31 January 2006

Double standards?

In November 2003 Iraqi Major General Mowhoush gave himself up to Coalition forces – to negotiate the release of his two sons.

While in American custody it was officially stated that he had lost consciousness after complaining he didn't feel well and that he was pronounced dead by a military physician.

In May 2004, under media pressure, the military admitted that the officer had died of asphyxiation.

In August 2005 the Washington Post reported as follows:

'The General was being stubborn with his American captors, and a series of intense beatings and creative interrogation tactics were not enough to break his will. On the morning of November 26, 2003, a US Army interrogator and a military guard grabbed a green sleeping bag, stuffed Mowhoush inside, wrapped him in an electrical cord, laid him on the floor and began to go to work. Again.'

'It was inside the sleeping bag that the 56-year-old detainee took his last breath through broken ribs, lying on the floor beneath a US soldier . . . . Two days before, a secret CIA-sponsored group of Iraqi paramilitaries, working with Army interrogators, had beaten Mowhoush nearly senseless, using fists, a club and a rubber hose, according to classified documents.'

Last week a jury of six US Army officers found Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer not guilty of the murder but of negligent homicide and – strangely – 'dereliction of duty'. He will lose $1,500 dollars of pay for four months, and will be restricted to his place of work and worship for the next two months.

So justice has been done. Isn't it nice to belong to a democracy?

Suppose the Iraqis had meted out similar treatment to an American or British General? Suppose the atrocity had occurred while we were considering the necessity for war? It's a reasonable guess that the entire politics of America and Britain would have been dramatically influenced, with reverberations across the 'free' world.

Bush's re-election would have assumed the proportions of the Second Coming. A British senior officer, so abused, might have had a postumous Victoria Cross.

The current concern is about Iran's nuclear programme. It's true they signed the non-proliferation treaty but Israel, India and Pakistan (all democracies and pro-Western to varying degrees) were clever enough not to sign, so their nuclear arsenals do not constitute a breach of the agreement.

Iran may, or may not, be trying to create its first nuclear warhead. Either way its action should be judged in the context of the 50,000 warheads held collectively by its critics.

Under the non-proliferation deal the so-called 'Nuclear Powers' agreed to a programme of dismantling their weapons. There have been no tangible results for the past 10 years.

Should we be surprised therefore if those countries, where the enlightening beam of democracy has yet to shine, accuse the West of double standards?

24 January 2006

Special delivery

Most cars these days can exceed the legal limit by at least 40 miles per hour. Anything less suffers the derision of that know-all superannuated schoolboy Jeremy Clarkson.

But that doesn't mean we complete our journeys any quicker. The old puffing billy of the Belfast and County Down Railway could do the Belfast-Crossgar stretch in 28 minutes, including a pit stop at Comber. To attempt that feat today in your average 2-litre twin-cam 16 valve traction-controlled turbo would mean smashing the speed limit, assuming a small stretch of open road could be found, and probably mounting a few pavements to beat the competition.

But long before the war – that's not the present war, nor the Afghan one, nor the earlier Iraq war, nor the Korean business – but the Second World War, even parcel deliveries were faster than you might think.

My old Dad was in the retail business in Belfast. In the 1930s the standard Christmas present was a pair of slippers. They sold like hot cakes. If however a pre-Christmas slipper famine should ravage his trade he could ring up the suppliers in Northampton at 8 a.m. on 23rd December. They would put the order on the boat train to Heysham. If he picked it up from the Belfast docks on the morning of Christmas Eve, normal business was resumed.

Can modern technology do it even faster?

We ordered a book from the amazing Amazon. Unfortunately, and with due apologies, they could not absolutely guarantee its delivery to the said Crossgar before Christmas. But by mid-January there was still no sign of it.

However, within a few milliseconds it was possible to trace its complete travel history on the web. The indisputable on-line evidence was that it was delivered by Parcel Force shortly after Christmas.

Time to talk to real people. Parcel Force suggested it might have been left with a neighbour. Local residents were duly interrogated. Still no trace.

Soon we were on the trail of the actual delivery person.

He had been unable to gain access to the house so, with much presence of mind, and using the sort of initiative that has made our nation great, he left it in . . . the barbecue.

Again, displaying that level of consideration that one expects from Parcel Force, he had closed the lid of the barbecue to shelter the parcel from the elements. And not wishing to advertise his achievement in an unseemly manner he had told nobody.

The recommended method of lighting this barbecue is to turn it on before opening the lid.

Is any reader interested in a copy of Organic Gardening nice and crisp on the outside while remaining moist in the middle?

17 January 2006

Recent reports

Recent reports suggest that droves of people are going to Amsterdam to smoke cannabis. Tut tut. Shame. What is Ulster coming to?

Well actually they are arthritis sufferers who find that cannabis can relieve severe pain. Hard luck if you can't afford the air fare.

Penalties for possession of the hemp plant (cannabis sativa) – or in Mexican slang, marijuana – were downgraded in the UK in 2004. Charles Clarke is clearly of a mind to return the drug to Class B.

If found guilty of possession you could then be fined and jailed for up to 5 years. For trafficking you could get 14 years.

It's politically fashionable to be tough on drugs and any political party which would dare to encourage wider debate could risk electoral damnation.

The same stigma attaches to anybody who is suspected of taking a 'liberal' view so let me make it quite clear that I'm strictly zero tolerant. I detest, abhor and condemn the misuse of all drugs.

But if it is a fact that cannabis can ease severe pain, should its use under medical supervision be permitted? It's the sheer inconsistency of the law that makes the present restrictions farcical.

Many dangerous highly-addictive drugs are already used in medicine. Heroin for example can be synthesised to produce such beneficial drugs as pethidine – often used in childbirth – and dihydrocodeine. I once was extremely grateful for a shot of morphine in by backside.

