Archive for April, 2009


A Time For Real Heroes

Whilst you’d be hard-pressed in the UK now to escape The Sun and Jeremy Clarkson’s campaign for improved conditions and recognition for the soldiers returning from Iraq there is a distinct absence of mention for the former Flight Lieutenant Malcom Kendall-Smith, the court-martialled RAF doctor who refused to follow orders when he was to be deployed to Basra.

Dealing with army casualties is a difficult moral dilemma, for whilst one can feel sorry for anyone whom has incurred injury, the armed forces is one of those professions where such is very much part of the job.  It is, or should be, known as part and parcel of joining up that the principle purpose of the armed forces is armed conflict.  It is therefore somewhat rich that we the taxpayers whilst already paying part of our money for the armed forces should now have to come up with further money for individuals returning from an illegal war and of whom the army has largely washed its hands.  This is of course nothing new, once a soldier is past operational usefulness the army’s ‘resources’ always seem somewhat stretched as the many victims of Gulf War Syndrome can attest to.

The case of Malcolm Kendall-Smith is kept quiet for very different reasons as it raises the very real dilemma many soldiers may face at stages during their career when called upon to participate in military activity that they may not believe in, that may be immoral, illegal or both.  Kendall-Smith had made a considered decision about his moral obligations as to serving in the conflict, having been a tutor in moral philosophy at a New Zealand university, one is to presume he would have considered the arguments very carefully indeed.  After studying the arguments for and against the invasion he declared that he did not want to be complicit in an illegal war and tried to resign from the RAF.  Rather than the usual course of shortening his RAF contract Kendall-Smith told his court-martial “I would, in fact, refuse the orders as a duty under international law, the Nuremberg principles and the law of armed conflict”.  This might seem like a more head above the parapet method than the quiet resignation of his commission but having decided to make the stand I think it is both understandable and laudable that Kendall-Smith chose to take the flack for doing so.  He may not however have anticipated the full fall-out of his decision.

We might have thought that we have come a long way since shooting victims of shell-shock and imprisoning conscientious objectors during WWI and using the COs for slave labour in WWII.  We might also have thought that the days of blind obedience to orders no matter what they were without any thought of consequences were also thankfully over, the Nuremburg Principles following the trials of the Nazis coupled with the Geneva Convention should have ensured this.  However there is still very much a subjective interpretation as to when these principles are applied and this is often decided by the military themselves which is very much a lunatics and asylum situation.

Although Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles states that acting under orders of a “Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law,” the judge advocate in the court-martial case, Jack Bayliss, rejected Kendall-Smith’s claim that by serving in Iraq he could be complicit in a crime of aggression. Such a crime “cannot be committed by those in relatively junior positions such as that of the defendant. If a defendant believed that to go to Basra would make him complicit in the crime of aggression, his understanding of the law was wrong,” Bayliss said.  Furthermore he accused Kendall-Smith of an “amazing arrogance” and said the sentence was intended to make an example of him.  “Obedience of orders is at the heart of any disciplined force.  Refusal to obey orders means that the force is not a disciplined force but a disorganised rabble.  Those who wear the Queen’s uniform cannot pick and choose which orders they will obey. Those who seek to do so must face the serious consequences.

Kendall-Smith was found guilty on all five charges of disobeying orders, and sentenced to a penalty of eight months in prison. As well as the jail sentence, which he served in a civilian prison, Kendall-Smith was ordered to pay £20,000 towards his defence costs, which had been covered by legal aid which was to come from his personal savings of £20,000.  The campaign to help him pay these punitive charges received no media attention whatsoever.  Kendall-Smith himself was released in June 2006 under curfew until September and banned from speaking to the media until December.  There is no record of his case in the mainstream media after this point.

At the same time a similar case was being heard in Canada denying refugee status to an American soldier who wished to conscientiously object.  Jeremy Hinzman was told by the judge, Justice Anne Mactavish that “An individual must be involved at the policy-making level to be culpable for a crime against peace … the ordinary foot soldier is not expected to make his or her own personal assessment as to the legality of a conflict. Similarly, such an individual cannot be held criminally responsible for fighting in support of an illegal war, assuming that his or her personal war-time conduct is otherwise proper.”  These two statements from judges are especially interesting because there is nothing in the actual Nuremberg principles that states this and therefore their information must come from elsewhere, but where, it is not cited in their speeches and must one presumes be a legal interpretation and not a binding legal principle.

