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.

Monday, December 15, 2003

03/12/84 - Bhopal, India

Quietly the 3rd December came and went but 19 years ago in Bhopal an explosion at the Union Carbide* plant spewed tonnes of methyl isocyanate. 8,000 people, many the poorest on this earth died in the first three days. The final death toll is 16,000-30,000. Thousands still suffer and still live in the contaminated shadow of Union Carbide.

It is fashionable to compare catastrophic events to the World Trade Centre in 2001. But Bhopal was not India's retrospective 9/11 if anything the Twin Towers were America's 3/12.

The company was warned of the consequences of locating its plant near a heavily populated area. Two years before the explosion journalist Rajkumar Keswani warned of the possibilities of an accident occurring in no less than 4 newspaper articles. In the run up to the explosion, safety equipment was dismantled and safety staff and training were cut.

CEO Warren Anderson is still wanted by the Indian government who sought, half heartedly to extradite him. Strangely, Interpol, couldn't find one of the most powerful men in the chemical industry. He wasn't at his address when law enforcement officers called. Though it is not clear if they checked his golf club.

The case against corporate killers might start at home but the fight as always is international.

*1 Union Carbide is now owned by Dow Chemicals, who refuse to assume Carbide's environmental and criminal liabilities in Bhopal, despite taking on their asbestos liabilities in Texas.

I want to see the Queen in court

Knee problems aside Elizabeth Windsor doesn't really have to worry much about industrial accidents in her job. OK there is the possibility of Repetitive Strain Injury what with the constant waving and it certainly looks like protective goggles would be needed if dining in the immediate vicinity of Prince Philip. Other than that Mrs Windsor has nothing to moan about expect maybe the fact that one or two of the previous job holders have suffered the social stigma of beheading.

Generally, the aristocracy can only really count gout, syphilis and falling off polo ponies as health and safety issues and they are more occupational hazards. Industrial accidents are what happens to the servants, who along with the normal safety issues have to contend with blunderbusts, falling dead pheasants and slipping on discarded royal lubricants.

Fortunately for Mrs Windsor there is a legal nicety called "Crown Immunity." Basically it means the Crown can't prosecute the Crown, so Crown bodies, like prisons, government departments or the police avoid prosecution for things like corporate manslaughter.

Not for long though according to a legal opinion by Matrix Churchill done for the Centre for Corporate Accountability. Which says any reform of the law of manslaughter must apply to all employing organisations, including Crown bodies or the government could face prosecution under the Human Rights convention. In short Crown Immunity should be abolished.

However, all of this depends on one thing. Tony Blair and David Blunkett have to decide that they actually want to change the law of corporate manslaughter and create law that would actually benefit working people. Which is about as likely as the Queen appearing on Stars in Their Eyes ... cue squeaky posh voice uttering the words "Tonight Matthew I'm going to be Eminem"

Far from quaking in her boots Windsor only has to cast her mind back to the speech she made in Parliament which ominously failed to mention a change in the law.

Approximately 250 people are killed at work each year. However, the current law makes prosecuting corporate killers extremely difficult. Blunkett himself noted the "law's lack of success in convicting companies of manslaughter where a death has occurred due to gross negligence by the organisation as a whole." Indeed he went on to say that any law change should "bite properly on large corporations whose failure to set or maintain standards causes a death."

Yet despite this, and a previous Labour pledge, it is unlikely that the new law will introduce "directors duties", where company directors could be held individually responsible for workers safety and replace fat cat "golden handcuffs" with proper police ones. Labour's proposed reforms will only put companies in the dock with the prospect of a fine if found guilty. A step forward but large companies are hardly going to notice a fine. Corporate safety will not change until company directors face jail.

So just at the point when we need Blunkett to be in full "lock 'em up" mode he wimps out and turns all Lord Longford on us.

After the Queens Speech the Home Office issued a press statement saying they would have "detailed proposals" on the new law of corporate killing by the end of the year. Naively I phoned and asked when those proposals were going to be published " We haven't got a date yet." Aren't you running out of time? "Yes... I see what you mean, well we haven't got a date yet."

Monday, December 08, 2003

The Blaine that nobody noticed

To those who flew burgers on a remote-controlled helicopter at David Blaine or fired golf balls at his glass case, I salute you! Earning millions by not eating while convincing people that it was a spiritual event is not magic. Surely a magician surprises and shocks an audience with skill. If Blaine had not eaten for 44 days and then pulled a rabbit out of his jacksy while shouting "TA DAA!", then fair enough.

The crass banality of using a hunger strike to earn millions didn't fully strike me until activists climbed Tower Bridge with banners in support of Simon Chapman. Arrested in June during demonstrations at the EU summit in Salonika, Chapman faced the prospect of 25 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. He decided to go on hunger strike--without a Sky/Channel 4 deal and without being watched by millions.

