Tag Archive | ethics

Shielded from truth

In the 1998 scifi action film Soldier, Kurt Russell plays Sgt Todd, a soldier who has been trained from birth to be a ruthless and efficient killing machine. To illustrate Todd’s complete absence of empathy, there’s a scene at the beginning of the film where he is in a battle in Moscow, walking through blasted ruins mowing down enemy Russian soldiers with his machine gun. A Russian soldier takes a civilian woman hostage, and holds her in front of him as a shield. The ruthless Sgt Todd shoots the civilian and the soldier without blinking. Todd’s complete dedication to the mission is chilling. We know that he is wrong; we know that he is not a moral person.

Watching Soldier on the television the other night it struck me that this is what a ‘human shield’ looks like. A non combatant intentionally placed in the line of fire to stop the opposing side firing on troops and military assets.  It’s a term we’ve been exposed to relentlessly in the past couple of weeks.

It’s been one of the criticisms levelled at Hamas – that they are using civilians as human shields. And this has been used extensively by apologists of the Israeli government to defend the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza.  Make a comment critical of Israel’s military actions and it won’t be long before a pro-Israel astro turfer rolls out the human shield defence.  The reasoning usually applied is one of the following:

– Hamas are using human shields, so Israel has no option but to kill those human shields in order to kill Hamas.

– Hamas are using human shields, so it’s inevitable that Israel will unintentionally kill those human shields whilst trying to kill Hamas.

Neither options can be considered moral. Both scenarios mean that civilians will die as a result of the Israeli government’s military actions, and that the Israeli government knows it.

There’s no doubt that Hamas is waging it’s war on Israel from the neighbourhoods of Gaza, and have been caught storing weaponry in empty schools.  But Gaza is a city of over two million, and it quickly becomes clear that Hamas’ war is being waged from inside a heavily populated area, not behind the people of Gaza.  To make it worse, the civilians of Gaza are pinned in place by Israel and Egypt with no place to run.  They are trapped.

And yet, Israel continues to launch high explosive ordinance at that small patch of land packed with humans.

This is no defence of Hamas or its allies.  I wouldn’t want anyone to live in a state run by religious extremists who ban freedom of speech, murder their political enemies and zealously execute sharia law with often deadly consequences.

The saying goes about the first victim of war being truth, and the Middle East is no different.  Using the human shield claim as absolution for killing the innocent is staggeringly dishonest and cowardly.


A tale of two islands

The awkward war of words over Gibraltar between Spain and the UK has been escalating from strong words to fishing-boat broadsides to bureaucratic barrages.  There’s even been reports of real gunfire.  It’s not hard to see why the Spanish government has upped the ante after the issue has been smouldering quietly in the background for years.  When a nation’s economy is struggling, nationalism has always been a useful distraction for a populace facing tough times.  Directing hate and fear at a manufactured threat is a sleight of hand trick that has been used by unscrupulous politicians since, well, forever.  Here in the UK all of the main political parties regularly deploy hate propaganda as a tool to attain their goals.  New (relatively so) kid on the block UKIP has learned that lesson particularly well, and has made xenophobia their war cry, albeit dressed up in a spiffing suit and tie.

It’s a sad personality trait of our species that the instinctual tug of tribalism can motivate people more than compassion and rational discourse.

So why is the UK so keen to keep Gibraltar out of Spanish hands?  Is it because of the tactical location of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, is an ideal position for the UK to continue to project a last vestige of military power to protect UK interests abroad?  Could it be because Gibraltar is home to some UK firms who wish to benefit from Gibraltar’s flexible tax regime?  Or is it because some Gibraltarian residents have access to the highest levels of power?  Or could it be, like David Cameron has claimed, to “stand up for the people of Gibraltar”?

If you are a Chagossian from the Chagos islands, this claim will leave a bitter taste.

