Saturday, February 9, 2008

Kosovo’s clock is ticking

Rumblings in Europe and beyond, not violence, the threat

The European Union, the bastion of peace and prosperity rose from the ashes of two sanguinary World Wars and today it still portrays that tranquil image, notwithstanding the wars and bloodshed of the Balkans in the 1990s.

The impending Kosovo independence, a direct fallout from those Balkan wars, may not trigger an all-out war in the region, but it will definitely result in some major indelible changes not only in the region but also world afar.

Kosovo’s population is 90 percent Albanian, and their goal of independence was reiterated February 8 by Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. “We have confirmation by around 100 countries that they are ready to recognise Kosovo’s independence immediately after we declare it. We will have a powerful and massive recognition,” he said.

Addressing journalists after the regular weekly meeting with Joachim Ruecker, chief of the UN mission in Kosovo, Thaci refused to divulge either the names of his list of countries or specify when he plans to declare independence.

In keeping with his declared intentions to keep his supporters mostly Western powers in confidence about intended declaration of independence, there is a general murmur in diplomatic circles that February 17 may be the D-day.

On the other hand, Serbia continues with its hawkish statements as the EU-backed reelected Serbian President Boris Tadic warned of an escalation in conflicts if Kosovo declares independence.

Speaking at the opening of an annual security conference in Munich, Tadic who enjoys the support of powers that are supporting Kosovo independence, said, “Should Serbia be partitioned against its will ... it could in turn result in the escalation of many existing conflicts, the reactivation of a number of frozen conflicts, and the instigation of who knows how many new conflicts.”

But his comments try to cater to the sentiments of Serbian people as well as play along the European officials, especially the EU’s enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn who has been instrumental in offering all the carrots to Serbia thus openly helping Tadic to win again.

On January 28, before the final round of Serbian presidential elections, EU foreign ministers offered Serbia a deal on free trade and travel, presenting it as a “signal to the Serbian people,” while denying that it was intended to influence the vote.

Now, with the win of the pro-EU Tadic in Serbia, the EU is in a win-win position. First it can go ahead and give recognition to an independent Kosovo and then as Serbia accepts the carrot of EU membership, Belgrade has to regularise its relationship with an independent Kosovo.

Commenting on the victory of Tadic, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission said the result was “a victory for democracy in Serbia and for the European values we share.” He added: “Your victory comes at a critical moment for Serbia and for the western Balkans. We wish to accelerate Serbia’s progress towards the European Union.”

The European Union on one hand has been supporting pro-Western Tadic on Serbian political landscape but it has given a go-ahead on the other hand to an EU police and justice mission to Kosovo. Without specifying a launch date, the mission was approved in writing to allow the EU’s 1,800 police and legal officials to take over from the United Nations in Kosovo, under UN Security Council resolution 1244, which refers to an international security presence.

The 16,000-strong NATO force, however will remain in Kosovo, which is still a province of Serbia. Kosovo has been run by the UN since a US-led NATO bombing campaign drove out Serb forces accused of a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The imminent independence of Kosovo will fan the forces of separatism in rest of Europe and other parts of the world as it comes under the aegis of the UN mandate. In an interview with New Europe recently in Brussels, Joseba Azkarraga Rodero, Minister, Department of Justice, Employment and Social Security, Basque Country in Spain, reiterated its fallout on other simmering conflicts.

Stressing “Fighting for self determination is the right of the people,” Rodero said, “We support the rights of self-determination of Scottish and Kosovo people through peaceful and democratic means to reach such ends.”

On the other cases of such struggles, he added, “People have been fighting for their own states. Large states talk of borders and that is not correct. We can see cases of Kosovo and Scotland – similar cases where people are fighting for self determination.”

Moreover, at the Russia-NATO meeting last December, held in Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists, “We are for a solution which will be acceptable to both Belgrade and Pristina and only for government bodies which will be fully empowered to ensure security.”

Asked to comment on Moscow’s response to a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, Lavrov said, “Reaction will be based on international law and I very much hope that other members of international community will proceed on that basis too.”

Lavrov called the projected solution “as a precedent,” adding, “How the Kosovo crisis is going to evolve is being looked at by a lot of other countries in the world and not only countries in the Balkans. So it has to do with international law, Helsinki act and any body who goes against them, will certainly go on a slippery path and not help stability of Europe.”

