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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Pain and consequences 

Alleged torture sites in Europe, alleged British complicity in this and the only too public longstanding attempts by the US to force the world to grant it immunity from liability in any war crimes court all mix in a new brew this week.

In order to escape from the implications of an International Criminal Court the USA has been seeking bilateral agreements with countries around the world in which those countries agree never to subject US citizens to the scrutiny of the court – even if that country has ratified the ICC treaty. So far 98 countries, mostly poor or otherwise vulnerable to US financial or other pressures have signed.

A number of countries have straightforwardly refused to make such an agreement. The honour roll includes Iceland, Canada Ireland and ( a relieved small preen) my maternal country of Lithuania – all of which have rejected the US pressure. But alas it appears that the United Kingdom still has this agreement ‘under consideration.’ (See here for a good summary and rant on what No Right Turn blogger calls the Axis of Impunity).

Now we have news today that a number of ‘extraordinary rendition’ aka torture flights from the USA to secret torture subcontractors in third party countries may have used UK airports as staging points. If there were people detained on board not under arrest on warrants recognised in the UK then the people operating these flights and those ordering them can I think face charges of kidnapping. Habeas Corpus still exists in this country, despite the best efforts of Blair.

Added to the uproar over a possible Abu Ghraib existing in an EU member state and the suggestions by EU Justice Commissioner Frattini that any EU states harbouring such illegal detention centres could lose their EU voting rights. OK Frattini is a Berlusconi hack and is probably grandstanding for Italian internal politics reasons but this is still quite something.

We must hope that our Foreign Secretary (The current EU presidency foreign affairs spokesman for a month yet, let us remember) is not a man of straw when he meets Condoleeza Rice during her upcoming EU visit in a few days… Straw needs to talk straight and tough. But I suspect our New Labour corn dolly is still in denial.

LibDem MPs and MEPs, AMs and MSPs … what is happening in our parliaments?

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Monday, November 28, 2005

A strange death in Iraq 

It is hard not to recall David Kelly. An US military ethics specialist in Iraq dies, possibly from suicide. As the LA Times story says:

WASHINGTON — One hot, dusty day in June, Col. Ted Westhusing was found dead in a trailer at a military base near the Baghdad airport, a single gunshot wound to the head. The Army would conclude that he committed suicide with his service pistol. At the time, he was the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.
The Army closed its case. But the questions surrounding Westhusing's death
continue. Westhusing, 44, was no ordinary officer. He was one of the Army's leading scholars of military ethics, a full professor at West Point who volunteered to serve in Iraq to be able to better teach his students. He had a doctorate in philosophy; his dissertation was an extended meditation on the meaning of honor.

Something that angered Westhusing was the role of Security Contractor companies in Iraq. A psychiatrist who reviewed his letters and e-mails said:
"Despite his intelligence, his ability to grasp the idea that profit is an
important goal for people working in the private sector was surprisingly
limited," wrote Lt. Col. Lisa Breitenbach. "He could not shift his mind-set from
the military notion of completing a mission irrespective of cost, nor could he
change his belief that doing the right thing because it was the right thing to
do should be the sole motivator for businesses."

Business as usual on the streets of Iraq? Was that his problem? The kind of thing reported in the Trophy Killings video?

I am not taking up here the debates on whether this was suicide, but there are of course such debates going on...

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your money or your health 

Some say we should welcome more private funding into the NHS to help keep costs down. Well that argument was tried in the USA in the 1980’s when those parts of their system working on a not-for-profit basis was privatised. And the result was that spending on health matters went up from 10.5% of GDP in 1984 to 15% of GDP in 2004. That means expenditure this year is in round terms $500,000,000 higher than it would have been if the 1984 proportion was still operative. And how does this work out in terms of actual care outcomes?

Critical Condition: How Health Care in America became Big Business and Bad Medicine is the title of a book with one answer to that. (you can download it as an e-book, it isnt available in britain.)

Maybe those of our Orange Bookmakers willing to take a punt on private health care could look at the arguments and examples in this book and explain how it doesn’t reflect what would happen here …

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Your ID card or else... 

In the USA, in Denver, people are facing prosecution for not carrying ID documents on an ordinary cross-town commuter bus. The bus runs through town and transits the edge of the Federal Center ( a complex of buildings, not a security sensitive site). Police are boarding busses and demanding IDs of passengers. A woman who refused to give such IDS has been arrested and will face court on 9th December . Just a cautionary tale perhaps on how things can escalate, to throw into our own ID card debate?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Transatlantic strings for Cameron? 

