This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Deadly Serious

It is not every day of your life that you hear the phrase, “When Nicholas Parsons comes out, Nottingham will be waiting for you.” And, once heard, it is a difficult phrase to forget. How could anyone forget anything involving the prospect of Nicholas Parsons coming out? Let me explain.

Having written a book about the arms trade, it seemed only natural that I should want people to read it, so, at the publisher’s request, I spent two days at the BBC’s Broadcasting House. Within the bowels of this august organisation is a unit with four studios, a reception area, a sofa and a coffee machine. The studios link to BBC regional stations all across the country, where promoting books is the sturdy fair of programming. Its here that a handful of folk wait to go into one of the studios to sit at a desk with a microphone on it until suddenly, through headphones, comes a voice: “Hi it’s Sue here from Radio Jersey; we’ll be with you straight after the travel.”

After a couple of interviews I begin to get the hang of this promotion lark. “So,“ says an incredulous presenter’s voice from Wales, “what’s a comedian doing writing about the arms trade?”, “I should say the book is called ‘As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela’ and the title comes from an arms dealer’s website; he was advertising South African-made leg irons and this was the advertising strap line: As used on the famous Nelson Mandela.”

“Good Lord,” I hear the Welsh voice say and carry on: ”And this is at the heart of the book. Arms dealers really do not see themselves as others see them. Most decent folk see the arms industry as distasteful at best, even Daily Mail readers; it is not something they want their children to do. One arms company I phoned in South Africa to talk to about electroshock stun batons put me on hold (‘Wait while I get the expert’ the clipped Africaans voice had said) and I had music piped down the phone at me. Thus far fairly normal, except that the music they played was ‘Love me tender’ and this was an electroshock manufacturer.”

The more astute reader has noticed that I didn’t answer the interviewer’s question. I sort of gave up doing that after I managed to do an entire interview without getting to mention that I’d written a book on the arms trade. Almost all the presenters I spoke to started from a position of “This gun selling is a bit off, isn’t it?” but what eventually seemed to fascinate them was the scale of the UK’s subsidy to the arms industry. Using the work of Paul Ingrams (BASIC) and Roy Isbister (Saferworld), I came up with the rough figure that the UK subsidises each job in arms exports to the tune of about £13,000 per year.

“So it isn’t even good for the economy!” was a phrase I heard in various regional accents over the two days. It seemed the presenters were most shocked not by the 640 million small arms at large in the world, but by the fact that selling them didn’t even benefit the British economy.

Back on the sofa the receptionist nods at me. Nicholas Parsons has just walked past so it’s my turn again. I gulp a final mouthful of coffee and mentally run through a story I’m going to tell the radio listeners about working with school children to buy torture equipment and expose the UK government’s loopholes in the law. “Remember to mention the 13 grand,” I say out loud as I head into the studio, “and the title: ‘As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela’.”

Thursday, June 01, 2006

An unusual gig

In over 21 years of performing I have done some weird gigs. I have been threatened at Glastonbury by a bloke on acid; I’ve dressed in green Speedo trunks and jumped on stage wielding a butter knife. I’ve had a Tory councillor resign after a gig at a council-sponsored show. I have performed at everywhere from Jewish stag parties to striking miners’ soup kitchens. I have shared dressing rooms with strippers in Paris (embarrassing), sniffer dogs looking for bombs in Belfast (alarming) and, in Canada, a man who makes his living by farting tunes and firing darts from his anus (let’s not revisit that one).

But speaking for 50 minutes in front of a hundred arms dealers on the subject of export law reform, on a boat in the Thames, has to be among the strangest.

The Export Group for Aerospace and Defence, the arms industry’s lobby group, asked me to speak at its annual meeting. Perverse pleasure and self-righteousness forced me to accept, and so, 24 hours before the event was due to take place, I was e-mailed the name of the venue and directions. The organisers believed, I suppose, that if they let me have the details any earlier I might pass them on to anarcho-peaceniks, who would turn up and picket the event. And they had good reason to think I might. I have done everything from lobbying against the arms trade to chaining myself to a bus load of arms dealers destined for a trade fair.