The Chagos islands are a string of small atolls in the Indian Ocean, south of India, halfway between Africa and Indonesia.  These little dots of green are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).  But the Queen won’t visit these islands to be showered with petals and receive flowers from excited children waving flags.  No proud British citizens will greet the Queen here with praise and gifts.

Because the people of the Chagos islands aren’t there.

The Chagossians were ‘displaced’ from the islands in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the UK government to make way for a huge US military base on the largest of the Chagos Islands, Diego Garcia.  The location of the islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean makes it a nice launching point for military adventures in the Middle East and Asia.  You may remember Diego Garcia from such japes as extraordinary rendition (i.e. kidnap), torture and bombing raids.

The US military personnel stationed on the island call it ‘Fantasy Island’, such is it’s beauty, surrounded by a warm blue Indian Ocean teeming with marine life.  The UK government has classified it as uninhabitable.

I used the word ‘displaced’ above.  It’s one of those bureaucratic euphemisms that doesn’t really convey what happened, as euphemisms are meant to do.  Not even the word ‘evicted’ does what happened any justice.  It doesn’t paint a picture of people rounded up, taken from their homes with only what they could carry and dumped in foreign lands with no support.  Their livestock and pets killed.  Their homes and boats destroyed.  It doesn’t tell the story of the anguish, pain and tears of losing everything, having a huge part of your identity and culture taken away, a casualty of the continuing great game between nations.  It turns human beings subsequently blighted by poverty, addiction and suicides into un-people.  Such is the cruel reality of an empire which treats other people’s homes as its own assets to take and sell as it pleases.

Many of the Chagos people want to go home.  However, successive British governments, Labour and Conservative, have sought to continue this injustice and refused their return using the courts, Royal Prerogative and even the cynical establishment of a marine protection zone around the islands to ensure that any return would be unsustainable.  Even South Shields’ last MP, David Miliband, couldn’t dredge an ounce of humanity to allow these people back home to rebuild their communities when he served as Foreign Secretary.

The theft of the home of the Chagossians was a crime against humanity, and one of the most shameful episodes in recent British colonial history, along with the abandonment of the Palestinian people to the UN-sanctioned Israel land-grab.  The lease to the Chagos Archipelago ends in 2016, and if the US wants to extend the lease an agreement must be made by the end of 2014.  If David Cameron was really sincere about standing up for people, like those on Gibraltar and the Falklands, then he should be similarly passionate about standing up for the Chagos people, and return them to their home.

Miliband–slipping away from South Shields

So, the MP for South Shields, David Miliband, has shuffled off to pastures new.

The media has concentrated on the alleged loss to the Labour project and British politics as a whole.  I suppose it’s a narrative you would expect from a Westminster centric media, where the universe ends at the M25.  I watched an interview on BBC News last week, where the BBC political editor talked to David Miliband and covered his career and his new job at the International Rescue Committee.  The highs, the lows, the bad haircuts.  South Shields was not mentioned once.

In the past I have had what best could be described as a mixed opinion of our MP here in South Shields. Sometimes I’ve been extremely critical, other times praising him.  I’ve tried to sit down and objectively consider his impact as an MP for South Shields.  It’s not easy.

I’ve never needed to rely on his assistance in his capacity as the Member of Parliament for South Shields.  Those who I know who have gone to David Miliband for help have found him to be attentive and sympathetic, and willing to lend a hand if he could.  When I’ve written to him with an enquiry, I have, apart from one instance, received a clear and timely response from his office.  I don’t think I ever liked his answers, but at least he answered.

A criticism often raised is that he didn’t spend a lot of time in South Shields, but then again few MPs do.  At least the time he has spent here has been well planned, with a full diary of events.  He’s been in the right places (mostly) and said the right things.

As an ambassador for South Shields he has, I think, played a positive role.  When he was minister at DEFRA he listened to the concerns of local environmental activists, and sought to bring local government together with environmental groups to exchange ideas.  He did this by holding a conference, here in South Shields, not in London.

