatly displeased by Aristide's government taking it to court, demanding that it repay the $21 billion he estimated France owed Haiti between the 'indemnity' (which was only paid off by Haiti in 1947) and its use of Haitians as slave labour.

He was soon overthrown in a military coup in 1991 in which the US-trained military massacred hundreds of people (and thousands over the next three years), but restored to office by an American invasion of Haiti in 1994 under President Clinton, towards the end of his first term. However there were plenty of conditions placed by the Clinton administration on his restoration apart from reconciliation with his enemies. They included adopting IMF imposed ‘economic reforms’ – the usual privatisations, cuts in public services and welfare payments and access to Haiti for foreign firms, along with a cut in the minimum wage - and Aristide not standing in the next Presidential election, meaning he would actually have been in office for less than two of the five years of his term.

On being restored to office (but barely to power) Aristide began policies to benefit the poor majority again and filled his government with community organisers and charity workers, angering both the traditional Haitian elite and US firms, who benefited from low wages ; as well as career politicians who had expected lucrative ministerial posts in his government.

Aristide also dismantled the US-trained Haitian military, given the long history of most of it in backing dictators and overthrowing elected governments (not least his own in 1991). The Clinton and Bush administrations now moved to backing right-wing paramilitary groups, the FRAPH and FADH, as a means of maintaining their influence by force in Haiti. Many politicians denied a place in Aristide's government were funded with US aid to set up 'civil society' groups to try to discredit Aristide

Aristide and his OPL (party of the Lavalas or ‘flood’) subsequently split, with Aristide forming the ‘Fanmi Lavals’ (family of the flood) while many politicians denied a place in Aristide's government formed a separate OPL (with the L now standing for ‘Lutte’ or ‘struggle’ rather than Lavalas).

Aristide was forced stand down in the next election by the Clinton administration and US congress making US aid conditional on this action. His ally Rene Preval took over for a term, before Aristide was re-elected with a big majority as President in the 2000 Haitian Presidential elections, which, despite much US and French government propaganda, were declared largely free and fair by international observers.

The version of events given from here on continues to vary according to the views of the writer , with some casting Aristide as the hero, resisting American backed villains; others (like Michael Diebert in his book ‘Notes on the Last Testament’) casting him as the villain – a paranoid, ruthless or power crazed man who had lost his way and become corrupt.

What is certain is that in 2004 the Bush administration and the French government backed another military coup against Aristide and he was flown into exile in the Central African Republic, whose French backed dictatorship banned him from criticising the US or French governments or their role in the coup in the media (5), (6).

I’ll leave it up to others to read for themselves and decide which version they believe and whether Aristide was corrupted by power or fear or simply had his character assassinated by the US and French governments when they realised he wasn’t meeting their demands (though my own view is that a great deal of character assassination and propaganda against Aristide is involved). The important point to make is that no US government has ever criticised a government much for being undemocratic or ruthless or dictatorial unless that government was either hostile to the US or else restricting profits for American investors and firms by running it’s country for the benefit of the majority of the population, rather than for foreign investors in alliance with a small indigenous elite collaborating with them. The Saudi monarchy has never yet held a free election or many fair trials. President Uribe of Colombia and his government have had plenty of dissidents and trade unionists murdered using right-wing paramilitaries that work hand in glove with the US funded military. President Mubarak of Egypt has banned the main opposition party, rigs elections and has opposition activists –whether Muslim, conservative or liberal – attacked by thugs. Yet they will never get the criticism that Chavez in Venezuela (repeatedly democratically elected) , Castro (an unelected dictator but with a broadly socialist economic policy until recently) or Aristide do. So if the US government is hostile to Aristide it’s more likely that that’s because he tried to run Haiti for the benefit of the majority of Haitians.

That may be why the US government had international aid coming from the Inter-American Development Bank and various other sources to Haiti blocked as long as Aristide was in power ( as pointed out by Professor Paul Farmer, who also runs a medical charity in Haiti and works for it there) (7).

The other point is that as a result Haitians have quietly starved to death in huge numbers so American and French investors can profit.

Invading Haiti to keep out the damn immigrants and control Haiti’s trade policy– 1994 and 2009

On the few occasions when the US government sends aid it also has mixed motives. In 1994 as today a key aim was to prevent refugees reaching Florida and upsetting the next election.

