January 2016 (supplement)
|These are regular editorials
produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
[Return to related issued of Nonviolence News]
Kim Jong Un is a cruel and often heartless hereditary dictator of a country with perhaps the worst human rights record in the world. But he is not mad. He is however calculating (even Donald Trump has admitted he is a "smart cookie") – whether his calculations work out or not is another matter – and he and the ruling elite reckon that nuclear weapons are the way to protect their regime from being overthrown. And perhaps, from his point of view, he is right; given the military interventions which the USA and some other western countries, such as the UK, have made in the last couple of decades, who is to say that it has not helped protect North Korea from military intervention? Nuclear weapons are the ace up his sleeve.
Kim Jong Un presides over a Stalinist-style gulag prison regime which is appalling. He has had no compunction in having a half-brother of his murdered abroad, or an uncle at home. There is nothing which he might not do to protect himself and his regime including, arguably, and as a last resort, nuclear war. But it is fanciful to imagine he is going to attack other countries unless 'he' is attacked first. That is why Donald Trump's belligerence towards North Korea is so dangerous. The world does not need another 'Cuban missile crisis' where we await news of whether civilisation as we know it is going to come to an end, with terrible consequences for all who live on this globe.
It looked like Donald Trump, with his 'America First' policy, might prove to be an isolationist. He is entirely unpredictable but at the moment is more inclined to try to wield a big stick anywhere in the world and try to look like a hard guy. We also feel that any country which has nuclear weapons threatening other countries for holding them is totally illogical, nearly as illogical as the death penalty for murder, 'killing people to prove that killing people is wrong'. This is without even considering the USA's near uses of nuclear weapons or its nuclear accident record. And brinkmanship is always dangerous, but particularly dangerous with someone like Kim Jong Un who may feel cornered.
We also need to consider who has been responsible for the most deaths through war* in the region since the Second World War. The answer is the USA. Vietnam would have been united and stable from 1953 if the USA had not vetoed elections in that year which would have united the country. It was later on that the USA and its blanket bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos killed millions and, in the case of Cambodia, led to the rise of Pol Pot. If we want to see who has had most blood on their hands in wars in the region in this period, the answer is the USA – a perspective which is totally lacking from almost any discourse in the media currently which tends to portray Trump as over-enthusiastic but confronting the Bad Guy who needs taken down. * We say 'in war' because Chairman Mao's policies and resultant famine and killings in China would have been responsible for more deaths there, within that country.
There is no easy answer to the 'problem' of North Korea and how to liberate the North Korean people from such a brutal regime. Military intervention risks nuclear war and chaos. Some complain that sanctions don't work, and as we have seen in Iraq before the 2003 war, sanctions can harm the totally innocent with perhaps half a million child deaths there because of sanctions on medical supplies. A better way is some sanctions with engagement plus information to be communicated in any ways possible on the opportunities for nonviolent action regarding repressive regimes (in the shape of non-cooperation, hidden disobedience and so on) which may in due course help undermine the regime. Communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe fell in 1989 because of internal contradictions and the non-cooperation of the people. There is no indication that the best way to change in North Korea will be any different. Donald Trump please note.
More generally we need to move forward with the agenda to rid the world of all nuclear arms (UK government also please note). They are unnecessary, of a huge cost even if not used, and if they are used they risk Armageddon, nuclear winter and a lot more besides. The idea that nuclear weapons have 'kept the peace' anywhere is fanciful and, even in the case of North Korea where the threat of nuclear war may have partly held back the possibility of attack, we do not consider the situation to be one of 'peace'. In the UK nuclear weapons are a relic of a former imperial power and, for their supporters, a symbol that Britain is still one of the 'big boys' (sic); what practical significance they are militarily for the UK remains a mystery. The international system has managed to outlaw landmines and cluster munitions even if some powers ignore this; we need to move to outlaw nuclear weapons and put his ban into effect.
A nation once again and the tides of history
There has been significant discussion since the Brexit vote in the UK about the option of a 'United Ireland' being back on the agenda. The recent protocol from the EU recognises that, in the event of Northern Ireland joining the Republic in a united Ireland, Northern Ireland would automatically become part of the EU. Some unionists understood this as nationalist and EU manoeuvring though it is clear that the EU was not saying there should be a united Ireland, simply what would happen if this came about, and with the precedent of a united Germany.
