MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling - March 30 2003

Published by MAC on 2003-03-20

London Calling! March 20 2003

A Short film about Killing

Six years ago the mining campaign group, Partizans, was invited to address a fringe meeting of the Britain’s Liberal Democrat party, on the eve of elections which finally brought “Bomber” Blair to power. The aim was to take Rio Tinto to the cleaners: the Young Lib-Dems organising the event were furious that the chair of their party’s electoral committee was also a director of the world’s most notorious mining company. And he had refused to resign from either.

Lord Holme, the culprit, didn’t show up for the meeting, claiming he was wanted elsewhere. Then, just as the Partizans’ spokesperson rose to attack the peer’s pitiable record, the chair murmured a warning not to “personally attack” his lordship. Our colleague was thrown - though he didn’t dismount. A year later, Holme resigned from the Rio Tinto board, and melted into Lib-Dem oblivion. Since then he’s become a spokesperson for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, carrying the flag for business-NGO partnerships at last year’s Johannesburg “Sustainable Development” summit.

Inordinate deference to persons - even when a public figure is pursuing objectionable policies - may be a peculiarly Lib-Dem trait. It emerged in a more distasteful form last month. Lib-Dem leader, Charles Kennedy had placed himself solidly against war on Iraq, carrying virtually the whole of his party with him. But, as soon as the invasion started, Kennedy announced he would now be backing British armed forces.

This is a form of portable morality which, if applied by ordinary mortals, would take us into very swampy territory. “Okay folks, we know mining in protected forests is a sin against communities and nature. But now we’ve lost the struggle to prevent it, we’ll dismantle the barricades, wave in the loggers and the miners and retire home to dig our gardens…”

At least most denizens of the Labour party can’t be accused of such hypocrisy. Cabinet members (notably Robin Cook) who haven’t already quit in disgust and dismay at their government’s sabotaging of democracy will presumably now remain on the boat until it comes eventually to shore - or else sinks in a wash of blood, bones and tears.

The war for Blair’s ear

But there’s one exception: Ms. Clare Short, the Secretary of State at Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID). In discussing her recent betrayals, London Calling isn’t going to take the Liberal Democratic line and flinch from personal criticism.

Short is the roughhewn tactician who rose from working class obscurity to become the most powerful woman in the Blair regime. She robustly called her boss “deeply reckless” a week before he dragged a profoundly dissenting electorate into backing war. Then, on the eve of March 18th - occasion of the most important parliamentary decision in Britain’s recent history, and with a third of members of parliament opposing the government - Short turned turtle and paddled back into her leader’s arms. The reversal snatched many people's breath away. But the head of DFID took up her satchel and carried on as if the headmaster had just patted her on the back after giving her another piece of course work to perform.

Which is more or less what did happen: Blair promised Short she would take charge of British “post war” reconstruction after the war on Iraq.

Oxfam’s shame

In a clearly prefigured leak on March 17th, as the country agonised over Short’s “dilemma”, heads of overseas development bodies and British aid charities were said to be lobbying her not to resign. However, the one development agency comment, screened on BBC television that evening, was by an Oxfam representative who said it would be highly problematic for a neutral organisation to accept money for future work in an eviscerated Iraq, from what was now a key protagonist of the conflict: clearly he meant DFID.

But once war was declared, Oxfam also disgracefully performed a U-turn. Commented Justin Forsyth, Oxfam UK's policy director on March 18th:

“Regardless of what you think about the war and Oxfam has some very serious concerns about it - Clare Short’s track record on international development is exceptional. She is one of the most effective advocates in the world for the issues we care about, like debt relief…Oxfam has urged her to stay because we need that kind of champion more than ever.”

Let’s get this straight. Clare Short didn’t have a “moral dilemma” in the first place and it’s disturbing that Britain’s largest and best known development agency should lend credibility to the notion that one existed. Moral dilemmas obtain when you’re faced with two or more compelling, equally weighted, choices. By resigning, Short would have re-affirmed her oft-stated belief in the so-called “UN route” and her repugnance at using armed force to resolve social conflict. She would doubtless have encouraged resignations by other government officials.

By staying in the war cabinet, she has now endorsed the illegal removal of a head of state (obnoxious though he is) by the murderous invasion of a sovereign country, presaged by the most cynical manipulation of United Nations processes, since the destruction of Lumumba's government of the Congo in 1960. (This, some of you may recall, was yet anothe war for minds and mineral resources).

Short's also broken faith with the hundred and more poorer UN states who declared themselves against this bloody invasion. Oxfam has acquiesced in these betrayals, and forfeited its long-standing claim to political neutrality.