The Irish Independent newspaper reported in January that “As well as providing emergency supplies and medical aid, the USS Carl Vinson, along with a ring of other navy and coast guard vessels, will act as a deterrent to Haitians who might be driven to make the 681-mile sea crossing to Miami..."The goal is to interdict them at sea and repatriate them," said the US Coast Guard Commander Christopher O'Neil.’(8)

Haitian orphans are welcome. Haitian refugees and immigrants are sent home to suffer (other than CIA and US military intelligence ‘assets’ responsible for many political killings, many of whom retire to Florida).

Another aim has always been to use Haiti as a source of cheap labour for American multinationals – and more importantly to prevent Aristide’s example being followed by other countries.

Shooting the poor

So after the earthquake when Haitian police handed looters over to mobs to be burned alive there was little comment from the Obama administration or President Sarkozy; nor when Haitian policem shot a 15 year old girl dead for stealing paintings to try to get money to buy food - and that was no isolated incident (8) - (10).

How impoverishing Haitians caused earthquake deaths due to shoddy buildings

Another fact that’s given less prominence than it deserves is that according to seismologists the earthquake that hit Haiti wasn’t especially big in historical terms and only killed so many people because so many of Haiti’s buildings are not designed to resist earthquakes despite the capital of the country lying on a fault line. A larger earthquake – 7.0 on the Richter scale – in Los Angeles in 1994 killed less than 70 people because the buildings there were designed to withstand earthquakes. All the money taken in interest payments in debt, all the money never paid due to low minimum wages and reduced benefits, ensured that even among Haitians who realised the risk couldn’t afford to build earthquake resistant houses and buildings (11), (12).

They don’t owe us, We Owe them

Naomi Klein, the author of 'The Shock Doctrine' quotes Haitian economist Camille Chalmers.

'Debt cancellation is a good start, he told al-Jazeera English, but: "It's time to go much further. We have to talk about reparations and restitution for the devastating consequences of debt." In this telling, the whole idea that Haiti is a debtor needs to be abandoned. Haiti, he argues, is a creditor – and it is we, in the west, who are deeply in arrears.'

For decades one of the poorest countries in the world has been paying money to foreign debtors and much of it has been debt run up under dictatorships backed or tolerated by the US government, which in terms of international law is ‘odious debt’ which should be written off by the creditors – even more so when they had the power to end those dictatorships and chose not to.

The media coverage of Haiti since the earthquake has helped the campaign to cancel this debt and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK has come out in favour of cancelling it – but unless the campaign continues beyond the media coverage, those successes may be reversed.

Unless things change from now on – unless the US and French and every other government are pressured by the people of their own countries to stop imposing economic policies that cause huge numbers of deaths through poverty on Haitians – and to stop seeking to rule Haiti by arming and funding the Haitian military, whose only war has been on it’s own people (which is why Aristide disbanded it in his first term in office – and why the US later helped to re-establish it). Of course Haiti needs investment – but on it’s people’s terms, not the terms of foreign governments, firms or those collaborators among the tiny wealthy Haitian elite (though some wealthy Haitians have taken the side of the majority).

Otherwise Haitians will keep dying like flies and watching their children die, just as they did before the earthquake, during it and since it; dying quickly - in political killings, in police shootings of desperate teenagers turning to petty theft to try to get enough to eat, in future earthquakes under the rubble of cheap buildings ; or dying slowly and quietly– of illness or of hunger , while eating mud cakes mixed with salt to try to fill their aching, empty stomachs. This is not because developed world governments haven’t done enough – but because they have done far too much to repress and exploit benefits for the profit of firms based in their own countries – and to prevent the “threat” posed by liberation theology like Aristide’s spreading.

Johan Hari points to one success :

‘The IMF announced a $100m loan, stapled on to an earlier loan, which requires Haiti to raise electricity prices, and freeze wages for the public-sector workers who are needed to rebuild the country...For the first time, the IMF was stopped from shafting a poor country – by a rebellion here in the rich world. Hours after the quake, a Facebook group called "No Shock Doctrine For Haiti" had tens of thousands of members, and orchestrated a petition to the IMF of over 150,000 signatures demanding the loan become a no-strings grant. After Naomi Klein's mega-selling exposé, there was a vigilant public who wanted to see that the money they were donating to charity was not going to be cancelled out by the IMF. ... The IMF backed down. It publicly renounced its conditions – and even said it would work to cancel Haiti's entire debt.’ (13)

