Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is Amnesty International Biased Against Everyone? (Except Criminals)

Recently Amnesty International Director Kate Allen has taken issue with an article in the Morning Star by Communist Party Executive Committee member John Haylett over AI's treatment of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a prisoner who recently died on hunger strike in a Cuban jail.

Usually I take no notice of stories regarding alleged prisoners of conscience in Cuba, they all say more or less the same thing, and I've always found Amnesty's demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners (regardless of who their backers are or what the conditions in the country in question are) painfully naïve and reeking of petty-bourgeois liberal sentiment. That's fine if that's the kind of organisation they wish to be, and they have never suggested otherwise, but there's little reason I should take particular interest in their views on Cuba's treatment of political dissidents under state of siege.

As a result I missed most of the media coverage surrounding the death of Zapata so I was forced to conduct some fresh research. At first my assumption was that, like many others Amnesty have designated 'prisoners of conscience', he was a terrorist or that he had been receiving money from the US. I was surprised, it was nothing so noble. Orlando Zapata Tamayo was arrested in March 2003 at around the same time as the now infamous (but greatly exaggerated) crackdown on counter-revolutionary activities, but he was not one of those arrested in connection with such activities, as the UN list (whose objectivity is at best questionable, but that won't be addressed here) drawn up in its aftermath can verify.

While Zapata turning out to be simply a common criminal and not a great subversive was surprising, what I found positively shocking (perhaps you could call me naïve) was that the level of bias in the initial AI report when he was classified as a prisoner of conscience (retroactively, nearly a year after his most recent arrest), and in all reports since, goes far beyond simple ideological one-sidedness and dives head first into the realm of intentional misrepresentation.

How can AI justify not even mentioning in passing his previous serious criminal convictions and the fact that he has served time in prison previously for assault (more than once, including attacking a man with machete), fraud and illegal possession of a weapon?

In this light the claims made by the Cuban authorities that Zapata associated himself with political dissidents following his detention in order to win the improved conditions associated with political prisoners must at least be taken seriously. In Cuba, political prisoners are not forced to wear the same uniforms as common criminals, a fact the British Government could take note of.

What seems evident, without having to take either side on their word, is that Zapata joined the Movement for an Republican Alternative after a long history of violent crime (whatever his motivations). Why AI have deemed it appropriate to strike any reference to his criminality from their reports is certainly a valid question.

Another curiosity is that, while recent AI reports have made a big deal of the fact that Cuban courts have subsequently drastically increased his original sentence (which was three years for public disorder), none have mentioned the reason for these additional sentences (other than an ambiguous yet harmless enough sounding 'resistance in prison'). It was actually for assault. Even if AI contest this accusation, why don't they mention it? How can they contest it without mentioning it? The language is almost as though Kate Allen and Amnesty International condone Mr Zapata's actions.

Now, I'm not going to accuse Amnesty of a pro-western bias, or an anti-communist bias or anything like that. They're treatment of western countries is no different and they haven't been slow to condemn the abuses of the United States in particular. Instead I'm going to accuse them of bias in favour of finding conspiracy and persecution even where it doesn't exist – of being biased against all governments.

Now, I understand this mentality; I have many friends in Amnesty, all with good intentions, all good people. I have cooperated with them in the past on issues of mutual interest. But by damn if they wouldn't assume the guilt of the government and the innocence of the alleged prisoner of conscience. It's their distrust of government that often makes them good activists, but it also makes it institutionally impossible for Amnesty to make balanced and unbiased judgements on such issues.

My advice to comrades in Amnesty is this: all future reports should set out both the case of the government and the case of the prisoner, complete with whatever commentary they deem appropriate. Amnesty are of course free to campaign on the behalf of any prisoner they see fit (well, not in Cuba...), but they owe it to their activists to provide them with all the facts, not just the ones that will move them to righteous anger.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Who're the Real Bullies? BA Go All Out in Dirty Tricks Campaign

Right-wing newspapers and bloggers have been making a lot out of allegations of intimidation by picketers against BA scabs. These claims have been put forward by an unnamed representative of the 'Professional Cabin Crew Council' (PCCC), which claims to represent those members of the Cabin Crew who are fed up with Unites' militancy [sic] but in reality is a front organisation for the BA management and as such is unable to obtain official recognition as an independent trade union.

What's amazing is the utter transparency of the accusations made, and the (perhaps not-so-shocking) complete lack of journalistic standards in misrepresenting the reality of such 'intimidation' and in failing to undertake even the most rudimentary research into the reliability of the accuser (or, perhaps more likely, wilfully ignoring its revelations).