Arguing that such a solution for Kosovo will set a dangerous precedent for separatist inspirations elsewhere like Basque, Scottish and other regions, Russia has supported Serbia’s stance at the UN Security Council to keep Kosovo within Serbia but with greater autonomy.

Last but not least, the European Union along with the US has been again supporting Kosovo independence without reacting to an earlier report in this newspaper about the rise of Wahhabism and the tightening of the grip of fundamental Islam over Kosovo’s society where the majority population is Muslim.

The rampant use of foreign money from Saudi Arabia and other countries to spread “intolerant” and “puritan” form of Wahhabism is going to allow anti-West terrorism to rear its ugly head right in the back yard of the European Union. But until there is no blast, no killings of innocent people and no public outcry, the Western leaders will behave the problem is not festering.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Auschwitz: Beyond human understanding

January 27, 2008: Sixty-three years down the road from the day when the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp took place in 1945 signalling an end to the campaign of systematic murder which saw the extermination of over six million Jews and millions of other innocent citizens of Europe.

To observer the event at the initiative of the European Friends of Israel (EFI), Marian Turski, a Holocaust Survivor and Chairman of the Board of the Jewish Historical Institute Association in Poland was joined by a delegation of 20 members of the European Parliament and of EU national parliaments to visit the former Auschwitz Nazi death camp in southern Poland.

The group was joined by six Israeli members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament, coming from a variety of political parties including MKs Rabbi Meir Porush (Agudas Israel); Rabbi Nissim Ze’ev (Shas); Nissan Slomiansky (NRP), member of the Lobby for Holocaust Survivors; Colette Avital (Labor), Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Chairperson of the Lobby for Holocaust Survivors; Yoram Marciano (Labor) and Stas Miszhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu), the current chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.

Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Shoah or Holocaust, it was just an ordinary town known as Oswiecim. 1.5 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. Today the Auschwitz Jewish Center which opened in 2000 is trying to teach future generations about the destruction caused by the Holocaust.

The infamous welcome sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes you free) hung heavy above the entrance to Auschwitz and I had expected to see the camp without absorbing the pain of its monstrous past but I could not believe what I saw.

In the well-organised rows of desolate blocks of brick houses, there were rooms set out, museum-like, to display crowded images of prisoners being herded off trains, anonymous masses waiting and, everywhere, the horrible Auschwitz stripe. The baby clothes and children’s tiny shoes; a decaying collection of suitcases with names and date of births; piles of adult shoes; a three-dimensional collage of reading glasses and heaps of everyday household items once dear to their owners for usage in their everyday life and who made it to this organised dead-end place under the false hope of a new life.

In one of the rooms there were photographs with several pieces of writing paper covered with a scrawl that was unintelligible to me but seemed to speak volumes about helplessness of existence and trying to clutch the last straw to survive.

Then we embarked on the slow tread to Auschwitz II – Birkenau which was created when the original Auschwitz was full and, with its purposebuilt gas chambers (but today in ruins as destroyed by the fleeing Nazis), it looked an even more sinister killing machine, set in a flat, treeless landscape, The amazing organised way how death could be ordered into neat rows and numbers and that the records were kept with a system that counted human beings nothing more than cattle. Nothing could have prepared anyone for this experience seeing how truly massive Auschwitz-Birkenau is.

Turski, the Holocaust Survivor from here came alive as he pointed the different zones and explained the intricate working mechanisms which were shrouded in secrecy to keep victims guessing till the end.

Asked to comment, Turski, with a heavy voice told New Europe, “We should never wait too long. This happened because world waited too long before it reacted.” He added, “It was modern day slavery as my mother was taken away by a company to labour.” His voice flickered like a candle in the wind literally as gusty winds and snow hit us while he slowly spoke amidst virtually untouched environs since the Russian liberation on January 27, 1945.

“This important mission to Auschwitz permitted us not only to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to stand against all forms of extremism and to vigorously condemn them but also to tie the bonds between supporters of Israel from all over Europe which, we think, will lead to substantial improvement of the understanding of Europe in Israel as well as the understanding of Israel in Europe. Moreover this mission was a great opportunity for both Members of the European Parliament and National Parliaments to meet their counterparts from the Knesset and further discuss joint activities related to Israel and the EU,” summed up Dimitri Dombret, Director EFI.