HQS Wellington, moored on the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge, was the venue. Inside was a whitewashed metal-hull decor, with copious brass bells dangling from the ceiling and display cases full of medals lining the walls. Decorating the carpets was a coat of arms featuring a horse with flippers and a crown. It looked like it belonged to the Subservient Order of Mariners or some other pseudo-Masonic, City of London guild, where they probably spank each other with paddles before swearing allegiance to the Queen.

The speakers used PowerPoint and talked about compliance evaluation criteria and intangible transfers. Sitting waiting to speak was both boring and terrifying. “In a minute Mark Thomas will be up here,” said the chairman. An arms dealer nearby snorted, “To do some of his stand-up,” implying that my presence had somehow lowered the tone.

All too quickly it was my turn. I would describe their welcome as polite clapping, except it wasn’t. It was the sound of two people clapping, realising no one else was, then stopping. Cricketers leaving the crease with a duck get better applause. Standing in front of a court-like wooden bench and three throne-like chairs, I confessed to the crowd: “The last time I stood in front of something like this I was on trial for chaining myself to a bus full of BAE Systems dealers. So I am not exactly a natural ally of the arms industry.” There was a second when you could have heard a pin drop, and as this lot were arms dealers it could have come from a hand grenade.

The room was not strictly full of arms dealers: they were compliance officers for major arms companies – the folk who tell companies what to do to remain within the law. And to my surprise some were friendly. I was there to suggest a few places where the law on arms control could be tightened.

Years ago, a British company exported special white-noise generators and strobe lights for police cells in Dubai; everyone in the deal knew the equipment was to be used to soften people up for interrogation by depriving them of sleep. It was perfectly legal to sell the items despite the degrading purposes they would serve, perhaps even torture.

Such a deal would still be legal today, because the government insists on itemising the torture equipment it prohibits, rather than assessing equipment that might be used for torture. The solution, I suggested, is a catch-all clause: if a dealer suspected that the equipment it was supplying to a police or military buyer might be used for torture, then the dealer would have a legal requirement to report it to the authorities for assessment.

The assembled dealers were genuinely shocked at the examples of torture equipment, and the majority seemed, if not supportive, at least not hostile to the idea.

Things then began to pick up. Admittedly I might have alienated some when I compared their industry (and, by implication, them) to paedophiles and drug barons. But let’s face it: if you are going to make a faux pas, you should at least make a decent one.

I ploughed on: “Why not register arms dealers? After all, we register bouncers.” It would make the more complicated prosecutions of unregistered arms dealers much easier, ran my logic. Someone later told me that it slowly dawned on the audience that a register would actually affect their companies, which is when the questions began.

After 50 minutes it was over, the applause a little louder than at the start. A group of the dealers shook my hand; some even came up with suggestions on how to make the register of arms dealers work. One whinged about the catch-all clause: “Why not ban cigarettes? They torture with them.” But others were genuinely sympathetic.

It was a weird event, part campaigner’s rite of passage and part lobbying under fire. But bizarrely, I’d do it again if asked.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Illiberal New Labour

A friend of mine named his toilet “the Hezza”, after Michael Heseltine, back in the darker days of the Thatcher years. I don’t know if it is a common habit for people to rename household items after politicians, but for some years now I have called our bidet “Prescott”, because I don’t know what that’s for either. His sex life is unimportant – politicians can shag manhole covers, for all I care, and frankly the passing image of Prescott’s four chins juddering in flushed passion is not one that most people would wish to dwell on. The significant thing about Prescott and his dead career is that he embodies all that is wrong with the new Labour state: out of touch, useless and beginning to stink.