This is of course a completely different logic to that used at the trials in the aftermath of the holocaust.  In the Nuremberg trials if it was asserted that one could have known what was taking place then the lack of active participation was not a defence, thus the directors of Krupp AG and IG Farben were convicted of war crimes even though they themselves were not the ones who used the cannisters of Zyklon B that had been manufactured.  Likewise many SS officials who could not be proven to have taken active part in mass slaughter were complicit in knowing that such actions had been taking place without themselves doing anything to stop it.

At what point therefore does one become of low enough rank not to have to face up to the moral questions that implementing an order might present?  People still accuse ordinary German citizens during the 1940s as having been complicit in the holocaust because “they must have known what was going on and they did nothing to stop it.”  However how many people here have sought to speak out over extraordinary rendition, or the internees at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Base or Abu Gharaib prison?  The fact is we have become very complacent with our rights and we assume they will always be protected, Germany shows quite clinically how this can very quickly become the case, and it does so in the context of an increasingly galvanised nationalism on the back of a disastrous economic climate.

Ring any bells?

Song Of The Day ~ The Boxer Rebellion – Semi-Automatic

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If one needed any further indication that the G20 is formed of leaders who cannot think out of the box then the announcements of the ‘achievements’ of the summit have pretty much illustrated it as graphically as it could have been.  In fact it would be difficult to see how they could have been less broad-minded in their thinking choosing instead to tinker with the existing system that has at best allowed the current mess and quite probably been the root cause of it.

The largest ‘beneficiaries’ of the G20 plans appear to be the IMF which has been pledged around $500bn and the World Bank which receives the rest of the major subsidy, whilst the WTO is potentially going to be responsible for ensuring a lack of protectionist policies by countries seeking to concentrate on their own local economies at the expense of free trade from their partners.  This is supposed to stop the richer countries batoning down the hatches for their own good removing production from their poorer neighbours and imposing draconian tariffs and barriers on the exports of developing world countries.  Of course the idea of the US or the European Union playing fair by these rules is pretty laughable in the light of recent trading events, they cannot even play nicely with each other let alone with the rest of the world.  That the trade paper tiger of the WTO should be the body supposed to be doing something about this merely shows the absolute laissez-faire(!) attitude the world powers have for these objectives properly being met.

There will now be an “overdraft system for the world” which will be presided over by the IMF.  The means with which it will be done is via special drawing rights which have been improved by $250bn but these sums are split up into the groupings as to the voting rights of the IMF which means the largest countries will have the largest share, so not only will the nations of the developing world be getting only a possible share of crumbs from the table but they will have to pay them back.  This is pretty crass stuff, at the same time as we are hearing about sub-prime lending, what Mark Thomas calls “Shit Plus”, and at the same time as we are told we are in too much personal debt and have borrowed beyond our means, now there is supposed to be a fanfare about the richest nations on the planet offering a few scratchings by the same method to tether the poorest countries into economic servitude.  Lest one forgets the IMF does not merely apportion money according to needs, it applies conditions, massive cuts in public spending, privatisation of industry etc etc etc we’ve seen the agenda here in the West and it hasn’t exactly done much for the stability of the economies here let alone anything for the populations.  However it does provide Western corporations with a gilt-edged chance to get in and buy some 3rd world state assets at rock-bottom prices.

Bob Geldoff also showed his establishment credentials by being inside the ExCel centre rather than outside with the protesters, who were kept at more than arms length to prevent any chance of their message being heard and ‘spoiling the day.’  This is the same Geldoff who seems able to switch his vitriol on and off conveniently like a well-maintained tap, eulogising the promises of the G8 in 2005 and claiming it to have been a great victory whilst in the company of the pompous grandees, whilst branding the protesters and the detractors idiots.  The same Geldoff who then some time later came round to the detractors point of view when he realised that the promises were not worth the paper it hadn’t been written on, and did so without any sense of shame or apology for those he had insulted before.  Geldoff was back in his schmoozing guise, affecting the facade of a man who was there for the poorer nations and not for his own self-image.