On the way back, Elizabeth Svantesson, Member of Parliament, Sweden and member of the Parliamentary Friendship Group with Israel told New Europe, “I visited Auschwitz in 1989 and again today. This horrifying chapter in human history is important for everyone to get involved.” She highlighted the Swedish project to provide families with a book on Holocaust to bring awareness and educate children about it. And last but not the least, going to Auschwitz was a decision with a choice. The millions of Jews, gypsies, Poles and others who died there did not have that choice.

Israeli leader urges education for youth

Silent Auschwitz and survivors’ testimony keep Holocaust alive

On the blood-stained soil of Auschwitz in Poland, Colette Avital, MK, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament and Chairperson of the Lobby for Holocaust Survivors in a candid interview spoke to Tejinder Singh about the Holocaust, birth of Israel, the pains of growth and vision for future.

Today, January 27, 2008, is third anniversary of UN Holocaust Remembrance Day. It took 60 years for the world body to acknowledge this sanguinary systematic annihilation of human beings. How do you feel about it today?

Its better late than never. It took a lot of time, almost 60 years before United Nation decided to adopt this resolution and it was not easy for UN to adopt it. The fact is that for 60 years they did not recognise the special conditions and special holocaust of the Jewish people which is unprecedented in history. I think today it is very important as it’s not just a question of remembering the past and giving recognition to the special history of Jews. It’s a question of educate the younger generation to know that this happened and should not happen again. The ceremony to mark the day is important but much more important is the message.

The question is whether it will be used to educate the younger generation to be more tolerant to accept other religions, to know that human life is sacred and you can not take human life as if its nothing. You can not think that one people is superior and one people is inferior. We all live on the same planet. If my skin is white or black or if I am a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Parsi, I have right to believe in the God I have chosen to believe in. This should be very much the part of educational system everywhere.

What will you say to a set of statements with “denial” of this Holocaust?

Its true because many people like (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad (of Iran) and the leader of Venezuela and some in Muslim world say that the holocaust did not exist and that we invented it in order to make the world feel guilty towards us and in order to pay a heavy price. This is a terrible thing. It’s adding insult to injury. So one of the reasons that we have this group that goes to Auschwitz with political leaders from so many countries to show them what happened there and we are accompanied by a man who is a survivor of Auschwitz. Because as long as they are alive and they can say that I was here and this is what happened. Now the people understand and in many countries there is legislation against Holocaust denials. I believe that the younger generation today needs to know what the facts of the history are and not to deny and say it never happened.

How did Holocaust contribute to the making of Israel?

State of Israel was in the making because in 1917 there was Balfour declaration and then League of Nations, the predecessor of United Nations decided to give the British a mandate to prepare Palestine to become a Jewish Homeland. There was a lot of basis in creating Israel but at the end of second World War it became very clear what had happened in Europe. That was something that brought about determination on the part of not only Jews in Israel but also other powers in the world to actually accede to the demands of the Jews to have their own state. Although it was not the origin, it greatly contributed to the creation of the state of Israel, the process becoming much more faster, much more crucial and much more necessary because it was clear that the state of Israel was going to take in all the refugees from the concentration camps and it also became clear to the world that the Jews who were fleeing away from Europe when they knew what was happening, no country wanted to give them refuge including US. So the creation of Israel was seen by many powers as something very urgent and very necessary in order to solve the Jewish problem.

How do you assess the condition today and the ongoing struggle for peace?

The state of Israel was created on its ancient homeland but in the past hundred years there has been an ongoing conflict for the people who lived in the country, the Palestinians and some of the neighbours who did not want to accept the Jewish state. Slowly some of the Arab states did accept over time the existence of the state of Israel and even made peace with it, like Egypt, Jordon. With the Palestinians it has been an existential conflict because you have two people who claim the same land. I think as long as Palestine – Israel conflict is not resolved there will be no peace between us and other neighbours. But I think after seven years of Intifada now, there is a leadership in Palestine that wants to make peace with Israel and the rest of the Arab world also has started changing. Not all of them but majority of Arab states are willing now to live in peace with Israel if Israel resolves the problem with Palestinians.

What is your vision for the future?

My vision about the future and hope is that the state of Israel will continue to develop and be a state that is characterised by justice. My vision is that finally after so many years of war and conflict, we will be able not only to live in peace like everybody else here in Europe but also to normalise our lives. Because the purpose of Zionism at the time was not just to have a country of our own but to live normal lives in many senses. Like in Europe, many of the Jews did not have access to certain professions while they always lived in fear. My biggest vision and my biggest prayer is that we will be able to live normal lives.