Consider Patricia Hewitt. Booed by the Royal College of Nursing, this is her WI moment. To be booed by the RCN is equivalent to a children’s entertainer being bottled off. So as peerages get offered out of the back of three-wheelers with “Trotter Trading” on the side of them, and Brown lurks, waiting to mug Blair with all the finesse of a released prison rapist, it has all gone a bit Frank Spencer. “Labour seem a bit like the last lot,” folk are saying, remembering John Major’s incompetent government of gun-runners, liars and corrupt grasping filth. However, this is not just a case of the electorate not trusting politicians; in truth, the politicians have never trusted the people, especially when it comes to civil liberties. For all the many lawyers in new Labour’s ranks, the party has never been a lover of these rights.

Consider the tale of Brian Haw, who has been staging an anti-war vigil outside parliament since July 2001. Haw is Britain’s best-known demonstrator. He has camped out in Parliament Square, in all weathers and despite harassment, to protest first against sanctions on Iraq and then against the invasion. During his time there, he has amassed enough banners and placards to keep a small recycling company in business, should they ever come down. Not everyone, however, has viewed his peaceful presence with tolerance; Westminster Council made a cack-handed attempt to evict him on the grounds that he was obstructing the pavement, and the government went so far as to include Clauses 132-138 in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Socpa) specifically to bring an end to Haw’s protest.

The question is: why did they go to such lengths? What was so awful about a man protesting outside parliament? So what if he sleeps outside? What threat does he pose? Do the police and security forces perhaps believe he could be a closet Qaeda cell playing the long game? Do his placards bring parliament into disrepute any more than the behaviour of most of the MPs who work in the place does?

David Blunkett, when he was home secretary, explained the government’s case as follows: “It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but he is a nut.” Yet if we are talking about disrespecting parliament, surely fast-tracking a nanny’s visa is a slightly graver offence.

Even changing the law, however, could not remove Haw from his vigil, as our nation’s fine and august lawmakers managed to... er... "fuck it up". The law stated that people must have permission from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner before they “start” a demonstration. As Haw’s demonstration had been going on for years before the law was introduced, his lawyers argued that Socpa could not apply to him. This argument found favour with the judges last October and the protest was deemed to be legal – leaving new Labour lawmakers with more egg on their face than a Salvador Dalí painting.

On 8 May, however, three Court of Appeal judges overturned that decision, arguing that “parliament intended to include demonstrations whenever they started”. And just to make sure that Haw didn’t try to do anything silly and provocative such as challenge their decision, the judges refused him permission to appeal to the House of Lords. Whether Haw will contest that ruling is not yet known, so there is still a chance that this wonderful specimen of human cussedness will have another day in court.

For some people, Brian Haw’s experience epitomises new Labour’s illiberal inclinations. From the new offence of “glorifying acts of terrorism” through to “stop and search” for demonstrators, new Labour has made citizens more accountable to the state but not the other way around, which is the preferable path in a democracy. The government has never felt happy handing power or rights over to the people who elect them. Yes, the Human Rights Act came through, but so did detention without trial and the right for courts to use evidence extracted under torture (before that was thrown out by the law lords) and an ID card scheme.

All of which makes Labour appear petty, vindictive and inept – much like the last lot. So I shall leave you with this happy thought: the government created a law and wasted thousands of pounds and countless man-hours trying to enforce it, all because one peaceful demonstrator spoils the view and supposedly brings parliament into disrepute. If those are what pass for good reasons these days, it can surely be only a matter of weeks before new Labour introduces a law that forbids ministers from shagging in their offices. The mere thought of that spoils a lot more than a view.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Dangerous Widgets

It seems like only yesterday that Tony Blair was invading Iraq and lecturing us about how sometimes in government you have to do what is right rather than what is popular. This week it seems it is important to do what is popular. (If only he could manage to be both right and popular and get lost... ) But if “popular concerns” were the guiding force behind political action, MPs would have slashed their own wages and strung themselves up from lamp-posts long ago. And if Blair really wants to be popular he should reintroduce the death penalty and, on a bad sporting day for England, nuke France into the bargain.