When asked about the protests Geldoff said globalisation was no longer abstract, it isn’t exactly clear what he meant by this in terms of context, whether this meant there was no point in protesting about it any more or whether he had been hitherto under some misapprehension that globalisation had yet to take hold properly.  Geldoff claimed that whilst there was justifiable reason for people to protest against the bankers they must at the same time also protest against themselves because they had “sucked on the tit of free money.”  This is at best disingenuous and callous bigotry and frankly is quite staggering insulting for an extremely wealthy man who pontificates from within the system with his showbiz friends but refuses to use his influence or his intellect to question the neo-liberal agenda that has been the cause of the problems of this financial catastrophe.  I am unsure whether most people will see it as I do but I am certainly not aware of free money being handed out for the good of the populous in any way shape for form.  I am aware of loans that get more punitive in their interest rates as troubles increase.  I am aware of banks throwing overdraft facilities at people and then levying them punitive charges at the minorest of transgressions.  I doubt somehow that Geldoff has been forced to live in this world.  He also seems not at all to understand just how private enterprise works, namely that private companies demand profit and for investment therefore they require more back than what they have put in.  The only free money that I have noticed is that which we the taxpayers have been forced to give to the banks.  We have been led to believe that this is a form of nationalisation, that we may have some stake in the banking sector but any detail as to what this stake is has been extremely scant in its detail.  The fact is this is not nationalisation it is subsidisation, we have no stake, we have not changed the personnel, we have not enforced changes to their modus operandi, , we have not even been able to properly cap their salaries or golden parachutes.  Were this deal to have been done in the private sector someone would be saying that we got shafted.

Next the G20 leaders have pledged to be committed to stamping out tax havens which it is estimated cost the UK alone £100 billion in unpaid revenue.  However on closer scrutiny their methods of doing so appear to be as comprehensive as their commitment to the developing world.  The Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander responded on BBC’s Newsnight to questioning from Jeremy Paxman on tax havens by saying that Britain could not act unilaterally as the money would simply go elsewhere.  He did not explain what it was that Britain benefited from these companies being offshore that made up for the huge loss in tax revenue, nor did he explain his obvious lack of faith in other countries zeal to stamp out the tax havens to give these state larcenists no safe haven.  Furthermore there was no response when on the same program Mark Thomas pointed out that even the UK government buildings were now owned offshore, a revelation even Paxman seemed amused by.

So in conclusion when the dust has settled and the rhetoric sifted through what we actually have from the G20 is a situation whereby having paid a huge sum of our tax money to the banks, when we have already been told there was no more money for public services, for state pensions and for healthcare now we are to pay a great deal more money (for where else is this $1.1 trillion supposed to come from?) so that our governments can do it all over again.  Ever feel you might have been had…?

There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me  – can’t get fooled again.

Song Of The Day ~ Tears For Fears – Everybody Wants To Rule The World

As many thousands took to the streets of London last week to protest about the utter shambles the economic situation has been allowed to become.  It seems best summed up by the words of Einstein (as quoted also by Mark Thomas recently) “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

The media was quick to claim that whilst the demonstrations started peacefully as soon as “masked groups” turned up the atmosphere was very different.  The masked individuals they were referring to were those in black bloc which is a fairly common dress for those on marches, there is a lot of collective logic for it as it prevents the individual identification of some members who might otherwise be singled out for police attention both in the present and in the future.  One can choose to see it as a gang looking to cause trouble but I would be interested to know if any who would use that characterisation have ever actually seen any in black bloc cause specific trouble.  I am aware there have been incidences in Seattle and Genoa where damage has been mooted out on Starbucks and Gap premises, however these were protests involving a large number of black bloc participants, I have been on a number of demonstrations where people have been in black bloc and I am yet to see them as the ones who have started any trouble at all.  In fact the pictures that I saw of the trouble in the city showed a distinct lack of anyone in black bloc and seemed to be a scattering of individuals no more than 5 in number at any time surrounded by an absolute phalanx of photographers who seemed to be in an extremely organised formation.  Having been on marches and seen things occasionally get out of hand I can say with some surety that at least in my experience one thing that rarely happens is any pre-planned organised chaos.  Most of the time something sparks things off and some follow, others do not.  It would be staggeringly coincidental if rows of photographers had sat waiting at a particular window and that happened to be the one that was broken.  Furthermore the only person I have spoken to who was present at the time it was going on have said that whilst one person egged another on there were many voices calling for them to stop.  I doubt somehow the photographers were in the latter group.  The dispersal of people from a sparking point rarely makes national newsworthy pictures.  Most of the protesters I know are well aware that it only takes the odd action of a couple to be the entire story the media will focus on, leaving out the peaceful participation of thousands to concentrate on the actions of a handful.