He has championed local business and with the likes of Colman’s fish shop, help put them on the map, and deservedly so.  He has supported local charities and social initiatives like South Tyneside Credit Union (now Bridges Credit Union).

Although I’ve never attended the South Shields Lectures (except in a demonstration outside the event), I think they were an inspired idea by Miliband, bringing (albeit Labour) celebrities from politics and entertainment to the town to speak.  I hope whoever is the next MP for South Shields will continue this.

And at least he timed his departure to the favour of the South Shields Labour Party.  The previous incumbent, David Clark, deserted South Shields with such timing that the national Labour Party could parachute Miliband into one of the safest seats in the UK, sidestepping local party wishes.  Reading the comments of South Shields councillor John Anglin, it’s clear that the 2001 fait accompli still rankles:

“We want to make sure we are allowed to choose our own MP, something we have not done in living memory.”

His voting record has been what you would have expected from an architect of New Labour and someone who had served most of his time in government as a minister – loyal.  There have been times when he showed some heart, like his recent speech at the bedroom tax debate, and his liberal voting record on LGBT rights.

But those hints of a bigger person with a genuine vision were sparse.  The loyalty mentioned above has meant he has voted for some of the most shameful policies for a British government in my lifetime.  His support for the war in Iraq, the erosion of civil rights in the ‘War on Terror’.  His voting silence on the NHS devolution risk assessment and Workfare.  There is no way you could convincingly argue that he voted for the interests of the people of South Shields first and foremost.

In education, he championed the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project and has often cited this as a Labour legacy.  Because BSF was a PFI project, it’s the kind of legacy that brings with it a debt to the people of South Tyneside that will haunt our children, with several decades of payments to the corporations that run the schools.  As we’ve seen recently with hospitals close to closing because of PFI debt, we can expect the same to come to our education system unless someone intervenes.

As Environment Secretary, he behind the publishing of the Climate Change Bill, which was what at the time looked like a remarkable and historic achievement: setting targets for the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.  Sadly, those good intentions have now dissipated in offsetting and corporate compromise.  The last ten years have shown that none of the three main political parties really take climate change seriously.

But in his role as Foreign Secretary is where I have the most concern, or rather, disgust.  The treatment of the Chagossian people at his ministerial hands is nothing less than shameful, playing his sordid part in a long government injustice in keeping the people of the Chagos Islands from returning to their homeland.  He was at the helm during extraordinary rendition and torture by our allies, and what admissions he made about the practices were imcomplete.  At least he suspended some arms export licences to Israel during the Operation Cast Lead attacks on Palestine.  Arguably though, those licences should never have been granted in the first place to prop up Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and accompanying land theft.  Nevertheless, you’ve got to admire Miliband’s gall for resigning from Sunderland over the club’s appointment of Paulo Di Canio.  Some lofty principles eh?

Miliband’s stint as Foreign Secretary should have been enough for a humanitarian charity like the International Rescue Committee to think twice about even shaking his soiled hands, not to mention consider him for their top job.  I’m wondering where the ethical compass for IRC is really pointing.

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag; some good stuff, some bad.  Very bad.  Is there a definitive conclusion?

Prior to skipping town, David Miliband didn’t do a bad job for South Shields, and his impact was probably a net positive.  And probably more so than his predecessor, who sat during one of the worst periods of South Shields’ history.  As a government minister, it’s not so rosy.  I’m not sure if I could have done those things, and then try to justify them to my children.  From here it seems that ethics came second to his ambition.  It’s the reason he came to South Shields, and the reason he left.  Maybe that one word, ambition, could define his tenure.

Death by Papal decree–a faith based initiative

This is terrible.  A pregnant woman, in awful pain and knowing that she wouldn’t be able to carry to full term, asked a doctor to abort her foetus.  She was refused an abortion, not for medical reasons, but for religious reasons.  Her condition worsened.  She asked again, and again.  She was again refused, and couldn’t have the abortion until the foetus had died.  By then it was too late.  Seven days after first being admitted to hospital, she died.