That’s a real victory, but the pressure needs to be maintained. So far according to the UN donor governments have only delivered 6% of the aid they promised to feed Haitians even through the current emergency created by the earthquake. (14)

Sources :

(1) = Michael Deibert (2005) ‘Notes from the Last Testament’, Seven Stories Press, London & NY , 2005, Chapter 4, pages 80 – 81 of paperback edition (A Reuters correspondent in Haiti from 2001 till 2003, Deibert is highly critical of Aristide, seeing him as having been behind many political killings and having become a dictator)

(2) =Peter Hallward (2007) ‘Damming the Flood – Haiti, Aristide and the politics of containment’, Verso, London and New York, 2007 (Professor Hallward makes a convincing and well-sourced case that many of the claims about Aristide’s ‘dictatorship’ are a well orchestrated propaganda campaign aimed at legitimising US and French government backed military coups in alliance with some of the wealthiest businesspeople in Haiti and elements of the military and police trained in the US)

(3) = Oxfam – Hard Times in Haiti slide show -

(4) = Guardian 29 Jul 2008 ‘Haiti: Mud cakes become staple diet as cost of food soars beyond a family's reach’,

(5) = Paul Farmer (2004) ‘Who removed Aristide?’ in London Review of Books Vol. 26, No. 8, 15 Apr 2004, pages 28-31,

(6) = Democracy Now 17 Mar 2004 ‘Exclusive: Aristide Talks With Democracy Now! About the Leaders of the Coup and U.S. Funding of the Opposition in Haiti’,

(7) = Paul Farmer (2004) ‘What happened in Haiti? Where Past is Present’ in Noam Chomsky, Paul Farmer, Amy Goodman et al (2004) ‘ Getting Haiti Right this Time : The US and the Coup’, Common Courage, Monroe, Maine, US, 2004, Chapter 2 , (Professor Farmer, who also works for a medical charity he works for in Haiti comes to similar conclusions to Hallward’s)

(8) = Independent (Ireland) 20 Jan 2010 ‘US ships set up blockade to prevent a mass exodus -
Fleeing Haitians warned they will be sent back’,

(9) = 20 Jan 2010 ‘Haiti looting horror: Girl shot dead by police for taking paintings’, and 17 Jan 2010 ‘Retribution swift and brutal for Haiti's looters’,

(10) = ABC News 18 Jan 2010 ‘Police shoot at looters in struggle for survival’,

(11) = ‘Haiti’s Killer Quake : Why It Happened’, 02 Feb 2010, 9pm GMT on Channel 4 (UK)
– watch at or at

(12) = Newsweek 21 Jan 2010 ‘Why the Palace Fell - Lessons learned from the destruction of Haiti's presidential home’,

(13) = Independent 05 Feb 2010 ‘Johann Hari: There's real hope from Haiti and it's not what you expect’,

(14) = UNoCHA IRIN News 09 Feb 2010 ‘HAITI: Funding gap for nutrition’,

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Greece needs a tide-over loan from the rest of the EU – not free-market fundamentalism

and harsh budget cuts there could stall economic recovery in Greece and across the EU

Strikers in Greece demonstrate against public pay freezes and public spending cuts imposed by the Greek government due to pressure from the EU and currency speculators targeting the Euro. (Photo by Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)

With the EU currently enforcing big cuts on the Papandreou government in Greece there’s a serious risk of turning recession there into depression – and of it spreading across the EU. Sacking lots of public sector workers or cutting their pay is not going to help end the recession – and those economic problems wouldn’t just affect Greece, but the entire EU, which trades with it. What’s more the cuts may well not end currency speculation on the Euro – if they create a depression they might increase it and create another recession across the EU just when it’s economy is starting to recover.

There’s also a risk of forcing Greece to leave the Euro, as the majority of Greeks won’t back these kind of extreme cuts or the kind of economic depression likely to be caused by them.

As Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out there is no danger of Greece defaulting on it’s debts and it’s government does not have significantly higher debts as a proportion of it’s GDP than the big three in the EU – Britain, France and Germany. Stiglitz also points out that France has broken EU rules on debt exceeding 3% of GDP without having the same scale of cuts enforced on it – and that a large part of the problem is speculation in currency markets on the Euro. He also points out that Greece is in no worse a position economically than the US is currently (1).