I also wonder if one took a general cross-section of society and put them in that situation if there would ever be a group that was entirely without its idiots.  Certainly when one take thousands of police officers in my experience the results are far more brutal, the damage however being mooted out on people and not property.  In all the footage I saw on the mainstream media there were no signs of masked groups actively participating in anything violent, there were scenes of police charging with batons raised, scenes of individuals shouting in anger at the police lines, scenes of police kicking protesters who were already on the floor and scenes of groups of no more than 3 or 4 people causing damage to the bank buildings.  There were reports of injuries but largely on the side of the protesters, I did see in the Evening Standard  a photo of policeman who had allegedly been blooded but the photo was interesting because the blood was on outside of his helmet and jacket and didn’t seem commensurate with any wound he would have sustained.  Other than that I have heard of no other specific police casualties, though of course they have not yet had time to assess those that might have been stung by bees or tripped over whilst on patrol yet, I have heard about many protesters being badly injured including one man who died whilst caught near a police penning of the crowd around Bishopsgate.  It was said by official sources initially and by a subsequent police post-mortem that the man, Ian Tomlinson, died of “natural causes”, Tomlinson was 47 so this seemed somewhat unlikely.  Demonstrators have claimed that the problem was that medical attention was not able to reach Tomlinson soon enough and he was therefore untreated, other eye witnesses have said that he had been beaten by police shortly before he collapsed, and the Police Complaints commission are having to look into the case.  Whatever the reasons he thus becomes the first physical fatality of the London G20 protests.  Whilst it may not be as immediately newsworthy as someone being shot by police like Carlo Giuliani in Genoa in 2001 this event does show two rather critical points, the first is that the police are quite indiscriminate in their actions, Tomlinson was not himself taking part in the protests, he was not a young “anarchist” or in black bloc, he had not been seen creating any damage so could not have been singled out for any retaliatory action.  Secondly the speed with which the official police post-mortem issued its statement is somewhat indicative of a quick cover-up, and were it not for the fact that some witnesses recognised that the official line may not be anywhere close to the truth we might never be any the wiser.

This is not the first time, the Jean Charles De Menenzes case showed how a police action can go horribly wrong resulting in the murder of an innocent young man who effectively was only in the firing line because he was not white-skinned.  This should have illustrated once and for all that anti-terrorism measures are an infringement of human rights that are a great many steps too far and allowing the police to in any way conduct their own investigation into such a case was tantamount to not only allowing the lunatics to take over the asylum but giving them the budget for the next year as well.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

This is only the start of the anger and backlash against the bankers and the politicians that back them up.  As we are forced to provide more and more of our tax money to bail out financial institutions that are riddled with corruption and the corrupt there will be a greater number of people who feel that enough is enough and will join the dissenters.  However this means that this is only the start of the problems with the means by which the state chooses to protect itself, it’s going to get nasty comrades, Chris Knight was right.

Song Of The Day ~ Stiff Little Fingers – Bloody Sunday

chris-knight

The University Of East London is not seen by most in the know as exactly a haven of democracy or free-thinking.  Recent years have seen much the same corporatisation of the institution that is mirrored across academic campuses all over the country but UEL has been at the forefront of bringing this to the boardroom in a recent coup to oust the Vice-Chancellor by the board without any following of due process and in a manner that would not have been out of keeping with the banking sector.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise that the University management agreed to host the Alternative G20 Summit, which, were this one not to take place would leave that at the ExCel centre in London very much the only show in town.  Professor Chris Knight, an academic at the institution, was very much instrumental in the bringing together the event and co-ordinating a rich plan of events and speakers that was to take place on Wednesday 1st April.  The event was seen as something of a showcase of alternative thinking to the laissez-faire capitalism that was to be taking place literally down the road and a real chance for the university to put itself on the national and international map, the profile of the speakers very much represented this with figures from across the social and political spectrum due to speak on economic, political and environmental matters.