Of course a united Ireland is not on the cards today, tomorrow, or indeed most likely for a significant number of years to come, not least because of economic issues. You cannot say that the tide of history will deliver a united Ireland even if you consider it desirable. 'History' delivered a significant group of people, who have retained their own distinct ethnic identity, to Ireland some four hundred years ago. How the resultant relationships are determined within Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the Republic have still to be worked out. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has clearly been a very significant marker in that journey but to imagine that it is the final point in the journey would be mistaken, whatever happens on the island.
Many things need to happen before Northern Ireland, whatever its constitutional future, becomes a more normal society. We will explore just a few of these here.
The first point is that the past of the Troubles has to be dealt with. A small amount of this is covered in the review article in this issue on the Belfast conference of the International Network of Museums for Peace. This would be dealing with the past 'in general', there are many legacy cases of individual killings, or even massacres, which need dealt with. It is safe to say that all parties in the conflict can be part of the problem here, in allowing the truth to come out, but that the British government is not only reluctant to allow scrutiny of its role where it can avoid it but is also seemingly determined not to pay for it, and possibly to have an amnesty for state actors. The financial end of things is not only parsimonious, it is counter-productive in taking Northern Ireland forward, and much less than we should expect from a state.
The second point is that Northern Ireland needs a vision of living together, Protestant and Catholic, which moves beyond bunker mentalities and offers hope to everyone and especially to young people. It is seriously scary how many young people say they would like to move out of Northern Ireland and this is occasioned by the lack of vision and hope. A vision and a plan to bring people together is needed. This is vital but in the longer term it is also economically cost-effective in preventing the necessity for replication of services because of sectarian divisions. Whether people opt for a United Kingdom, a united Ireland, or some other solution, it is necessary to try to create a united people within Northern Ireland first of all.
The third point flows on from the second in that there should be a far more ambitious and practical community relations policy than the limited model currently existing, only dragged out of the DUP and Sinn Féin because they were lambasted for their previous effort. 'Together: Building a United Community' is really 'Being partly together and doing a little bit to bring some people together'. Northern Ireland needs much more.
A fourth point is that we need the development of a human rights culture. While some provisions, e.g. fair employment legislation, has made a significant difference in practice, unionists and Protestants in particular have been slow to realise that a human rights approach is for everyone, and that in the coming decades, as Catholics overtake Protestants numerically in Northern Ireland, it is particularly important and totally in their interests. And it is not just a question of having rights legislated for but also positively adopting a human rights approach as at least an indicator, and possibly a solution, to many contentious issues.
A fifth point is that we need education and exploration of ways forward for Northern Ireland, beyond sloganeering or party political points. This requires political and economic literacy and this needs to be undertaken as part of the educational process. Of course people may have their ethnically-determined political leanings but that does not mean that they should not be able to look at the issues more dispassionately, as to what is in their interests, what is in the interests of Northern Ireland, and wider societies in the Republic and UK, and what is possible.
Economic development is also necessary to move the Northern Ireland economy out of dependency mode (there currently being about a 28% deficit between money spent by the state in Northern Ireland and taxes raised). This situation requires serious thought and planning beyond simplistic ideas of corporation tax reductions, probably now redundant anyhow in the light of developments with Brexit and so on. If the example of economic development in the Republic is to be followed then investment in education is essential but what we see is disinvestment in this sector.
A final point in shock-proofing the North from anything that may happen in the future is education in nonviolence and mediation. While you might say a publication named "Nonviolent News" 'would say that, wouldn't they', the point is an important one. The vast majority of people have rejected armed struggle, on both sides. But to avoid the possibilities of a return to violence with any division in the future, everyone should receive education in conflict, nonviolence and mediation. The general aspect would include features of conflict and methodologies of de-escalation; nonviolence would cover the possibilities for making your point and campaigning without violence; and mediation would look at the involvement of third parties in brokering solutions and helping agreement in disputes.
Northern Ireland remains a very vulnerable society – politically (obvious from the current governmental impasse), economically, and socially (also largely due to being split). We have previously commented how forthcoming developments, such as Brexit, and changing demographics, will test the commitment to democracy on both Catholic and Protestant sides. A Catholic voting majority in the North will certainly not mean a united Ireland but we also need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what democracy is about, moving away from simple majoritarian (50% + 1) understandings of who gets to make the decisions, and more definite consideration of the rights of minorities.
Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
"Cultures are not just about what people think – there are also what they don't think." - Fintan O'Toole, The Irish Times, 25 April 2017
When taking part in a recent Ulster Wildlife sponsored project of monitoring red squirrels and pine martens in County Fermanagh I placed a feeder and camera trap in Garrison Forest. As I accessed the forest from the adjacent road I was dismayed to find that the undergrowth contained large bags of domestic litter. Some of the bags had been lying there for so long that moss had grown over them and their spilled contents. While mentally processing this desecration it occurred to me that it is possible that ever metre of undergrowth beside every road in Ireland contains litter.
In rural areas litter is composed of three types. Light litter, often food packaging, is casually thrown from passing motor vehicles, much of it ending up in rivers and streams. High volume litter is in carefully knotted large bin-liner size bags. This is premeditated littering as the vehicle driver, or passenger, would have consciously gathered unwanted items together, thought about where they were going to dispose of them, driven to the location, stopped, waited until there was no one in view, got out of their vehicle, walked to the roadside and then thrown the bag as far as they could into the undergrowth where it would lie unseen by walkers, cyclists, drivers and local authority inspectors. Although bags may be tied they are often ripped open by foraging animals. The third type, again premeditated, are large household items such as vacuum cleaners, fridges, televisions and mattresses. Their bulk and weight often means that they are left at the side of quiet roads or on what is euphemistically called 'waste ground'.
As most of the litter is plastic it can, as Ian Sample informs us in The Guardian, 25th April 2017, take between a 100 and 400 years to degrade in landfill sites, the litter may lie where it has been illegally disposed long beyond the end of our historical era. The Irish Times, 26th April 2017, draws our attention to illegal dumping in the Republic of Ireland through its campaign 'Report Illegal Dumping' stating that "tonnes of uncollected rubbish remain in some of the country's most scenic areas." The Irish Times of the same date reports that illegal dumping in Dublin costs €1.5 million a year to clean-up. (www.irishtimes.com, 15th October 2016)
Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful inform us that in the year 2015-2016 councils spent £43 million picking up the litter on the streets and roads of Northern Ireland. This translates into £58 for every rate-payer. Needless to say this money would have been better spent on health and social services, education and environmental conservation. This financially expensive and deplorable disregard for the biosphere, for the network of paths and roads we use, can be found in countries around the world.
Litter is both a local and a global problem. Studies show that as much as 80 percent of the litter choking the oceans and killing all manner of fauna comes from the land. Tom Bawden informs us in the i, 15th March 2017, that there is an "estimated five trillion pieces of plastic polluting our seas." This plastic, and other discarded materials, is an assault on the senses when it washes up on beaches and coves. It is a hazard to people engaged in water sports and a threat to human health and wildlife. We are informed by a letter signed by a number of prominent scientists published in the i, 18th April 2017, that:
"Toxic debris from plastic packaging kills approximately a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year. Our addiction to non-biodegradable plastic is endangering human health too, with around a third of fish caught off the coasts of south-west England thought to contain traces of plastic."
The most common form of litter is the plastic bottle. Louise Edge of Greenpeace informs us in the i, 17th March 2017, that:
"In the UK alone we use 35 million plastic bottles every day, and 16 million of them end up in our environment – on our streets, in landfill, on beaches, in rivers and the seas."
Given our nonchalant attitude towards such an easily managed problem as the disposal of what we no longer want in an ecologically safe way, what hope is there for addressing environmental problems that involve major conflicts of interest, radical change in personal behaviour, new systems of organisation, national legislation, international cooperation and considerable financial expense? These problems include climate change, industrial farming and loss of biodiversity.
Part of the solution to our disregard for the biosphere, which includes the flora and fauna we see, smell, hear and emotionally digest every day, and without which mental health problems would sky-rocket, is the promotion and embrace of a bio-centric worldview. This is as much a cultural undertaking as an economic and technological one; cultural as in seeing, thinking and relating to the biosphere in a radically different way than we have been socialised to. As Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Times, 25th April 2017, writes: "Cultures are not just about what people think – there are also what they don't think."
Thinking of the biosphere in terms of systems, processes and interconnections, rather than a booty of resources to be exploited, and finding joy and a sense of wellbeing in the natural world, would play a decisive role in how we interact with it. A bio-centric worldview would affect everything from our design of buildings and appliances to how we produce food and manage resources for which we can't see an immediate use.