I believe that David Cameron, if he Ascends to the Olympian Heights of Conservative leadership, intends to realign the Tories in Europe away from its traditional CDU style allies and gather together with certain eurosceptic parties chiefly from east Europe.

These parties I think are partially funded and encouraged by supporters of the current US administration in order to weaken the EU and make Europe easier to manipulate by the USA.

This policy is expressed succinctly by John O'Sullivan, the British-born editor-in-chief at United Press International in Washington, D.C. In a notable article in 2002 he argued that it is "in America's national interest to shape a new Atlantic framework in which the E.U. would gradually lose its dominance within Europe." The steps towards such an outcome might include:1) Replacing the venerable State Department policy of encouraging European "integration" in all circumstances with a policy of support for a decentralized, deregulated, free-trade Europe of nations2) Seeking closer bilateral relationships with European friends like the British, the east Europeans, the Italians, and the Spaniards; (This was before Zapatero took office of course)3) Strengthening transatlantic institutions where they exist (such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's proposed NATO Rapid Reaction Force); establishing them where they don't (like a new transatlantic free trade area, TAFTA); and fostering an active transatlantic exchange.( Source: John O'Sullivan "United we should stand" . The American Enterprise, December 2002, p. 35 Not available online as far as I can find)

One sign of the times and a possible Campbell ally. The new Polish Foreign Minister in the Government formed earlier this week (see Eurotrib for a good account of the background) is Radek Sikorski .Sikorski is an interesting character having (for instance) personally fought in Afghanistan alongside the mohadjeen against the Soviets. (now I wonder if he met Osama over there...) He is married to the well-known Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. He was a founder and up to now at least was executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative. This is headquartered in the American Enterprise Institute . Supporters of the NAI include Rupert Murdoch, John Bolton (The current US ambassador and designated wrecker –in-chief to the United Nations) and Donald Rumsfeld.

And we are about to see the launch of the UK Branch of the Henry Jackson Society. The event is on 22 November 2005 and it will be hosted by Michael Grove MP (Cons - Surrey Heath) and Gisela Stuart (Lab - Birmingham Edgbaston). I believe 'Scoop' Jackson was a mentor and inspiration for Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and various other wild minds afflicting the current US administration.

To understand Cameron’s possible agenda we may need to have a clear understanding of what these bodies are up to.

Now a question for us. These well-funded and connected institutions have contacts and well-wishers in the Tory and Labour parties. They seek to alter perceptions and set agendas behind the scenes. Are we LibDems immune to these blandishments? Should we keep a watch?

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Education... The govt gives and takes away? 

Can someone help me get this straight on education? In order to 'escape from the control of local authorities' schools that become 'independents' will be given the carrot of exemption from the National Curriculum if the current White Paper proposals become law. Meanwhile other legisation is proposed setting up a National Curriculum for early years education... Is this just possibly a little contradictory?

By the way I trust that our MPs remember we actually have a policy on early years education which is highly Liberal and which directly contradicts the assumptions in the governments latest soundbites. The one on community education initiatives and on individual learning resources for reading...

And I am still looking for some enlightenment on the points I raised earlier about private companies taking over schools.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Burning bright 

OK.

It is now clear that White Phosphorous munitions were used by US forces in an urban area in Fallujah. British forces in Iraq were actually redeployed to facilitate the overall Fallujah operation. We are implicated by the actions of a formal ally which has not signed the same intenational treaties as we have done.

Have British Ministers committed offences under intenational law? We need a proper answer in Parliament asap.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

The meat market of freedoms 

It would he an insult to the integrity of salami to describe the current slicing up of our civil liberties as ‘salami tactics’. That implies some intelligent design. Instead we stagger from debate to debate on disjointed bills without considering how it all adds up,.

Fore example, on January 1st legislation comes into force basically making all putative offences arrestable on the self-definition of the Police. Is this really irrelevant to powers on combating terror? Surely the implications of this must be debated as new legislation is proposed? Can’t say I have seen anything relevant. Separate current proposals on criminal evidence will alter the basis of investigation and proof. And there is the Terror act in all its frustrated ninety-day glory.

If we tried to do joined up government ( remember that phrase?) we might solve some of our problems on detention with judicious changes in the regulations on what is admissible evidence gathered after formal charge. We might find effective changes require surprisingly little new legislation.