What are your comments on the fear of ordinary citizens?

Depends more or less what happens. There was a time a few years ago when it was very difficult to go out in Israel as there were so many suicide bombers who came to cafes and blew up innocent people including children. In cafes, supermarkets and buses! We built a sort of security fence and that improved the situation and you know most Israelis don’t want to be prisoners in their own homes so they take the risks and they do go out. But it’s also true that in past two years, Israel is much more safe today.

What has come out of this ongoing pain?

People react very differently to pain. There are two ways: Some who react to pain wanting revenge and others who say I have suffered and now I don’t want others to suffer like me. The second one is probably nobler. In Israel and in Palestine, we have a group of parents who lost their children in wars, in terrorist attacks and they work together: bereaved parents, Israeli and Palestinian have formed a joint group together and have a strong message. They go everywhere and say we have paid the price but we don’t want you to pay the price. I think this is what should happen.

Finally, you are part of the democratic institution of Israel and what do you think is needed today to make it better?

I think it’s a great democracy. The only thing that sometimes we push democracy a little bit too far. The fact is that when the state of Israel was created it was the wish of its founding fathers to have every group in the population represented in the Knesset. It was a very good idea except that it translated into so many political parties that it became sometime very difficult to rule the country. In the beginning at least there were two big groups so that makes the country manageable but when you have multiplicity of small parties, its very difficult to keep the democracy because part of the democratic regime should be stability. When you have so little political parties that are trying to overthrow the government all the time, and you depend to form a coalition on small political parties then price you pay is very high. So we are very much in need for some political reforms to make the threshold a little bit higher. We all think it should be two and half percent and we are trying to see what kind of political reforms we can make to make political life more stable.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Blood Flowers: With love, from Kenya

Human sufferings, ethnic tensions add to political warfare

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, when you reach out to buy those flowers for your loved one, stop for a second and think of blood spilled on the streets of Kenya through which those were allegedly transported under police and army protection. Valentine’s Day is a big money spinning date for Kenyan growers, thanks to the country’s perfect match of high altitudes and equatorial sunshine.

By developing an end-product wrapped ready-to-sell on the shelves of the Western supermarkets, Kenya has become the European Union’s biggest source of flower imports but the recent political and ethnic turmoil has threatened the trade. “Trade turn over in 2006 from Kenya to EU was 345 million Euro,” said Rolf Persson, Secretary-General, Union Fleurs (European Flowers Association) based in Sweden.

While the global media attention is focused on the sanguinary clashes resulting in nearly a thousand deaths, voices were raised in Canada, Europe, Kenya, and the United States calling “on the international community to help the people suffering from violence in the Lake Naivasha region of Kenya, not the global industrial flower farms that exploit the lake and its people.”

A report, “Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors,” released January 31, blasted outrageous news coverage sympathetic to the flower industry. Pointing out, “With hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced due to violence that intensified recently,” Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said, “The situation in Naivasha is a human tragedy, not an investment loss. Our sympathy and aid should go to the people in the region, not the international corporate owners of these flower farms that exploit the workers, the lake, and the environment.”

“The problems in the floricultural industry due to information from Kenya are transports of all kinds,” said Persson, and, according to local reports, army and police are guarding flower transports in Kenya instead of people as the trade is controlled by the rich and influential. The bloody clashes taking place today are a cumulative effect of years of tensions between local tribes and patronage of ruling class to their own people.

Speaking to New Europe, Helena Clarke, Kenyan-British freelance journalist based in Brussels explained, “President Kibaki is from the Kikuyu tribe which stands for the majority, the rich and the elite. Most of the flower farms are owned by the rich, mostly Kikuyu in the Rift Valley.”

“Originally Rift Valley is land of the Kalentin and the Masai but Kenyatta, Father of the Nation and Kenya’s first president, himself a Kikuyu, helped his people to settle in the Rift Valley. During his term he made sure he helped his people and that when he was gone, he would leave his people wealthy.”

“Naivasha Lake is the second largest and highest lake of the central Rift Valley lakes. This fresh water lake has kept much of its colonial charm and is the centre of a prosperous flower export business.”