It’s hard for me to comprehend that someone could submit another human being in so much suffering to so much cruelty.

This didn’t happen back in the Middle Ages, in the remote Taliban-controlled mountains of Afghanistan or in an African refugee camp with no medical facilities.  This was in 21st Century Republic of Ireland, in a modern hospital, short of nothing.  Except compassion.

The Republic of Ireland; a modern, civilised western country.

Savita Halappanavar is a victim of a repressive theocratic state and an uncaring doctor who put the pronouncement of a Pope before the well-being of a patient, before the survival of a fellow human being.  This is a death which could have been avoided with a relatively simple treatment.  Except that simple treatment is illegal in a country where the laws are driven by dogma and faith.

I know it will be of no consolation to her family, but hopefully the Republic of Ireland will learn from Mrs Halappanavar’s tragic death, and that it’s people seek to reform their barbaric abortion laws.  And hopefully, it will be a warning and a lesson for us here in the UK of what could happen here if the likes of Jeremy Hunt and Nadine Dorries (and others who seek to remove the reproductive rights of women) got their way and reduced abortion limits.

Not so super psychics

If there’s one consistent feature of claims of psychic ability, it’s that they fail to show when exposed to close scientific scrutiny.  Since Harry Houdini started to explore the world of mediums in the 1920s, no definitive evidence of psychic ability has been conjured up, and not for want of trying by successive generations of scientific exploration.  So yesterday’s report that two professional mediums were unable to show any psychic ability under test conditions isn’t really a big surprise, particularly when you consider that nobody has been able to accurately describe a measurable mechanism by which psychic powers work.

The series of tests, carried out by Goldsmiths, University of London, in partnership with The Merseyside Skeptics Society, found that the two mediums performed no better than chance.  Was the test a definitive refutation of psychic abilities?  No.  But this test now adds to the many others where a person who has claimed to be in possession of psychic powers has been unable to prove them.

At least these two mediums had the nerve and belief in themselves to have their abilities tested under blind test conditions, and they deserve credit for that.  It is a pity that one or more of the big hitters in the world of professional mediumship didn’t use this test as an opportunity to prove themselves.  Are they afraid of something?

This raises for me a question about the claims of mediums and the services they provide.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a medium sagely admit that there are some dishonest mediums out there cynically taking money off people.  But how does the average consumer know that a medium can do what they say they do?  A domestic gas engineer needs to be qualified to touch your gas fire or boiler.  A financial adviser has to pass exams to give you advice about your investments.  For many service industries, the consumer has an expectation that the one providing the service has some objective measure qualifying them to provide that service.  Surely mediums, some of whom earn millions from their claimed psychic abilities, should have to pass a series of blind tests to show they are consistently and significantly better than chance before they can ask their clients for money, and more importantly, trample all over their emotions and mental wellbeing?  Shouldn’t there also be a way to ‘strike off’ discredited and dishonest mediums found to be making it up, to protect their industry and protect people, some of whom are vulnerable, from being ripped off?

This isn’t only about whether the paranormal is real, but an issue of ethics and responsibility to fellow citizens.  Sadly, I doubt that mediums will get together any time soon to clean up their industry.

Fortunately for the mediums in this test, another similarly consistent feature of psychic abilities is that they reappear once the the psychic is in control of the environment, so I don’t expect their careers to suffer any adverse reaction from their failure to prove their powers.

Equal love, equal marriage, equal rights

This Thursday sees the end of the Government’s consultation on equal civil marriage.  It seems bizarre that in the 21st Century UK we still have a marriage system where a part of society is banned from getting married.  Just by nature of sexual orientation, LGBT couples are unable to enjoy the same ceremony as heterosexual couples.  On the other hand, heterosexual couples are not permitted to have a civil partnership.

It’s ridiculous.