Stiglitz has also compared the speculators’ attack on the Euro to that on the pound in 1992 and on Asian currencies in the 1997 Asian financial crisis (2). The solution, he says, is for the rest of the EU to come to Greece’s assistance to ensure the speculators’ gamble doesn’t pay off and avoid a deeper recession which would also damage market confidence, possibly by changing interest rates on the loans and intervening in the stock market (3).

Update - 11th February 7p.m.:

The EU seems to have decided that their ‘aid package’ to Greece will amount to a statement saying they back the Greek government, some vague talk of ‘co-ordinated measures to defend the Euro’ and
a demand that Greek budget cuts continue, along with a suggestion that Greece go to the IMF for money. The IMF might have changed its spots, but has a history of making its loans conditional on privatisation and public spending cuts. There have been suggestions that the EU statement might mean low interest loans provided jointly by the EU and the IMF, which would be slightly more hopeful, but no-one has confirmed this (1). (4).

No wonder the speculators don’t seem to be deterred.

The EU needs to provide concrete help to Greece, possibly by new low interest loans or grants - and stop demanding budget cuts on a scale that the British, German and French governments would rightly never consider in their own countries - particularly during a recession.

(1) = 25 jan 2010 ‘A principled Europe would not leave Greece to bleed’,

(2) = Telegraph 08 Feb 2010 ‘Greek crisis intensifies as Joe Stiglitz calls for Europe to 'teach the speculators a lesson'’,

(3) = BBC News 03 Feb 2010 ‘Joseph Stiglitz on Greece: 'Speculators pose risk'’,

(4) = 11 Feb 2010 ‘EU leaders reach Greek bailout deal’,

More evidence of the El Salvador Option in Pakistan?

US Special Forces posing as Aid workers and Pentagon funding reconstruction projects

In Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras in the 1980s US soldiers were involved in the war against the democratic liberal, socialist and communist groups on the side of the extreme-right US-backed government death squads which killed not only rebels but anyone suspected of sympathising with the rebels’ politics or being related to them. Entire villages were massacred. Because congress had banned any direct involvement by US forces in the war the Reagan administration said they were all ‘advisers’ or ‘trainers’. Many were trainers – but their role sometimes went well beyond advice and into over-seeing military operations.

The same seems to be happening in Pakistan today. In past posts on the ‘El Salvador option’ from El Salvador to Iraq this blog has asked whether the move away from air-strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan might involve the ‘El Salvador’ death squads option in those countries too.

The death of three members of the US military in a Taliban bombing of a girl’s school in Pakistan on the 3rd of February brought some light on this (1). I’m certainly not criticising US funding and support for the construction of girls’ schools, nor defending Taliban bombings of them. However is it a good idea for US funding for them to come from the US military? Doesn’t that associate them with foreign invaders and make them a target?

David Pratt, a foreign correspondent for the Herald (a Scottish newspaper) who has been to Pakistan and Afghanistan many times recounted meeting US ‘advisers’ complete with body armour, helmets and automatic weapons on many occasions in Pakistan (2).

This makes it look even more likely that the Pentagon is behind operations like the dumping of hundreds of bodies of suspected Taliban, blindfolded, their hands tied behind their heads and with bullets in the back of their heads. They were found after a Pakistan military offensive into the town of Mingora in the Swat Valley last year.

Pratt also says that some of the American Special Forces soldiers use job descriptions like “aid worker”, “civil affairs” specialist, “security consultant” and “contract worker” , which, like the NATO Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan forcing civilians to integrate into military-led teams, risks making all aid workers suspected US agents – and Taliban targets. The euphemisms might also let attacks on US soldiers be presented as ‘terrorism targeting civilians’.

(1) = Independent 04 Feb 2010 ‘US soldiers killed in bomb blast at Pakistan girls' school’,

(2) = Herald (Glasgow, UK) 05 Feb 2010 ‘US is forced to come clean over dirty war in Pakistan’,

Tobin Tax campaign returns as Robin Hood Tax

An expanded version of the Tobin tax first proposed by Nobel winning economist the late James Tobin in 1972 has been renamed the Robin Hood tax and already has the support of the British Prime Minister, the German Chancellor and the French President. It also has the support of hundreds of economists.

Another Nobel winner, American economist Paul Krugman; and former World Bank economist (and now a critic of it) Joseph Stiglitz both back some kind of Tobin tax. Oxfam, the World Development Movement and many other charities and trade unions on both sides of the Atlantic and the Channel back the Robin Hood tax.