These sentiments are echoed in the aforementioned report which states, “Public access to the freshwater Lake Naivasha is limited because the flower farms own much of the land around the lake, leaving poor residents to find water from communal taps and waiting in long lines to do so. They’ve created an unsustainable increase in the labor population, depleted the lake’s waters, and pumped the local environment full of toxic pesticides and fertilisers.”

“The farms surround Lake Naivasha. They deplete its waters and poison them with pesticides,” said Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians. “They are sowing the seeds of economic and environmental devastation that, unless stopped, inevitably will yield a harvest of poverty, water deprivation, and violence.”

“These flower farms are harming people and animals alike,” explained Josphat Ngonyo, director of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare. “Numerous bird and fish species are disappearing from the area and that’s a problem for the environment and the people who depend on the lake.”
Plant life has vanished, and the local hippopotamus population has decreased from 1,500 in 2004 to 1,100 in 2006. Barlow and Hauter witnessed the destruction firsthand when they visited a local flower farm with a documentary film-maker Sam Bozzo during the World Social Forum in 2007.

Barlow recalled seeing “pipes pumping water from the lake to the flower greenhouses and a ditch where waste water drained back into the lake. If action isn’t taken immediately, the lake will not only be polluted, it will be drained.”

Although Persson said, “More than 100,000 people are directly depending on the floricultural trade and without the possibility to export these people will be out of jobs and income and the crisis will be worse,” the ground reality of working conditions and monetary benefits for workers are deplorable.

Chemicals used in the flower facilities are sickening workers. Wenonah Hauter, during a trip, observed some workers in protective gear spraying flowers, while others had no protective clothing.

Persson suggested, “Europe can offer political input to solve the crisis and since a fundamental reason to this sort of problems are unemployment and poverty Europe can offer more business and trade opportunity so more people can get a job and income. The floriculture industry is a good example what Europe can offer to create jobs and income in the developing countries,” but human rights observers and environmental gurus are warning Europeans and others to consider humane factors before indulging in those flowers.

“Factory flower farms have wreaked havoc on Kenya’s rivers and on Lake Naivasha, all to extract floricultural and horticultural commodities for export to wealthy destinations in Europe and elsewhere,” said Olivier Hoedeman of Corporate Europe Observatory. “Europeans don’t want to say ‘I love you’ with flowers that cause that kind of harm.”

Poland takes the NATO line on “War on terror”

NATO, widely identified as a Western counter-bloc to Soviet-era Warsaw Pact, will next year celebrate its 60th anniversary and Poland, a major component of now defunct Warsaw Pact will celebrate as a major ally and member of the Western military alliance.

Speaking to journalists, Brigadier General J. Biziewski, Commander, Polish Battle Group, RC-East, Afghanistan said, “NATO and Warsaw Pact... they were completely different organisations. NATO was very much prepared, and also Warsaw Pact, for the static... maybe not so static, but very much regular fight.” About joining NATO, Biziewski said, “We really were asking for this... to create a secure environment for my country. We achieved it. Obviously with assistance, with support from different other countries, mainly the NATO countries, from European countries, but also from the US.”

Agreeing that the present Afghan deployment is different, General said, “Now we are facing completely different environment. I think one of the most challenging because of the nature of the environment, but also because lack of understanding with the language and the culture which are very much hindering our activities. And insurgence is very... very much complex and are complicated issue to be and threat to be fought.”

Highlighting the importance of “coordinating actions between actors involved in those operations, the intelligence sharing, the very much accurate weapons,” the Polish commander said, “I think first and the most important, is to win the minds and hearts of the local population.”

The General expressed satisfaction over the way translators, or interpreters help and adding that the humanitarian aid carried by the soldiers is “very much appreciated by the people. And instead even of words, just signs, just the product provided to the people they say for their own.”

Asked to comment on returns for such goodwill gestures from NATO, he said, “If they get enough assistance to have the future... for the people, for the youngsters, so those younger guys they will not go to Pakistan for Madrassas.” “Because they go to Madrassas in Pakistan, they are indoctrinated there and after that they are going back to Afghanistan and they are doing what they... what they are ordered to do.” “So, from my perspective, the key for success in this field is to have as much as possible close ties with local population, with those elders, with mullahs, to educate people, to assist them in the basic needs, with the basic needs. They don’t require too much, but they’re just asking to have something from us to be able to survive with their community.”