But instead each measure comes up as if everything depends on the proposals of the moment. To change the meat-based metaphor it isn’t even rational butchery of our constitutional protections, more the hacking of iconic pounds of flesh to feed soundbites of fear.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Smouldering French thoughts 

Another topical film recommendation, this time from France: La Haine (hatred) made in 1995 about disaffected youths and riots in a French 'suburb'. Very powerful and disturbing.

DVD details here.

Oh and a quick reference for different points of view on the 'events' (shades of 1968) on this discussion on the European Tribune blog entitled 'My aunt's building burned yesterday'

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Piracy no joke or small thing 

Oh yes piracy is alive and even killing today. And the solutions are not obvious.

A good overview of the situation (IMHO) is in the new book by William Langewiesche "The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World's Oceans”. (Published in the USA with subtitle " A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime").

Chunks of this will be familiar from Langewiesche's articles in the Atlantic Monthly on this theme but there is some new material.

Despite the BBC indexing this as an 'African' story it is not just a localised problem near a failed state.

There are hundreds of pirate attacks every year worldwide. With cargoes worth $20 million or so in even a smallish freeighter there is money to be made. And despite lots and lots of paperwork the sea is a world that avoids regulation and policing.

The National Security issues for maratime states are another theme.

It is a journalistic book ( any competent web version would have a lot of links and references) so not to easy to follow up. But do have a look before going overboard on rogue states and on lack of international action. Most Flags of Convenience for example are in the hands of private companies not national governments. (The Bahamian registration of the cruise ship 'Seaborn Spirit' is an example of this).

And there are lots and lots of regulations supervised by the International Maratime Organisation which modern pirates can actually use as smokescreen. Ships simply disappear, crews dispers and cannot be traced, pirates come aboard with complete bills of lading for the cargo...

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Parihaka 

November 5th also is the anniversary of a shameful and (in the UK anyway) little known episode in New Zealand history - the invasion in 1881 by the NZ settler government of the pacifist Maori community of Parihaka. For the story outlined for today see the New Zealand blogger Idiot/savant. Why is it relevant to us? I will close with I/S's conclusion

Why should we remember Parihaka? For the same reason we remember any event in history: to avoid repeating it. Parihaka was a gross injustice, but it is also a
warning of what happens when government acts on fear and without respect for
human rights. Only by acknowledging and remembering it can we hope to avoid
making the same mistake in the future.

'Acting on fear and without respect for human rights'... we need to be watchful today Liberals, for obvious reasons, as our own UK Government Labours on .

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Remember the explosive real world 

Four hundred years after the event is perhaps time to review the jokes about Guy Fawkes being the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intent.

And also review our actual history not the Patriotic Gloss that stands between us and a real appreciation of our ‘heritage and identity’. The despicable and self-destructive terrorism of the Catholic Powder Plotters is part of this,a sis the hysterical reactions. But there is more.

Here is something for our newer communities to contribute. I hope that British Historians with a Moslem culture, for example, will do some serious analysis of these times – I suspect that there are uncomfortable and salutory lessons to learn for many people.

One thing to review is the history of the rise and fall of Taliban England, the takeover of South Britain in the course of a century and a half by a network (an al-Qaida as they say in Arabic) of religious purists who vandalised and destroyed centuries of artistic heritage, looted community resources for private gain and finished by attempting to establish the rule of a community of saints, to use Cromwells phrase for the appointed godfearing Rump Parliament.

Much to think about both for British traditionalists and for modern radical faith movements.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Another shade of paper 

Seems there is one good thing in the Education White Paper - purely private companies will no longer be able just to buy up schools, as currently happens for City Academies. Educational Trusts would need to be set up for the schools. According to the Guardian this annoys the chair of one such company which already runs a number of schools as Academies.

Whether you agree with him may depend on your assesment of the sorry tale outlined in my earlier posting, for the company in question is the one now running Bury Lawn School, Milton Keynes. It is true that public controversy on this has apparently died down with the new term but some might say this has a connection with the new contract the school requires all parents to sign. I couldn't possibly comment.

You may find it helpful to read the Guardian story with this background in mind.

Question for our MPs - does the White Paper specifically alter the conditions for school funding set out in the government's "Building Schools for the Future" programme which more or less forces LEAs to sell off to private companies in order to establish City Academies?