The proposals in the government’s consultation are a good step forward, but don’t go far enough.  The proposals specifically include an opt-out for religious bodies.  I’m not religious, but I can see that there will be some same-sex couples belonging to a religion who would like to hold their wedding in a place of worship, blessed and officiated by a member of the clergy, joined by all their friends.  As religious bodies carry out marriages on behalf of the state, essentially a secular function, they should also be expected to carry out marriages of same-sex couples.

Religious bodies like the Church of England have gone into overdrive, even going so far as to claim that gay couples getting married would somehow undermine marriage.  Such a position, defending the current marriage apartheid, comes from hate and bigotry, and should be resisted.

However, the Government’s consultation questionnaire is pretty good, and does include questions covering all aspects of the equal marriage debate, and also allows you to make a submission of up to about 200 words in support of your response. 

You can submit your response to the consultation online at the Home Office’s equal civil marriage consultation page.

For more information, you can go to Peter Tatchell’s Equal Love page.


Here’s a copy of my submission’s supporting comment:

As a supporter of equal rights for everyone, I believe that it is only fair and reasonable for all people, irrespective of gender, should expect and enjoy the same rights to:

– civil marriage (for both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships);
– civil partnership (for both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships);
– religious same-sex marriage, carried out in a place of worship.

Civil and religious marriages, and civil partnerships, should be open and available to all couples, through a law that is blind to the sexual orientation of couples, whilst respecting them at the same time.

As marriage is a state secular mechanism, it should also be established that any organisation carrying out marriages on behalf of the state, including religious ones,  should carry out same-sex marriages.  Whilst I understand that this may be problematic in terms of the belief systems of some religions, religious organisations should be made to allow those of their clergy who want to perform same-sex marriages to do so, and on their premises or place of worship.

There is no rational or just argument against establishing a modern system of marriage which reflects society and treats every citizen fairly.

Mo’ money councillors

Many staff working for South Tyneside Council have not seen a pay rise in years, and seeing their incomes eroded by inflation.  They are all in fear of their pensions being junked by a government that treats public sector workers with contempt.  After reductions in staff levels due to budget cuts, many of those staff are expected to take the strain.

In other words, council staff are expected to do more, and get less in return.  It’s a Victorian mill-owner’s dream.

However, the same hard knocks rules of the current employment environment don’t seem to apply to South Tyneside Council’s senior councillors.  As reported in the Shields Gazette yesterday, cabinet members will enjoy increases of around 19.7 per cent, and Community Area Forum chairs an increase of around 20.8 per cent.

This beautiful example of double standards comes from a Labour council.  If this was the management board of a major company which had frozen employees’ salaries, unions and Labour MPs would unite in condemnation of boardroom rank self interest.  Don’t expect them to be critical of South Tyneside Council any time soon.

It’s pretty lame of South Tyneside Council to excuse this increase in individual allowances on the claim that the overall allowances budget had not increased.  If savings had been made, those savings could have been passed on to another budget area sorely in need of cash.

I don’t have an issue with councillors being paid for their time.  I used to defend councillors against the often made claim that ‘they’re just in it for themselves’.  I believe that without recompense for their time, democracy would suffer; councils would be stuffed with even more of the retired and the self-employed.

Earlier on this week Jarrow and Hebburn MP Stephen Hepburn criticised the government for being out of touch.  Perhaps he and David Miliband could have a word with South Tyneside Council’s out of touch leadership and tell them that by featherbedding themselves they are further eroding people’s confidence in politicians.

You can’t help but question the ethical compass of a senior executive team which enjoys fat cat style rises, whilst the rest of the workforce, the ordinary hard working people who keep the machinery of local government moving, are persevering on devalued incomes and facing scapegoating from the right.

I thought solidarity with the workers was a core Labour value.  Such ethical values look like a thing of the past in South Tyneside Labour Party, replaced by a cheap Thatcherite grab-while-you-can.