With the exceptions of "alternative" outlets such as the Indymedia website, nobody initially covered his plight. If Chapman had been a British plane-spotter accused of spying, the Daily Mall would have had him on the front page, clamouring for justice, before you could say "ogling planes is a bit of an odd hobby". But Chapman is an anti-capitalist protester, and so it was just about impossible for papers such as the Mail, Times and Telegraph to break their logic that anti-capitalist equals violent thug. Even the Guardian, despite a few good articles, managed to run only 125 words on the concerns of Chapman's doctors on day 38 of his hunger strike, while in the same issue giving Blaine prominent coverage with an accompanying Christlike photo.

As the hunger strike wore on, the press interest increased, aided by the photographic evidence which supported Chapman's claims that he had been fitted up. The police said he had a black bag full of weapons. However, photos showed that Chapman had only a blue rucksack at the time of his arrest, and witnesses who saw him pack his bag say he had only water and a change of clothes in it. Then footage from Greek TV news showed the police putting an axe and hammer into a black bag and placing it by him.

The obvious injustice of the case was a factor in his release--as were the huge protests in Greece, with universities occupied and banks attacked. The smaller but significant UK protests played a part, too. However, Chapman's release (and that of the other four hunger strikers and the two minors imprisoned with them) were due mainly to their own actions in daring to challenge and humiliate the Greek authorities.

The day following their release, the Greek police--after months of denying that Chapman even had a blue rucksack at the time he was arrested--claimed to have found his bag. It was, they said, full of Molotov cocktails.

If true, this means the police had a bag full of bombs lying around their premises unnoticed for five months. Chapman is still forced to stay in Greece, and faces a legal battle with the authorities if he is to come home. And the prospect of 25 years in jail still hangs over him.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Britain doesn't care about Uganda's children

In Britain, we really don't like children very much. If we did, we wouldn't put up with quite so much Guardian G2/Allison Pearson-type whingeing about how "they adore children on the Continent; you can even take them into restaurants there". I am sure they let children into restaurants in Belgium. Unfortunately, Baby Tintin sharing a plate of mussels with Mummy and Daddy didn't prevent the authorities colluding in cover-ups of paedophile rings.

And for those who accept the glib myth that eating out with kids equates with a caring society, I would like to point out that the paedophile rings are to be found next to the sliced organic mango and dried dates in all good health food shops.

No, Britain doesn't like children for a whole host of reasons, one being Margaret Hodge. Given her record of dealing with child abuse as leader of Islington Council, her appointment as minister for children is about as appropriate as putting Michael Jackson in charge of Barnardo's.

A second reason is Children in Need, which should be renamed Being a Twat for Charity. That children in poverty should have to rely on grown men sitting in bathtubs of Spaghetti Hoops and farting the theme tune to Emmerdale to help them is beyond belief. Not to mention the irony of Terry Wogan and Gaby Roslin patronising the bloke in the tub over his loss of dignity.

But perhaps what riles us most is some barmy Eurocrat or liberal do-gooder trying to stop us smacking our kids. Britain loves its children--that is why we will fight for our right to physically assault them. Disciplining children is our forte, which is why I propose a father and-son bare-knuckle boxing contest to raise money for Children in Need.

There is another example of how much we dislike children, at a place that should be twinned with Soham. Because a tragedy equivalent to what allegedly happened in Soham occurs there each and every day of the year. Except it occurs 20 times a day. This place is northern Uganda where, according to the United Nations, 8,500 children have been abducted this year alone by the cult Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony. Britain is in a unique position to help stop this horror, but has so far chosen not to do so.

In its "Break the Silence" campaign, the Church Mission Society has highlighted the killing of the abducted children and the appalling atrocities committed against them. Human Rights Watch has documentary testimonies from children who have managed to escape.

Some are forced into slavery, carrying heavy loads through the bush. Most abducted girls, on reaching puberty, are given to the army's adult commanders as "wives": most of them become pregnant and are left to give birth in the bush with only other girls of a similar age to help them. Many of the women who escape have contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Angela P, abducted at the age of ten, said: "As a wife I was beaten and sexually abused ... I was beaten so many times, I couldn't count."

Most of the children are forced to become soldiers. Brutal killings are used to create the controlling emotions of fear and guilt. Edward T, now 18, describes how new recruits were forced to beat a child to death: "Each one had a turn and could only stop once the blood from the body splashed up on you." John Okwir, now 19, was forced to kill his own brother by stoving his head in. These are not exceptional tales; they are commonplace among the thousands of children held.

Even the British government has admitted that the fear of raids by the Lord's Resistance Army has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, who end up in "protective camps". Each night, children flock to Kitgum to sleep together at bus stations or on factory floors. Knowing they could be abducted in the night, they seek protection in numbers. The UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, has said that "this crisis is in many ways worse than Iraq".

So where are the human rights dossiers from Jack Straw released in a blaze of publicity? Is this another case where the west can't be bothered because of the edict "No oil, no toil"?

Instead of praising Uganda as an African success story, Britain might mention the Ugandan government's own use of child soldiers. As Uganda's largest aid donor, the UK has leverage. Instead of focusing on fictitious weapons of mass destruction, Tony Blair might focus on the biggest killers--small arms--and on how to control the vile trade in them rather than support his big-business arms buddies.

But first, Blair et al have to perform a simple task, which is to find the political will to give a fuck.