The tax would be on large scale currency transactions by banks and other financial institutions, most of which are speculative (i.e basically gambling on a huge scale). So it wouldn’t affect buying some currency for a holiday for instance. The proposed rate is about 0.05% - a very low rate but enough to bring in considerable tax revenues given the vast size of many currency transactions. (The ‘Robin Hood Tax’ covers some categories of transaction not covered by the original Tobin tax – perhaps because new forms of currency and stock market speculation have developed since the 1970s)

The tax would discourage currency speculation, like the current speculative trading on the Euro or the run on the pound on Black Wednesday in the 1990s, by making it less profitable. At the same time it would generate large amounts of tax from big banks, hedge funds and other large firms which would mean first that if banks went under again the tax would mean they would be paying for their own bail-outs – and it would leave plenty left over to spend on helping the poorest, education and protecting the environment we all rely on for our survival.

The Obama government has been being lobbied heavily by the hedge funds, the banks and their representatives in ‘free market’ (read oligopoly) ideologue groups like ‘The Heritage Foundation’.

A Mr. Duvet (was that name chosen to sound warm and safe during cold weather?) was a spokesman for the Heritage Foundation on the UK’s Channel 4 News a few months ago. He explained that the 0.05% tax (half a per cent) was more than the banks and the hedge funds (massive gambling outfits) could bear. (After all they’d only just been bailed out for billions). He went on to suggest a VAT tax be introduced in the US, presumably on the grounds that the Heritage Foundation couldn’t give a toss about the effect of a tax with no relation to income on the vast majority of people.

On 8th November 2009 Obama’s Finance Secretary Timothy Geithner rejected the Tobin tax saying “A day-by-day financial transaction tax is not something we are prepared to support” and that the economy required a stimulus rather than more taxes.

Obama’s falling approval rating in the US and the Democrat’s loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Fox News and Tea-Party backed Republican may change that yet though. Immediately after the loss of that seat Obama announced that banks taking deposit accounts would not be allowed to continue hedge funds and other speculative operations – they would have to become separate firms. He may yet be open to being persuaded that a Tobin or ‘Robin Hood’ tax won’t do his poll ratings, his election results or his prospects of reducing the US budget deficit any harm.

To read more or to sign up as a supporter of the Robin Hood tax go here.

Why Obama and Ahmadinejad are both exaggerating how advanced Iran's nuclear programme is

Ahmadinejad has repeated his established practice of making massive exaggerations of how advanced his government’s nuclear programme is. Now, as in 2007, experts say Iran isn’t even close to having the technology or the capacity to expand it’s nuclear capabilities to the levels Ahmadinejad is talking about.

In April 2007 the Guardian reported that :

‘Scientists believe that with 3,000 centrifuges operating smoothly and continually, Iran would have enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb within nine months. However, nuclear analysts in the US and Britain say the Iranian leadership may be exaggerating its progress. They question whether Iranian scientists have mastered spinning such a large number of the very delicate machines at once. "I think it's a boast," Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US state department expert on non-proliferation who is now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said. "I don't believe they have 3,000 centrifuges running in Natanz. There's not been any evidence yet they can even run test cascades [arrays of centrifuges] in a continuous manner." The UN estimate is that the Iranians have installed only 1,000 centrifuges so far in Natanz and have not yet started enriching uranium with them. UN inspectors are due to visit the site this month to check.’ (1)

In February 2010 the BBC reports :

‘‘Iran currently enriches uranium to a level of 3.5% but requires 20% enriched uranium for its Tehran research reactor, which is meant to produce medical isotopes. A bomb would require uranium enriched to at least 90%. To achieve 20% enrichment would be such a major step for Iran, David Albright of Washington's Institute for Science and International Security told the Associated Press news agency, it "would be going most of the rest of the way to weapon-grade uranium". Mr Salehi said that 10 new uranium enrichment plants would be built. However, experts poured scorn on that announcement, pointing to the cost of such an undertaking and Iran's problems obtaining components because of UN sanctions. Mark Fitzpatrick, a proliferation expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, described the proposal as a "farcical bluff". "Iran presumably could start construction by pushing dirt around for 10 new facilities, but there is no way it could begin to construct and equip that many more plants," he told Reuters news agency. "It is hard-pressed today even to keep the centrifuges installed at Natanz running smoothly."’ (2)

The reason is that the Iranian President is deliberately ensuring the nuclear issue is the focus because it shows him as standing up to the US, the UK , France and other governments which backed the Shah’s dictatorship and armed and funded Saddam Hussein as he invaded Iran and gassed Iranians. That’s because it’s one of the few issues that the majority of Iranians will support him on – and because when foreign governments threaten Iran with sanctions or with “all options being on the table” (i.e war – from Obama) Ahmadinejad can label his Iranian opponents “traitors”, as he did in November 2007 (3).