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Health Errors 

Contasting stories. One in The Guardian notes the National Audit Office report on mistakes in NHS hospitals. A story of great importance highlighting where urgent action is needed, without a doubt. More pressure on the 'N.H.S.' and more ammunition for its critics.

Meanwhile over in the Toronto Globe and Mail the same day the story is of a report by the Commonweath Foundation on Health Care outcomes in Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, The UK and the USA.

The finding that a quarter of UK NHS patients experience errors seems consistent with the UK NAO findings. However 34% of US and 30% of Canadian patients report errors - and the UK actually comes off best in this comparison.

The Commonwealth Foundation authors conclude that :
.. no country emerges as a clear winner or loser. All survey countries
experience high rates of safety risks, failure to coordinate care during
transitions, inadequate communication, and a lack of support for chronically ill
patients. These areas of shared concern... will likely require policy innovations that transcend current payment and delivery systems.

So can we discuss our Health Promotion problems without necessarily calling into question the 'National Health' aspects of our sytem?

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Uhlan Eagle 

Codeword for the now annual (I think) exercises by British troops at the Drawsko Pomorskie military range in Poland - once one of the largest Warsaw Pact military training grounds and at 400 sq. Km larger than any free-fire range availabe in the UK. Especially appreciated by the armored regiment.

I mention this to show that there are a variety of reasons why old military installations in east Europe may be currently used by UK (and US) forces. Not to be confused with the 'Camps' in east Europe' where according to the Washington Post the US is hiding Guantanamo Bay goings on. I trust our MEPS will insist the EU asks even more questions on this. But what do our Own Dear Tonys know?

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

After the White Paper what education deluge? 

The Education White Paper debate meanders on … and the more I look at it the more I ask whether the Whitehall people actually know how Education works in England. More thoughts later but first some questions arising from a Local Uproar concerning a MK Independent School.

Basically Bury Lawn School in MK operated for years with a particular ethos – a non-selective independent with an emphasis on caring for pupils as individuals. If we are to have schools responding to parents specific desires, not necessarily to be Oxbridge Entry factories, this school was a Poster Child.

Then it got bought up by one of the big Education Combines and some uproar ensued. Just sticking to publicly known facts, many parents are upset by the imposition of a totally new ethos. As for the staff, getting through five head-teachers in a year is going it even by football club manager standards. Many teachers left and also many students left last year. It also appears that continuing parents got the impression (note my very careful wording) that if they publicly criticised the school they would have to withdraw their children.

The BBC and The Times had reports from the height of the crisis back in May 2005.

For the Parents Action viewpoint see their website. At the moment parents and concerned outsiders are all awaiting the special Independent Schools Inspectorate report which was due in September…no explenation for the delay as yet.

So how does this relate to the White Paper debate? Well, I am wondering what happens in post-white-paper the future when all schools bask in The Blair Elysian Fields of being ‘Independent Schools’. If this had been an ex-state school in this situation would the Local Authority have some regulatory rights to intervene? How about ‘The Ministry’ way down south in Whitehall? Would crucial information be covered by ‘commercial confidentiality’ considerations, preventing public debate of matters of key interest to the wider public? (as we all know can happen with PPP agreements)? What exactly would the planned ‘Parents Councils’ be able to do in such situations? How does it help local and parental control to have schools bought up by foreign-based companies (the one in question is based in Dubai) that can change the whole ethos and balance of a school following company policies?

A bottom-line point is that concerned parents over many years built up an educational community which contrasted to most Local Authority provision and also contrasted to most Private Sector provision and they feel they have been royally screwed up by private sector organisations. And of course find themselves beyond the protection of local and national public services.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The British-Makers 

With the new Citizenship Tests on view and in operation, time to recall one of the funniest Swiss films of all time - The Swissmakers (Die Schweizermacher) which follows the exploits of a special squad in a Swiss Canton charged with the task of assessing citizenship applicants to see if they are sufficiantly Swiss to be allowed in. The scenes with the family from Italy desperately pretending they prefer fondue to pasta and concealing their political inclinations are pythonesque classics. (Hint, it is a bonus for possessors of the Liberator songbook when the family break into 'Bandiera Rossa' at the end, as we can follow the words in Italian from memory).

I suppose if I was applying for Swiss Citizenship I would be expected to name the other funny Swiss film ... Ok that crack will rule me out for life. But how would we resident Brits do on the test and would a test on Welshness be acceptable in lieue of Britishness - for example for the Gujerati speaking migrants who learnt fluent Welsh back in the 1980s ...

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