Shortly before the event the University had a change of heart and decided that far from allowing the event to take place on campus they were going to be shutting down the entire Docklands campus for the two days surrounding the ExCel event.  As usual the “security” gambit, and “on advice from police” was used to justify the actions.  It was decided that the alternative summit would go ahead anyway.

Hence Tony Benn, Mark Thomas, Lindsay Germain, Oliver Tickall and many others were to be seen on the lawn in between the two campus buildings from 5pm until 9pm holding forth with a megaphone that was rushed in from some SWP activists who had been demonstrating elsewhere, and speakers were forced to try to hold their own against a steady procession of flights taking off from city airport some 500 or so yards away across the water.  The reputation of UEL as a repressive corporate-minded institution caring more about revenue and image than it did about education and debate was preserved.

What was a step into greater unknown territory, as if denying eminent visitors from across the country the right to speak were not enough was the treatment of one of its own.  Professor Knight was suspended from duties whilst the university “conducted an investigation into his comments.”  Professor Knight had been interviewed in the Sunday Times and his story has since been picked up by a number of sources including the BBC.

Professor Knight is quoted as saying “We are going to be hanging a lot of people like Fred the Shred from lampposts on April Fool’s Day and I can only say let’s hope they are just effigies.  To be honest, if he winds us up any more I’m afraid there will be real bankers hanging from lampposts and let’s hope that that doesn’t actually have to happen.”  He goes on to say that the protests might “get nasty.”  This has prompted the university to suspend Professor Knight under the pretext that his comments were inciting violence.  This is a ridiculous claim, I was present at the summit when an occupation of the UEL library was discussed, there were plenty there who would have been prepared to take matters into their own hands, Knight was the voice of calm, the library had one more chance to respond to the Earth hour calls to switch the lights off and Knight was prepared to give them that chance in the hope that no further action would be necessary.  His “I hope it does not come to that” stance seemed pretty endemic of most of the crowd, but determination remained that something had to be done and it was more a question of the crowd having differences in their tipping point as to when things could no longer be done by rational law-abiding means.  Professor Knight was nowhere near the radical end of that spectrum but was certainly committed to demands being met having himself been suspended from his job and seen a great conference that he had worked hard for almost derailed at the eleventh hour.  Frankly under those circumstances I found his restraint somewhat admirable.

When describing the mood of the nation with regard to bankers, who are still claiming profane salaries, pensions and bonuses that were bad enough when paid for by customers but utterly sickening when paid for by the taxpayer, as people being angry enough to take it out on the bankers by perhaps hanging the real ones from lampposts within the context of a planned protest by hanging effigies from lampposts is something spontaneous and is called wit, there was an attempt to shame the bankers many of whom are totally unabashed at their actions, as anyone watching those bankers waving £10 notes at the protesters in London can testify to.  Without any sense of remorse for what they have done how could anyone expect them to behave any differently with our money than they did with the company’s money beforehand.  Amusingly some sharp commentator in the crowd ridiculed the bankers by saying it was clear what a mess they had made of things as three years ago they would have been waving £50 notes at the crowd.

Anyone who has ever been on a political march knows that there are risks of things “getting nasty” this generally occurs when the police either pre-emptively strike and pen large numbers of people into a confined space for a long period of time, or a couple of idiots either over-exuberant, a bit pissed up, or extremely naive decide to take things into their own hands.  The police retaliation for this is usually swift and generally brutal and this can be clearly seen with their actions during this week, at no point did I see demonstrators charging police with weapons however I did see police charging the crowds swinging their truncheons around indiscriminately and kicking protesters who had already been dropped to the floor.  I fail to see any reason why someone who has already been dropped to the ground can represent any sort of a threat that may validate these actions

Is Chris Knight a 66 year old professor of anthropology therefore really as dangerous as the actions against him would appear to suggest?  Those who think are dangerous enough in the modern world, the status quo relies on apathy, ignorance and fear in order to survive, anyone who questions what is supposed to be a consensus by default is therefore opening up the system to scrutiny that it cannot withstand, anyone who teaches others to question it is perhaps the most dangerous sort of dissident for therein lies perhaps the true seeds of a revolution.  The question should not be whether Chris Knight is dangerous but bearing in mind the establishment is now clearly scared for whom they are going to come next?

Song Of The Day ~ The The – Angels Of Deception