The long-term effects are unpredictable. But, last week, Indonesia’s largest environmental-development NGO, WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) issued a scorching statement condemning USAID and DFID, declaring they would break off all negotiations with these two government aid agencies and urging others to stand in solidarity. This is no fleeting gesture, given WALHI’s dependency for funding on both of them.

Cook’s tour

Robin Cook, former Labour leader of the House of Commons, sailed in the opposite direction to Clare Short, delivering in parliament on March 17th a resignation speech which had many MPs cheering on their feet. It almost wiped clean his blemished record as foreign secretary. No mean achievment, considering Cook had allowed the export of vital parts for British Hawk aircraft to Indonesia, when it was under Suharto’s despotic rule, at the same as the British Foreign Secretary purported to be implementing an “ethical foreign policy”. His office had also waved the notorious mercenary outfit, Sandline, into Sierra Leone, flying in the face of UN sanctions against the use of force. Cook maintains he never knew what lower officials were doing (a protestation many view with scepticism) and would have opposed it had he known.

Even back then Clare Short had no such scruples. After British troops were sent to restore order in the diamond killing fields of the world’s (then) poorest country, she told BBC-TV’s “Newsnight” that private armies like Sandline should replace them. This came after Papua New Guinea prime minister, Julius Chan, was himself forced to resign for illegally contracting Sandline to recapture Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine. What was poison for the gander could apparently still be sauce for the goose.

In British politics Ministers are allowed to err in moderation (even sleeping with other people’s wives, husbands, daughters and sons, so long as they don’t do it on Clapham Common and frighten the horses). But the DFID minister’s shortcomings have been of a different order. While Cook eventually agreed that his “ethical foreign policy” had been risible, Ms Short has compounded her own errors into New Labour policy.

Nowhere is this more obvious and reprehensible than in her attitude to NGOs and communities fighting the debilitating consequences of British corporate investment overseas. She has backed the worst of companies - not least mining outfits - against the express wishes of Indigenous communities. And she has made DFID a largely uncritical partner to the World Bank. (Under her direction the British government was the only state involved in the Bank’s tasteless “Business Partners for Development” mining initiative). But it is probably her flagrant disavowal of the UN which rankles most.

Reconstruction or deconstruction?

No doubt Short genuinely believes she may soon preside over the United Nations ”reconstruction” of a country now daily being ploughed into the earth by her boss’s bombs (not forgetting she also did little or nothing to resist UN sanctions which have blighted the lives of thousands of Iraqi children and women). But, far from ensuring a genuinely democratic post-invasion Iraq, she may simply have helped make the land safe for US military occupation and obscene profiteering by US companies like Halliburton, Fluor and Bechtel .(And that’s without beginning to consider the burning question of future control over Iraqi oil). "Civil engineering" company, Bechtel has long been linked with the Republican party, as well as numerous mining companies, in particular Rio Tinto. It also constructed the Da Nang US airbase in South Vietnam, from which murderous assaults on North Vietnam were mounted during the 1960s and '70s.

If you naively imagine Ms. Short can or will resist such neo-imperialism, then please think again. Examine how her department has tackled the post- cyclone crisis in Orissa, India: by instituting institutions on the western model; supporting the World Bank’s “reformed” structural adjustment programme; and directly posting advisors in the Orissa state government, in the face of vociferous opposition by many community and state-wide NGOs.

Veteran film-maker John Frankenheimer recently released his “take” on the mauling of Iraq; not officially, but you can’t help reading between the frames. “The Path to War” traces the years of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ)’s presidency, as it plunged downhill in the sixties from an early promise to forge the “Great Society” at home into an overseas quagmire where two million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 youthful US citizens were slaughtered.

Ironically, LBJ (“how many kids have you killed today?)” is portrayed in Frankenheimer’s biopic by an English actor, the marvellous Michael Gambon. (After all, the English have long been drafted in by Hollywood to play the villain).

However, a good half of this engrossing film focuses on the dilemmas of LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, played by an austere Alec Baldwin. McNamara started off his office (like the appalling Donald Rumsfeld today) fervently supporting a short, sharp, military action against the evil empire in the east. He ended it, profoundly disquieted by his government’s homicidal bombing strategy, saved from political oblivion only by being shoved sideways by his master, to head the World Bank in 1968.

McNamara finally repudiated the US war on the Vietnamese while trying to re-shape the World Bank into more than a fiefdom of his home country. Though not unsullied, something of his reputation does survive today.

Clare Short may not be so lucky.

[“London Calling” is published by Nostromo Research, London. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of any other individual, organisation or editors of the MAC web site. Reproduction is encouraged with full acknowledgment]

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