This week, according to the Prime Minister, anyone who is against ID cards is a Hamza-hook-fondling liberal. Possibly a kiddie-bender, too. So, not wishing to appear out of step with the law-and-order agenda, this column takes as its topic antisocial behaviour... and the arms industry.

Globalisation has affected every sector, and arms manufacturing is no exception. Rather than selling whole fighter planes, companies may find it easier to license production to countries with cheaper labour costs, such as Pakistan or Egypt, shipping out the component parts for assembly. Britain appears to be carving out a role in this globalised arms trade as a maker and supplier of widgets, the components that make the arms work. A growing number of British widgets are ending up in machines that go bang or bump, and increasingly they do so in places where they shouldn’t. Arms control is keeping pace with neither technology nor globalisation.

The massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in May last year, saw about 500 civilians murdered by the Uzbek authorities, which even by Blair’s standards has to count as antisocial behaviour, perhaps beyond even the restraining powers of Asbos. News pictures showed Uzbek soldiers taking cover by military vehicles and training their guns on the fleeing men, women and children. To some the vehicles looked strangely familiar, and so they should have: they were Land-Rovers, exported to a state that likes to boil its political opponents to death.

“But they are only Land-Rovers,” you may cry. No, they are military vehicles, and without them soldiers would have to rely on the Uzbek Oyster card to travel to and from a massacre (making slaughter cheaper but dependent on track-repair programmes). How did they get there? Land-Rover had exported “civilian” component parts to Otokar, a Turkish company, which assembled “military” vehicles before passing them on to Uzbekistan. In all, 70 per cent of the vehicle comes from Solihull, and this valuable trade (of which Land-Rover says it knows nothing) requires no arms-export licence.

It is not an isolated case. The CIA has used pilotless drone planes, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to carry out attacks in countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Called the Predator, the agency’s UAV can be controlled from hundreds of miles away via satellite and a joystick – the ultimate PlayStation game. In 2002 the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator plane over Yemen, killing six men including a Qaeda suspect. The popular response might be: “Bollocks to them, al-Qaeda innit?” But Amnesty International said: “To the extent that the US authorities deliberately decided to kill, rather than attempt to arrest these men, their killing would amount to extrajudicial executions.” Extrajudicial killings tend to be frowned on by Britain, unless we are talking about Brazilian electricians and blokes carrying chair legs wrapped in paper.

On 13 January this year the CIA again used a Predator to launch a missile strike, this time on the village of Damadola in Pakistan. There appears to be no evidence that the target, the Qaeda second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the dead, but reportedly 18 others were, among them five women and five children.

The Predator’s technology comes from Towcester in Northamptonshire, where a company called Radstone Technology produces single-board computers for the Predator’s US makers, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. A Radstone spokesman has been reported as describing the technology as the “brain” of the Predator, without which the plane would not be able to fly.

As with Land-Rover and military vehicles in Uzbekistan, Radstone does not need a licence to export the “brains” of a pilotless drone that goes around firing missiles for the CIA. This is odd. In fact, it is more than odd. The main instrument of British arms-trade control is licensing – you need a licence to export anything from body armour to missiles – and under the rules UAVs are regarded as “long-range missiles”, placing them in the same “restricted goods” class as WMDs and some torture equipment. Jane’s Defence Weekly, the arms industry trade journal, has to get a licence just to publish adverts for UAVs. That’s right: you need a licence to advertise an unmanned aerial vehicle, but you don’t need one to export the computer that makes it work.

As industrial production fragments around the globe, we will see more examples of British technology playing a part in extrajudicial killings and massacres. So, if arms-trade control is to have any meaningful impact in protecting lives worldwide, we have to catch the widgets in the net, too.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The problem of Turkey

For some in Britain, slagging off the European Union (something I am about to do for the next 900 words) is an instinctive act of patriotic faith, akin to not knowing the second verse of the National Anthem. For many of us, the EU remains a quasi-democratic institution in search of an electorate. Quite tellingly, we tend to see the EU not so much as a vehicle for change as a means of registering a protest vote. Remember Robert Kilroy-Silk? Who can forget a tan like that? Britons loved him so much that we voted for him to leave the country five days a week, to spend that time in a place he says he despises.

