Justice and mercy: al-Megrahi

I’ve been away most of the last two weeks with just a few days at home in between.  However, just before I was first away I heard the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announce the release of al-Megrahi.  The decision was clearly hard and arbitrating the balance between justice and compassion is an unenviable task.

Whether the final decision was right or wrong, hearing MacAskill’s explanation of his decisions made me proud to be living in Scotland. Rather than bowing to the clear political pressure he was under, instead he kept his focus on what justice means in a land where compassion is at the heart of who we are.  In a world often ravaged by war and terror, suffering under human cruelty, and governed by the twins of aggression and revenge, MacAskill put himself under a  higher order and demonstrated the clear difference between a country still under the influence of its Christian past and those, from all sides, who besmirch the names of their own countries and religions by terror and violence.

Since then the grubby world of UK deals over oil and US deals over billions of dollars of compensation payments have both been aired, but it appears that MacAskill’s decision stood against pressure from all sides.

It was perhaps inevitable that the release would provoke some controversy, but disappointing nonetheless; one always hopes that integrity will triumph over knee-jerk reactions.  However, it has been especially galling to hear US voices raised in protest, a country which for so many years acted as safe haven for IRA fund raising; bankrolling the London bombings of the 1970s and beyond.  While Gaddafi supplied the weapons, the US public supplied the dollars1.  I was only young at the time, but these were vicious attacks in crowded tube trains and on the streets of London and elsewhere, designed specifically to cause maximum death and injury; and all the while, in the US, the IRA were allowed to operate freely due to political support in high places.

Obama came to power with the promise of a new attitude and a principled approach to politics, so it is doubly disappointing that he has failed this early test of principle over public opinion.  If the current White House staff cannot accept the independence of the Scottish justice system over politics, what hope in other parts of the world.

  1. Of course, while the Libyan involvement in the Lockerbie bombing and al-Megrahi’s guilt have been a matter of debate, the involvement of Libya in IRA terrorism was indisputable.   Since those days the IRA have become part of the Northern Ireland political process and Libya itself has been welcomed into the allied camp of the ‘war on terror’.  Whether in India, Israel or Ireland, yesterday’s terrorists become today’s politicians.  This makes the focus on al-Megrahi seem even more like that of a scapegoat.[back]

keeping track of history (Blair, Iraq, and all of us)

I had been struck by Blair’s long-awaited statement about the manner of the execution of saddam, that he belatedely made last Tuesday evening. However, I wanted to be suer of what he said, so yesterday evening attempted to find out. Perhaps I am just too poor a web-user, but I found it incredibly difficult. Google seraches fund many earelier news articles about the fact that he hadnlt said anthing at that stage, and ones from earelier last week saying what he was about to say something and what it would be (now-a-days it seems news is written before the event), but nothing reporting what he said or when he said it (I couldn’t recall the exect day either).Having found earlier or later articles in newspapers and on the BBC I thought it should be easy to trace from them to related ones and hence the statement I was after … but no. While most seem to offer long term “most important stories in 2005” archives, there does not appear to be an easy way (or possibly any way) to say “what was the BBC online stories for Wednesday January 12th 2007?”.

I did find the ‘number 10‘ site that does have a list of the prime minister’s speaches and statements, but of course not all his statements, just the ones they want you to read!

Eventually yahoo! news came to the rescue (albeit found through Google!) with a more recent article, but with links to background including a guardian online article from last wednesday … which yes! did have the full text of the relevant part of the statement:

As has been very obvious from the comments of other ministers and indeed from my own official spokesman, the manner of the execution of Saddam was completely wrong. But that should not blind us to the crimes he committed against his own people, including the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, one million casualties in the Iran/Iraq war and the use of chemical weapons against his own people, wiping out entire villages.

So the crimes that Saddam committed does not excuse the manner of his execution but the manner of his execution does not excuse the crimes.

Now to be fair, knowing this was accessible I tried an alternative tack and searched inside the guardian site using keywords and was able to find the article that way. Having realised this and did some searches on the bbc site and got the video of the statement. (Once I’d found suitable serach terms!)

So on newspaper and the bbc sites it seems you can do google-style searches, but not (unless I’m still missing something) ask “what was on the news last Wednesday” or (reasonably completely) what are the related articles to this one.

Obviously in a pre-web world I would not expect to be able to do this. I could (and still could) visit the British Library for old copies of newspapers (I assume they keep them) and for the last week possibly the local library. But of course when information is available it is not what you could find that counts, but what is easiest. The information that is available is the information that gets seen. Even in university our students are reluctant to read books as they believe they can find all they need on the web.

Now the reason I wanted to find the Blair statement was the reference to “one million casualties in the Iran/Iraq war”. He was rightly pointing out that the failings of the legal process of his execution should not blind us to the horror of his crimes. Now given the delay I assume the words were well prepared, and yet of three crimes things he noted one was this.

I guess the figure of 1 million sounded good (big numbers always impress), but to mention this without also noting that that war was waged with the complicit and explicit support of many countries including the UK and US seems at best amnesiac and at worst deceptive. Does he really not know this? Or is he simply hoping most who hear it won’t?

I can recall the Iran-Iraq war as a young adult, but those younger will have been in school and even for those around at the time I’m sure the memories get a little fuzzy, so perhaps he can get away with this type of manipulation. Or perhaps it is tht he only partly recalls the events and honestly presents this?