Obama is similarly taking a tough line on Iran for reasons of domestic politics – to avoid being targeted by AIPAC and to try to avoid being labelled as ‘soft on national security’ by Dick Cheney and the Republican party. His fear of Cheney – or his misplaced belief that the right wing of the Republican party will be ‘bipartisan’ in a united US – are poor justifications. AIPAC’s influence on Democratic members of Congress – and Hillary Clinton’s close relationship with it – is more of a problem. Obama would be better to simply ignore Ahmadinejad’s proclamations and move on though. Without an external enemy to point to Ahmadinejad and Khameini would be forced to allow greater democracy sooner or later.

(1) = Guardian 10 Apr 2007 ‘Iran raises stakes with claim of nuclear leap’,

(2) = BBC News 08 Feb 2010 ‘New Iran nuclear sanctions 'only path', says US’,

(3) = Guardian 13 Nov 2007 ‘Ahmadinejad steps up rhetoric against critics at home with threat to expose 'traitors'’,

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Why we need PR and not the Alternative Vote, which is just modified first-past-the-post

Why AV would make little difference

The Alternative Vote system which is proposed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown would make little difference to election results. It would reduce the average proportion of votes thrown away unrepresented in each constituency from 60% to 49%. Is binning every second person’s vote unrepresented democracy? Or is it just a sticking plaster to avoid real treatment that would represent the full variety of views in the electorate and end the dominance of the big parties and their leaders? It would not provide representation proportional to the number of votes cast for each party or candidate, just a slightly improved form of First-Past-the-Post which would continue to over-represent the big parties and under-represent votes for smaller parties and independent candidates. As a result it would discredit electoral reform, as people would soon see AV didn’t reduce the power of the established party’s leadership’s one bit.

Multi-member Proportional Representation – e.g STV

A referendum should give an option to vote for real proportional representation, which is only possible by having multi-member constituencies, as in systems like the Single Transferable Vote. The larger the number of MPs elected for each mulit-member constituency the more representative the parliament would be of the views and interests of the whole electorate. For instance with say 6 or 7 one hundred member constituencies the candidates elected would be in direct proportion to the percentage of the vote they got (whether for a party or an independent candidate). This would involve very big constituencies, making it hard to campaign across the entire constituency – but since only 1% of the vote would be required for a candidate to get elected candidates wouldn’t have to campaign across the entire constituency - and since constituents could go to the nearest MP’s constituency office when seeking help on problems or campaigning on issues it wouldn’t make things difficult for them either. In most existing STV systems the multi-member constituencies elect 3 to 5 MPs rather than 100.

This would also allow constituents to choose which MP they wanted to go to - and if they weren’t happy with the response from one then they could go to another. This is unpopular with some MPs, mostly those with seats which are ‘safe’ under ‘first past the post’ because they have an in-built majority for that MP’s party. That doesn’t mean that having the choice of who to go to depending on whose constituency office was nearest to them and who they trusted most would be unpopular with voters.

There are many arguments made against proportional representation systems, none of which hold up to any real examination.

Why PR isn’t the cause of the rise of fascism – unemployment and poverty caused by deregulation of the economy are

First there’s the argument that it allows disproportionate power to small extremist parties. At it’s most hyperbolic this argument’s proponents talk about how the ‘Nazis would march again’ under PR, or claim that it was PR which ‘let the mafia in’ in Italy and claim it would let the BNP into power in the UK.

In fact the Nazis did not get into power due to PR. They got into power because the Treaty of Versailles treated World War One, a clash between rival empires, as though it had been entirely the fault of Germany and placed the entire cost of the war for all countries involved onto Germany – a cost no single country could ever bear. As a result many Germans were left searching through rubbish for food and filled with resentment at the French government for imposing this on them. This combined with the Great Depression (caused by a lack of regulation of big banks and firms in the US spilling across the entire world due to unregulated free trade) to cause mass unemployment and poverty – leading to a rise in support for anyone offering jobs rather than ‘sound money’. As only the Stalinists and Nazis seemed to offer this option, support for both increased massively. Conservative politicians and businessmen decided the Nazis were the lesser of two evils for them and a ‘bulwark against Communism’ and formed a coalition government under Hitler as Chancellor (equivalent to the British Prime Minister in the German system). They believed they could control him – they were wrong.