The EU has become adept at dealing with its many problems and crises. By which I mean it ignores them and hopes they will go away. The EU constitution is a case in point. However, there is one problem that is resolutely not going away and is going to get worse: that is, Turkey's membership. The patrician consensus is that Turkey joining would be a jolly good thing as having a Muslim state in the EU would bring all sorts of benefits. However, Turkey's membership is dependent on the country introducing significant reforms - including many in the area of minorities' rights, eradicating the role of the military in the running of the state and bringing democratic procedures into the institutions of the country.

So far, Turkey has failed to come up to scratch, but more importantly the EU has allowed this situation to continue. The deal was this: Turkey is allowed into the EU but the EU gets to monitor and investigate human-rights abuses and pressurise Turkey to reform. Neither side has kept to the deal.

The Kurdish region of Turkey has suffered a steep rise in violence over the past weeks, with a huge deployment of troops against the civilian population. The Turkish police and military have attacked demonstrators using tear gas, batons, tanks and other lethal weapons. The Kurdish cities have seen a de facto return to state-of-emergency rule. Significant numbers of Kurdish trade unionists, human-rights defenders and political activists have been imprisoned, many of them shot and wounded by troops. Across the Kurdish region, at least 15 people have died, including three children, aged three, six and nine. Reports from human-rights defenders state that some of those killed were shot in the head at close range, suggesting execution.

The mayor of Diyarbakir, who tried to mediate between the authorities and protesters, has been physically attacked by the military, which has called for his suspension. And democratic Kurdish parties are being raided and their members imprisoned. How did it return to this so quickly?

The events that led to this escalation started with the funeral, on 28 March, of four PKK guerrillas, attended by a crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 Kurds. After provocation from the local police, mourners clashed with the authorities and troops were called in.

However, the real motor at work has been the failure of the Turkish state to work with the Kurds to take advantage of the PKK ceasefire. Ankara has refused to negotiate. "We will not talk to terrorists," the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declares. And he has done so with the backing of the EU. Instead of urging dialogue, the EU has followed the UK and the United States in proscribing the PKK, even though it announced a ceasefire and formally renounced violence. Just about every attempt by grass-roots Kurdish groups to form inclusive democratic movements has been regarded by the EU and the UK as merely another group to add to the list of terrorist organisations. At the same time, unemployment, poverty and political stagnation have fuelled the clashes between Kurds and the Turkish state.

With the region threatening to return to the bad old days of the mid-1990s, when 3,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed, 30,000 people killed and over a million Kurds internally displaced, the EU simply has to intervene. If the deal is that Turkey gets to join if it respects minority rights and introduces democracy to the institutions of the state, what happens if it breaks the deal? At the moment, the penalty is... nothing.

The British media tend to regard Turkey through the lens of bird flu and the occasional bomb, though in tabloid terms Turkey is strictly sick chickens. Occasionally, the broadsheets will rally round a cause célèbres, such as the case of the internationally renowned writer Orhan Pamuk. When he was threatened with prison for mentioning the Armenian genocide, the literary world rushed to his defence. But the trouble with causes célèbres is that once the celeb has gone, little attention remains on the cause.

It is doubtful that Eren Keskin will get the same press attention. Keskin was the founder of the Legal Aid Office for the Victims of Sexual Harassment and Rape in Custody. When I met her in 2001, her Istanbul office was cramped and insalubrious. She talked about how Kurdish women had to endure sexual harassment and rape at the hands of the Turkish authorities. In 2002, she gave a lecture in Germany describing her work and the horrific scale of rape in custody in Turkey. For daring to speak about this, she was put on trial back home. This year, she was sentenced to ten months for the crime of "insulting the moral character of the military".