Ironically many Class B drugs, such as amphetamines and barbiturates, belonged solely to medicine before making their way to the street and into the hands of the traffickers. With the minimum of effort you can kill yourself with aspirin, codeine or paracetamol – or glue or lighter fuel or scotch whisky – but we don't jail you for possession.

We use millions of tons of hemp seed in a wide range of industrial and agricultural products. It has to be grown abroad. If we were to grow it ourselves, once the flower appeared, we would then, in law, have produced marijuana!

Like flax, hemp has to be 'retted' and 'scutched' to release the fibres that make a range of textiles, including many chic fabrics, plus canvass, and not forgetting the original Levi jeans. The Belfast Ropeworks were once world leaders in the use of hemp.

It thrives in poor soil, needs little or no fertiliser and is highly pest-resistant. Cotton requires more pesticide than many other crops put together – up to 5 times the amount per acre spread on maize.

Hemp seed contains high-fibre protein and could assist in alleviating world-wide hunger. Its greatest potential lies in its use as an alternative to petrol and diesel.

But before we get carried away let's call for a little perspective and find a way of making it available to those whose excruciating pain cries out for help.

10 January 2006

Top priorities

Time for a New Year review.

So my mind turns to the National Priorities Project (NPP), one of America's most reliable sources of independent, intelligent, non-party information and analysis. God bless it. It has to be said that the US Government is less obstructive in releasing information than the British – in spite of our new 'freedom of information' legislation.

The NPP has been calculating the cost of US military operations in Iraq. Its principal method is to analyse the sums of money allocated by Congress. Can't fault that.

Even then, NPP keeps a cool head and does not actually include certain indirect costs. It excludes what its government pays out in interest to cover war debts. It ignores over-spending. It also excludes, for example, such things as soldiers' pay – only extra combat pay.

What are the findings?

By 31st March 2006 the cost of US military operations in Iraq will have risen to $251 billion. The American media has put the figure as high as $350 billion.

Either way the figure is so big as to be meaningless. The question is: what would 251 thousand million dollars buy as an alternative?

It could buy, says the NPP, greatly improved health care for American children and those families who cannot afford health insurance. It could expand pre-school education, create thousands of affordable homes for low income families, attract more teachers and dramatically raise educational standards. It could increase the number of young people from poorer families going to college – all without raising taxes.

President Bush believes that America is 'the greatest force for good in the world'. His current approach, shared by the UK Government, would appear to depend on military might.

Are there perhaps some alternative ideas worth considering if only to avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths and mutilations – and growing anti-Western hatred world-wide?

There are 800 million hungry or undernourished people in the world. An annual increase of $24 billion in effective action would reduce hunger to 400 million by 2015 – still a disgraceful number. In the meantime, millions will starve to death.

The AIDS epidemic requires a minimum of $10 billion annually simply to stem the tide.

Three million children die every year from a range of common diseases easily prevented by immunisation. Every child on the planet could be immunised for an annual increase of $2.8 billion.

So may I offer a short three-item shopping list, based on universally agreed costs?

An all-out global anti-hunger campaign for 3 years. At least that would be a start.

A world-wide AIDS programmes for 8 years. It might then be possible to eliminate the disease altogether.

Every child in the world to have basic immunisation for the next 25 years.

Total cost $251 billion.

Or has the money been better spent in Iraq on guns, bullets, artillery and cluster bombs?

03 January 2006

Faiths, hopes and charities

The festive season is over for another ten months. Notice I didn't say 'year' because the panic will begin again before the end of November.

The credit card bills will be arriving any day now. A touch of remorse will set in but, collectively, we did apparently buy a little more organic food this time and we recycled an increased amount of gift wrapping. I'm sure we intend to dispose of the Christmas tree in the prescribed manner. We might even have enjoyed the fully-recycled repeats of the repeats of the repeats on the telly. I actually consumed a token amount of Brussel sprouts in the spirit of family cooperation.

Sending some charity Christmas cards showed both intellectual flair and an impressive grasp of world issues and it salved our conscience a bit.

But did we get a good deal? What percentage of the shop price actually reached the named charities?

The Post Office estimates it handled 744 million Christmas cards this year. A fair proportion will have nominated a charity. So do we have faith, or mere hope, that there will be a significant boost to the charities' coffers?

Typical case study: cost of packet to customer £3.99. VAT takes 60p. The manufacturer gets £1.16. The retailer gets a whopping £2.04 and the charity gets a spectacular 20p. Figures are based on a 5% donation. Does the retailer share its charitable burden with the manufacturer? Nobody quite knows.

Twenty-five years ago the Charities Advisory Trust set up 'Card Aid' to provide cards to charities for them to sell to their supporters. By pooling the print orders it was able to offer better prices and a valuable service for the charities themselves.

Since then Card Aid has enabled companies and charities alike to custom-print their Christmas cards with a specific message and the details of the benefiting charity. And Card Aid donates all of its own profits to other charities.

Card Aid has reported on the worst and best donors.

One leading high-profit national retailer passes on just 1.43% of the cover price to the charity emblazoned on one of its cards. A certain world-famous exclusive London store, which sells to the rich and famous, donates 3.4%.

The Charity Commission requires all charity cards to state the percentage of the purchase price that actually reaches the named organisation but many cards leave that a bit vague.

The most super of supermarket chains was selling cards bearing the Save the Children logo, though nowhere on the card was the figure given. It turned out to be 6.6%. A spokesperson said that an explanatory leaflet may have fallen out, a fate which, curiously enough, befell other packages investigated.

So the lesson is: buy direct from the charities themselves.

That's my New Year resolution ­– on hold to next November.