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Monday, January 19, 2004

Hilary Benn's first job in office

God bless politicians who are new to their jobs. Richard Caborn might pass himself off as sports minister now, but he will always be remembered for his appearance on Radio 5 hours into his new job. Live on air, he faced an impromptu sports quiz and the only question he managed to get right was: "Do you wish you'd never come on the show?" Robin Cook, at the start of his time at the Foreign Office, brilliantly pledged "an ethical dimension to foreign policy". By the end of that financial year, satirists found themselves holidaying on tropical islands and would raise a toast to Robin as they sat around the pool.

Not all "new minister" moments are that monumental, but Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, gave it his best shot by backing the BP-led Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The Department for International Development (DfID) was reactionary enough when Clare Short was charging about the place like one of Princess Anne's pets. But next to Benn, Short appears exemplary.

The first thing the man in charge of "development" does is support a democracy-crushing, human rights-abusing, conflict-sponsoring, climate-changing, environment-wasting, US-backed oil pipeline. Wow! You have to go a long way to find comparisons for that kind of inappropriate action. The Department of Health would have to bring out its own brand of cigarettes and then get Charles Clarke to flog them in the school playground before you'd get on the Hilary Benn scale.

Benn's only redeeming act was to write to this magazine (Letters, 15-30 December) complaining about my criticism of him and the pipeline. To get a minister complaining is always intensely gratifying, but for his objections to be so crass and hypocritical ... why, I nearly sent him flowers and a thank you note.

Let's go through those little falsehoods, shall we? In his letter, Benn states that the "governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey support the project", thus implying that the project has democratic legitimacy. But the deal itself undermines democracy! BP has negotiated with each country a "host government agreement". This makes future changes in domestic and European Union law that affect the "financial integrity of the project" null and void for the entire length and breadth of the pipeline. So if Turkey, say, were to introduce new environmental or health and safety legislation, it simply would not apply to the BP-led consortium. It is, in short, above the law. Benn has backed corporate law over democracy.

Benn takes refuge in the notion that Georgia "support[s] the project". Yet the date of his letter clearly shows he was referring to Georgia's old government. The Shevardnadze one. The corrupt one. The fraudulently elected one. So he flirts with a love of democracy but supports a deal cut with the biggest, most corrupt fraudster in the region. Quite a feat, considering that Azerbaijan's last elections were also declared fraudulent and that Turkey can't join the EU until the generals leave its democracy alone.

In his letter, Benn states that the low-income countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan will benefit from oil and transit revenues. But as the pipeline traverses the vicinity of 11 conflict zones, any revenue is more likely to fund nationalist wars than to benefit the people. Ilham Aliyev, the new president of Azerbaijan, has said of the conflict with Armenia over Karabakh that "Azerbaijan will liberate its lands at any cost". So guess where the oil revenue will go--war or corrupt officials?

Benn tries to distance himself and DfID from the decision to back the pipeline. However, two of the public bodies using our money to support this project are the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. As head of DfID, Benn controls Britain's voting rights at both bodies and approved a $600m loan to the BP-led consortium to back the project. Half of DfID's funds go to the World Bank. This tempts me to ask: does Hilary Benn have a dash of Homer Simpson in his gene pool?

Officially, the scheme will create about 640 long-term jobs for local people. That's 213 per country. Since Benn approved the World Bank loan, that works out at just under $1m of public money per job. Doh!

The countries of the region will not respect human rights when development organisations financially reward the abusers and ignore the persecuted. An opponent of the scheme in Turkey is Ferhat Kaya. In a public speech, he referred to the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan as "Mr Ocalan". A Turkish court deemed this excessive respect for the leader of an illegal organisation. So he got six months for saying "mister".

You should send your defence of the pipeline to Mr Kaya, Hilary. I'm sure he would enjoy the bit about the project operating "to the highest environmental and social standards".


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