There has never been a resurgence of fascism or communism in the same scale in Germany since, despite it’s proportional representation system for elections, because after World War Two the Marshall Plan (of massive US aid to create markets for American goods in Europe and reduce support for Communism) created the opposite result from the one the Versailles Treaty had. With rapidly falling levels of unemployment and poverty in Western Europe there was little support for fascist or communist parties. The worrying increase in support for neo-fascists in the last couple of decades has been due to economic crises caused by deregulation – smaller versions of the Great Depression, like the current Credit Crisis (which is now ending due to government intervention that was anathema at the time of the Depression). The fact that Germany has remained stable without any significant fascist or Stalinist element in any government since 1945 shows PR does not “let the fascists march”, deregulation causing unemployment and poverty does.

In Italy the mafia were formed in the nineteenth century, long before there were any elections by proportional representation – and became a criminal organisation by the early twentieth century. They have infiltrated Italian society so completely that repeated changes in the electoral system have made no difference to mafia influence. So the problem there is not PR – it’s that foreign occupation allowed the development of underground nationalist secret societies that became organised crime networks.

What’s more much of the BNP vote in the UK is motivated by a protest vote against the Labour party abandoning working class voters in 'New Labour''s attempt to occupy Conservative party policy positions rather than provide alternatives to them in some of it's policies. The only thing that can provide a viable non-fascist alternative to the BNP is PR, which would make voting for independent candidates or democratic small parties like socialists and greens a viable option rather than a wasted vote.

Does PR lead to ‘shoddy deals’?

Another argument is that PR results in politicians deciding election results by ‘shoddy deals’ rather than the ‘principled government’ created by first-past-the-post elections. Let’s be honest though, no single party or candidate can possibly represent the full variety of viewpoints and interests in any country. There are simply too many of them and they conflict too much. The only way to represent ‘the people’ who have a wide range of views – not just one – is to end the childish system of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and have coalition governments that represent all viewpoints. It’s arrogance for any party or politician to claim that they alone represent the whole population. PR can represent a wide range of viewpoints through coalitions. First past the post cant. Nor are big political parties free of ‘shoddy deals’ or compromises among different factions of the party.

Does PR create ‘weak’ government?

Then there’s the argument that PR gives ‘weak’ coalition governments while first-past-the-post gives strong ones. In fact big parties are as prone to factional infighting as coalition governments – look at the Blairites versus the Brownites in New Labour or the Eurosceptics versus the Europhiles in the Conservative party. What’s more ‘strong’ government in practice means undemocratic government that doesn’t represent the views of the majority and runs roughshod over the views of the opposition – even when the government was elected on the votes of a minority of the electorate. Margaret Thatcher’s bloody minded destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industry in order to weaken the trade unions and the Labour party is one good example. Tony Blair’s Iraq war is another.

Does PR ensure party leaders and officials dominate politics?

Finally there’s the claim that PR gives power to party officials and leaders to control which candidates are nearest the top of the party’s electoral lists and so ensures the dominance of “the political class”, “party hacks” etc. However this is not down to the electoral system – it’s caused by a lack of any law or constitutional article forcing parties to be internally democratic in candidate selection. Under first-past-the-post party leaders and officials constantly replace candidates chosen by constituency parties or party members with their own choices. They even suspend entire constituency parties if they choose a candidate the party leadership don’t like. The only way to solve the problem is to have a law or a codified written constitution making it a legal requirement for parties to allow either constituency parties to choose their own candidates by a majority vote or, in PR elections, to have a requirement that party members decide by majority vote which candidates are where on the electoral list.

Independent candidates of course have no problem with electoral lists or party leaders. Small parties also tend to be more democratic internally. The problem for both of them is getting enough people to believe that a vote for them is not a ‘wasted vote’ under the electoral system. Under first past the post or Alternative Vote this is almost impossible as they’d need at least a third of the vote in the first case and half of it in one constituency in the second in order to get elected. Under PR though votes for small parties and independents count – which encourages more people to vote for them.

So the systems which give power to the party hacks and political class from the big established parties are actually First Past the Post – and it’s variant the Alternative Vote. Proportional representation systems like the Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies give far more influence to the electorate.