We are told this woman who has betrayed her co-workers has been the victim of “meaningful looks” from pro-strike co-workers and she then goes on to make an entirely baseless and irresponsible assertion “But when you know the militants know where you live. Where your children are. Then you start to wonder exactly what they are capable of. Just how far they might go.” This despite the fact that she admits no actual threats have been made!

This is just one small part of a dirty tricks PR campaign by an employer against its workers without equal in recent memory. The BBC reported Saturday that more planes were flying than expected (implying that large numbers of workers were crossing picket lines and going into work), what they failed to mention was that many of them were empty – ghost flights to keep up appearances of normality. These tactics accompany false figures which the company released to the media.

There is a repeating theme developing on the right-wing blogosphere. Tory b**ger Iain Dale accuses the striking cabin crews of “thuggery”, the professional politically motivated arsehole and angry Libertarian self-parody at The Devil's Kitchen calls them “silly cunts” and calls for them to be sacked. Well, Willie Walsh is well ahead of him on that count, a point I'll develop later. It seems that in Tory land to withhold one's labour is to become a thug – let their be no mistake a worker who cannot withhold his or her labour is nought but a slave (with the 'option' of unemployment, of course...).

The strike ballot at the end of last year saw similar dirty tricks employed, BA bosses refused to provide the union with a list of those who had accepted voluntary redundancies thus making it impossible to exclude them from the ballot and hence impossible to hold a 'legal' ballot.

The Torygraph and the BBC are not alone in their parroting of BA propaganda, the entire media (except, of course, the usual suspects) have been jumping at the chance to wage an ideological war on the cabin crew and Unite. Beyond the typical distrust of notions such as solidarity and collective action which so thoroughly run against the hegemonic individualism of our times, there is a clear political motivation for most of the media: by demonising Unite they demonise the Labour Party by association, in what appears to be a mounting campaign in that regard. See Though Cowards Flinch for an excellent rebuttal of this 'Union Modernisation Fund' non-scandal the Tories have been mindlessly regurgitating.

Yet the media, ever eager for a story of Labour Movement “bullying” have been extremely quiet about the intimidation campaign being waged by the BA management against those considering joining the picket lines instead of scabbing. Striking cabin crew are afraid to reveal their identities on camera, forcing the Unite to rely on full-time organisers as opposed to those on the shop floor for press communications.

Any suggestion that these fears are exaggerated should be dispelled by the suspension or disciplining of 38 pro-strike cabin crew employees on, to say the least, dubious grounds.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Constitutional Showbiz

Lately I've been waking up to headlines such as “Gordon Brown on course to win the election” or “Brown narrows poll lead” and I must admit something of a surprise. Don't get me wrong, I'm not surprised that the gap in the polls is decreasing, I've been expecting that for months, I'm surprised that as someone who follows politics so closely I could have missed the drastic change in constitution which makes this possible.

When, in the eyes of the media, did this country pick up an officially Presidential Government?

This goes further than a few poorly worded headlines. The Leaders Debate we were once promised has silently been transformed into a 'Prime Ministerial Debate'. What's so wrong with this, after all only three men will have a chance of forming the next Government? The problem is we're not having a 'Prime Ministerial' election, we are electing a Parliament (well, half of one anyway). As such a clear cut between who should and should not be represented cannot be drawn.

A debate between the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems is entirely worthless in Scotland where the Tories are little more than a fringe party. Likewise in Wales Plaid are more deserving of representation than the Lib Dems. If the media has determined that three sides is the most which can exist in a debate (the US media has little difficulty inviting every candidate to the Republican and Democratic Primary debates) then surely separate debates should be arranged for each Home Country?

Over the last century or so the office of Prime Minister has accumulated so much power that we now in many ways can be said to have abandoned Cabinet Government for the de-facto Presidential variety. The difference is our 'president' has the power to command the legislature, and isn't directly elected. It seems in many ways we have all the disadvantages of a Presidential system with none of the perks.

With the media so obsessed with personalities before policies and presidential figures, is it even possible to return to a non-Presidential system? It certainly seems desirable to do so, but can it be done? Perhaps we should take the other option, face facts, make it official and actually elect a President?

There are serious problems with the media forcing this kind of Presidentialism on British politics. What if people vote for President Cameron, he doesn't seem quite such a bad chap? We'll end up with a Tory Government, a Tory Government in which Cameron can be ousted and a hard-core jingoist, racist and anti-science Tory becomes Prime Minister.