The US involvement is well documented, both in terms of miltary presence in the Gulf at the time, officially neutrally, but with minimal pretense acting against Iran who was then the ‘evil power’. Indeed (recalling my own and Nad’s earlier posts about the execution), in looking for this I found George Washington University’s National Security Archive of declaissified documents. In this there is a photograph of Donald Rumsfeld, then a special envoy from President Reagan, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. This is not surprising, diplomatc have to do this all the time. Significantly though this meeting was, as the national secturity archives show, shortly after US intelligence had confirmed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons (Blair’s point 3) and discussed this at a presidential level. The US (in full knowledge) then went on to block UN resolutions deploring Iraq use of chemical weapons … initially with UK support. the ful story of UK support, I’m sure is there, but even harder to find … I seem to recall British warships in the gulf, but it was more than 20 years ago!
I an age of instant information, it is amazing that getting the basic facts of ongoing news items is so difficult. I recall a year or so back there was a call for journalists to give more context in theor reporting. However, when interviews a respected journalist insisted that theor job was the news, the changes not the backgrund … but without the background the interpretation of what we hear is different.

If journalists do not see it as their job to give such background and it is still so hard to find elsewhere, then politicians can go on deceiving themselves and their people.

politics of water – trouble in paradise

Today I got a mailed posting from Geoff Ellis who is visiting family in Mauritius (see copy at end of this entry)

Water politics is on the rise both because of climate change and competition for the use of rivers that cross borders. Recently I heard that the Dead Sea is drying up, although evidently the Aral Sea may be slowly recovering.

However, this also reminded me how as a child the Free Wales Army were my heroes. I was to small to understand much about it, but I do know they blew up water pipelines. Sadly (so I thought) they were eventually captured and put behind bars and the water pipelines were safe. Now I guess these were acts of sabotage rather than terrorism and in retrospect it sounds rather ridiculous … blowing up oil pipelines, yes, but water?

Being brought up with Cardiff they seemed sort of Welsh Robin Hood-like figures – very romantic.
It was only years later I understood the full story.

When I was nine years old my dad died and after that we lived on a state widows pension supplemented with students (and at one stage Irish navvies) staying half-board. Hard work – hot meals to prepare breakfast and evening, washing, not to mention cleaning the thick orange Cardiff clay from the carpets when the navvies were staying.

Once a year we got the bill for the water rates. There was also a once-a-year bill for the house rates (tax on land/housing), but as we were on low income we got 90% rebate for this, so it was not too bad. But when the water rates came, there was no rebate, and that stage not even monthly payments to spead the cost. Mum was good with money, budgeting carefully and saving for major bills, but still it was a big bill and hard to pay on one go … and for this water tax there was no relief or rebate, no matter your income, you had to pay in full.

It was then years later again and I was renting my own hose for the first time in Bedfordshire … England. When I got my first water rates it was for £60 (it was a few years ago!) and when I asked mum I found hers was for £300. The population in Wales is very spread out, so it is more expensive to transport the water, and hence, I guess, why it cost five times as much.

If Wales has a national resource (once the coal was plundered), it is water … it rains, and rains, and rains! When I was little my dad used to drive us up to visit Brecon, through the coal valleys north of Cardiff and up into the Brecon Beacons, with the vast reservoirs filling the valleys between the mountains. We picnicked beside the streams flowing down the mountains and wondered at the huge dams.

The water from these dams does not flow to Cardiff, the coal valleys or central Wales, but is piped to Birmingham … and as the water flows out, no money flows back. So English water is cheap, and the cost of Welsh water falls heavily on those who can afford it least.

The Free Wales Army deserve a play or a film, a slightly askance view … you cannot present blowing up water pipleines with a straight face, but with a hint of the issue beneath. For me as a child, the politics of water was a painful and serious business.
Geoff’s posting from Mauritius:

water trouble in paradise

L’Avenir, St. Pierre, Mauritius 31 Dec 2006

In this usually quite village of L’Avenir nestled amongst the mountains on the Mauritian plateau, New Years eve is a time for cleaning the house ready to welcome the New Year with fireworks. But this year is different. The road is ablaze at both ends of the village as some of the residents, frustrated by days of water cuts, have taken to Royal Road. They just haven’t run out of water, in the higher parts of the village for 5 days now, some have run out of clean clothes to wear. It is true that the reservoirs are lower this year due to less rainfall than usual over the winter months, but what makes the residents angry is the seemingly unjust way in which the limited water is supplied. In the neighbouring village of Beau Bois they have water and in the small town of St. Pierre a mile away I’ve seen people washing the pavements in front of their houses, no sign of water shortage there. And of course, the hotel swimming pools are full, the greens and fairways of the golf course are lush and I doubt if any ministers or government officials have been washing in a bucket! As one residents told me, making a civil disturbance in the only way to get the water turned back on, no one answers the water board office ‘hotline’ . Whether or not we will be able to wash in 2007 is somewhat in the hands of the gods.

Geoffrey Ellis (UK resident on holiday in L’Avenir with parents-in-law)

fire in the streets in Avenir
[see full image]

Saddam’s execution

The images of Saddam Hussein’s execution filled the newspapers this morning as they filled the TV news yesterday. Sadly the manner of the trial and execution seem to have transformed a ruthess dictator into a folk hero.

His execution now robs those who have had loved ones die in other mass executions during Saddam’s rule from knowing the truth. And moreover lets those in the West implicated in many of them off the hook.

I recall during the Iran-Iraq war, the reports in that clarion of left wing journalism, the Reader’s Digest, of the use of chemical weapons against civilian Kurds. Everyone knew about it, except the governments of the West for whom Saddam was an ally against Iran and the Kurds an inconvenince – friends of Iran and troublesome in Turkey. No justice for these families.

And why no trial for the massacres in the South following the Gulf War? Perhaps fear that it would bring back to mind the way we encouraged ethnic civil war in the hope it would topple Saddam without dirtying our own hands.

The hypocracy of the ‘diplomacy’ of the late 20th and early 21st century is sickening. In Iraq as in Yugoslavia, we sow the seeds of ethnic strife and then throw up our hands in horror at the results.

first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye