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News from Everywhere Rhys Evans

...and war shall be no more

This week the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared that they had started the 'decommissioning' of their weapons, which means putting their arms "completely and verifiably beyond use", or, in effect, destroying them. This was an immensely important move, reflected in the fact that the British government immediately began to remove its military installations in Northern Ireland, and that the political parties on the Unionist side at once returned to their work in the power-sharing government of the province.  

Decommissioning has been the sticking point ever since the peace agreement was signed in April 1998. The IRA have always insisted that decommissioning was not part of the agreement, and indeed it was never part of the text. But the unionists declared from the start that they could not share democratic power with Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the IRA, which was still at war and under arms, even if those arms were locked away in a concrete bunker as they have been so far. The IRA weapons became a symbol of the political difference between them.  

As such, the 'putting beyond use' of a few weapons does not mean that the war is over. More can always be found if necessary. But to the unionists it means that the IRA has 'capitulated', has given in, has stopped fighting. And to the IRA as well it is a gesture which means that the war is over. But the real sticking point between them is that the IRA will always be "committed to our republican objectives, and to the establishment of a united Ireland based on justice, equality and freedom", as their latest statement declares, while the unionists insist that Northern Ireland should remain part of Great Britain. The Chief Constable of the Northern Ireland police force is convinced that the decision is as close as the IRA has ever come to declaring its war is over. The IRA itself said: "Our motivation is clear. This unprecedented move is to save the peace process and to persuade others of our genuine intentions." How can a symbolic gesture like this be so important? Do symbols have any value? Or do they just smooth over the real issues?

Anti-globalisation becomes anti-war

Many of the same people who helped organise the protests over the last couple of years in cities where summit meetings of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation were taking place are now also involved in the large anti-war demonstrations which have happened in Europe this week. Anti-war has become a part of the activity of the anti-globalisation protesters. They feel that their message to those who hold the political power in the world is very much the same as their message to the big economic organisations.

Many of them were shaken by the attacks on the United States, but see some of the causes of the attacks as having their roots in those same questions of global power which cause poverty and inequality in the world. And they see no reason to stop their demonstrations because of the events of September 11th. A broad range of different people have been calling for cool thinking about how to respond to the attacks. Many agree that the destruction of Osama bin Laden or the Taliban or any of the other demon-figures in the drama will not put an end to terrorism. Like the hydra in the old story, it grows new heads when one is chopped off. A recent press commentator said, "This is not victory. This is risk reduction." War would not solve the problem. George Bush's attempt to divide the world in two between those who are for and those who are against the United States could just as well have been been a reflection of a division made many years ago between the so-called 'third world' and the industrially developed world.

The anti-war movement believes that bombing poor countries will not make them less angry (or less poor). The rich countries say that they are defending the values of justice, human rights, democracy, freedom and economic opportunity against terrorism. But these values do not impress the millions of people for whom they simply do not exist. The real challenge to the rich countries is how to make their values happen in real life, not just for them but for everybody. The anti-war movement does not believe that bombing is the right way. It believes that governments should find ways of sharing the benefits of our values (globalising the benefits of our values, perhaps) in real life. What do you think that 'victory against terrorism' would be? Do you think that war is necessary to achieve this?

The war of the airwaves

Television is banned in Afghanistan and many people are illiterate, which means that radio is one of the most effective ways of communicating with the population. So broadcasts by US channels and the BBC World Service in Persian and Pashto are more popular than ever.

The control of information is a most important part of warfare. Afghan transmitters used by the Taliban have already been bombed by the US and their Voice of Shari'a radio has been jammed and replaced by programmes from the US, full of traditional Afghan music, threats to the Taliban and comforting messages to the local people that all will be well in due course. The BBC World Service, always popular in the country, has greatly increased its broadcasting time. The US Congress is planning a new Radio Free Afghanistan programme and wind-up radios have been dropped by aeroplane, pre-tuned to US channels.

The famous Voice of America, the US's own state financed external broadcasting service was strongly criticised by the State Department recently for planning to broadcast an interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader. This caused VOA workers to protest against state censorship of the network, but one member of Congress said that a network paid for by public funds should not "seesaw around" and try to be "balanced", since this was "not promoting democracy". It appears that the new Radio Free Afghanistan will be directly controlled by the US. It will bypass Voice of America and ensure that the 'right' messages are sent out . There is also news that a French organisation called Droit de Parole (the right to speak) has set up a free radio transmitter in eastern Afghanistan to give an independent voice especially to women in the region. So the battle for the airwaves goes on. Information is clearly of vital importance to people at all times, but especially in time of war. How far do you think that the control (or censorship) of information is justified? How important is 'balance', even if your country is at war?

Religious education... or control?

There are three million Muslims living in Germany. This number is far greater than the number in France or Britain. 570,000 of them are of school age, and many German education authorities are concerned that the teaching of Islam should be part of the school curriculum. Many of course go to mosque schools as well as to state schools, but some representatives of the Muslim community believe that Islam should be taught side by side with Christianity in schools so that young people should feel more at home in their schools and in Germany. Certain German states are already doing this and there is a prediction that all the states will do so within two years.

Since the attacks on New York and Washington in September, the question seems to have become more urgent and more political. Some people believe that it is now more urgent than ever for Islam to be taught in state schools, so that there should be no discrimination against Muslim students. But it appears that certain German authorities have become quite anxious that Islam should be taught in schools, in German, so as to avoid more "extreme interpretations" of Islam being given out in private mosque schools, and, clearly, if religion is taught in the language of the country, it will be better understood by people who might wish to observe what was being taught. As a result, contradictions have arisen between the right everyone has for one's religion to be recognised and represented openly within a state education system - and the right to religious freedom without any form of supervision or control by the state. The events of September 11th have meant that many human values have become 'politicised'. Can this be avoided? Is it a good thing? Can the contradictions be resolved?

War 'through the looking glass'

It is always interesting to look at an accepted view of history through the eyes of a different country or culture. Though it is obvious that the present so-called war on terrorism in Central Asia was triggered by the attack on the US in September, there are writers and journalists in India who see one of its main spin-offs to be the control of oil supplies in the region around the Caspian Sea. The oil and natural gas reserves in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are massive and plans for a network of pipelines - all going through Afghanistan - have existed for years. One US company, which holds nearly half the stakes in Central Asia Gas, had planned a pipeline over 1000 kilometres long from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan, but had to withdraw several years ago because of the political situation in the region. The company concerned said at the time that the whole scheme would have to wait until there was peace and stability in the area.

If the 'coalition against terrorism' in fact achieves this, then the world's "last great oil rush", as it has been nicknamed, can take place and oil wealth will flow to the companies who control and sell the oil. India is in urgent need of more oil, as is the US, which before the present crisis had decided that oil and nuclear energy would be the power sources of the future for its country, rather than other, alternative supplies. Military and political control of the region from Turkey to the borders of China will be of great strategic advantage. If we think over the Gulf war (which started with the invasion of Kuwait) and the Yugoslav war (triggered by human rights abuse in Kosovo) and the present conflict, have there always been hidden spin-offs not mentioned at the time? Does this matter, if there are benefits to be gained from them? Who pays the price?

Sources used in the preparation of this article can be found at the NfE website


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