Category Archives: Europe

Home at last

The six medics convicted of infecting 460 Libyan children with HIV have been released and are back in Bulgaria.

They had been spared the death penalty in favour of life imprisonment after a compensation deal (reputed to be $1m per child) was reached with the childrens’ families. Now it seems a political deal between the EU and Libya has got them out of prison.

I’m glad they’re free. The case was a farce and an example of outsiders being blamed for internal errors — during the trial a French scientist testified poor hygiene at the hospital likely led to the contamination of the blood used in the transfusions. This happened in 1997, two years before the medics arrived in Libya. They had confessed, but have since alleged this was tortured out of them.

While I welcome their release I have some concerns about the deal. The EU and Tripoli have apparently agreed a “partnership” (or at least agreed to work toward one). What this will entail is unclear. The first thought I had when I read the term “partnership” was of Libya joining the union. Perhaps it was just a stray neuron hoping to go out in style.

Libya has for the last four or five years been attempting to normalise relations with the world at large.

The country is wealthier than most in northern Africa because of its oil reserves — reserves which have recently been opened up to foreign companies. The medics’ case has blocked closer ties between the EU and Libya, but now the case has been resolved political and economic progress can be made.

Economically it makes sense for the EU to court Tripoli. I think it can be taken as given that the oil supply across Terra has been drastically depleted — and cordial relations between the union and Gaddafi’s country would certainly allow Europe freer access to such badly needed reserves.

Libya’s coast is not that far away from Italy. Pipelines have stretched further; for example, gas pipes stretch from Russia to western Europe.

I hope I am just being cynical. I would like to think there were altruistic concerns, and that the medics were brought home simply because of the injustice of their situation. But the skeptic in the back of my mind insists something else has happened. I fear the medics’ situation has been used for political gains on both sides. I hope I’m wrong.

Update 26/07/07: French president Nicolas Sarkozy had met with Gaddafi, promising to help Libya rejoin “the concert of nations”. The article points out that French firms have been losing out since US companies re-entered the north African country, so Sarkozy is eager to make sure things don’t go to pot.

A line from the Libyan foreign minister has me concerned, though. He said France and Libya are to sign an agreement on “co-operation on a military-industrial partnership”.

I appreciate France’s historical ties to Africa, although it never ruled over Libya. However, I don’t see the logic of forming such a partnership.

France is a major arms exporter, so in that respect the deal would probably benefit most Gaddafi’s nation (and the arms manufacturers too). But why sign the deal? That it’s “military-industrial” implies a manufacturing aspect to the agreement. Does it mean French arms firms will be setting up shop in Libya, or that a multimillion-dollar revamp of the Libyan armed forces is on the way?

I’ll watch this with interest. Is France preparing an anti-terror front? Is it securing its business interests in north Africa? Is it making a good diplomatic impression to ensure preferential access to Libya oil? Perhaps all of the above and more.

The allure of prohibition

Portuguese television channel RTP left former dictator António de Oliveira Salazar out of the running to be the greatest of his countrymen, then relented.

Only for him to go and win the damn thing.

Scooping 41% of the vote (although one blogger has claimed an opinion poll taken around the time of the vote gave Salazar just 6.6%) he saw off challenges from writers, politicians and explorers such as Vasco de Gama.

Salazar ruled the country from 1932 to 1968. While managing to keep his country out of World War II and instituting corporatist policies that led to rapid economic growth in the 1940s and 1950s, his belief in holding on to overseas territories drained Portugal’s resources in the 1960s (ultimately ending the dictatorship). He created a secret police force that tortured opponents, although during his reign only 60 people died while in jail for political reasons. After Salazar’s death in 1968 the regime limped on only to be overthrown in a near-bloodless coup d’etat in 1974.

The Herald Tribune article linked to above points out that there has been a trend in economically insecure nations of yearning for “the authoritarianism of the past”. Portugal is the poorest country in western Europe. It also has a legacy of political corruption.

I once had a lecturer who spoke of the theory that people look for a ‘strongman’ out of a childhood belief that “Daddy will make it better”. He was referring to the dictatorships of ancient Greece (a different type of dictatorship I will not elaborate on right now), but the sentiment is still applicable.

However, I think it goes beyond that.

By banning something you make it that much alluring; the most dramatic example of this would have to be Prohibition in the US. It could be argued that Salazar’s win is down to his initially being omitted from the running — and certainly that sparked a campaign to get him included.

Many Portugese would have been born after his reign, and many would have lived only in its twilight. It makes me wonder how many people voted for Salazar as a protest or rebellion.

Time has an uncanny — and unfortunate — ability to soften opinons on historical figures. Although the dark sides of his rule have been well documented, that is not the same as a person having intimate experiences of living through it.

Consider the continuing mystique of Che Guevara. He has become a pop culture icon despite ordering the executions of hundreds of political opponents in pre-determined extrajudicial trials. For a slightly considered rant against him — but please don’t think I endorse it fully — check out this 2004 review of The Motorcycle Diaries.

Ladies and gentlemen I don’t claim to have all the answers, so I throw the floor open to your good selves. Agree with me? Disagree with me? I welcome your comments.

US torture, I mean interrogation rules

George Bush has signed an executive order prohibiting cruel and inhuman treatment in the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects.

I can’t make out if this is putting a stop to CIA practices or just a public relations smokescreen. The White House would only say that if the agency had a detention/interrogation programme, it would have to adhere to the Bush order.

Interestingly, a CIA official quoted in the text said: “It would be wrong to assume the programme of the past transfers to the future.” Is this a tacit acknowledgment of extraordindary rendition? Is he indicating the alleged abuses have taken place, but won’t from now on? A kindler, gentler intelligence agency.

A report by the Council of Europe, which is essentially a human rights watchdog, found evidence the CIA ran secret prisons in Bulgaria and Romania from 2003-05. The agency has denied this and said its counter-terrorism methods were lawful. Bush has admitted prisoners were held overseas, but wouldn’t say where.

An Teach Bán wouldn’t say exactly Bush’s order allows. The following are banned:

  • Torture or other acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation and cruel or inhuman treatment.
  • Willful or outrageous acts of personal abuse done to humiliate or degrade someone in a way so serious that any reasonable person would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, threatening the individual with sexual mutilation.
  • Acts intended to denigrate the religion, religious practices, or religious objects of an individual.

The second point above seems to be a direct reference to Abu Ghraib. Every one of these points should be welcomed, although it should not have taken an executive order to enforce them.

I appreciate the US considers itself in a war against terrorism, and I also appreciate that the CIA may feel some … unethical … actions are necessary to gain intelligence on hostile groups. But inhumane actions only serve to rally people against American efforts.

However there’s an interesting line in the article: “whatever interrogation practices used must be determined safe on an individual basis”.

Perhaps I’m overly reading between the lines but a system that can be tailored to “individual” cases is ripe for abuse, even if this becomes written policy.

There’s no way any of these policies can be verified without external oversight of CIA actions, and let’s face it that’s not going to happen (at least not to the extent that would be necessary).

So in essence what we have here — even if it is a shift in policy — is good publicity. Bush makes all the right noises, the CIA acts suitably serious and talks about accepting the order, and everybody’s happy.

Except this isn’t going to go away soon. The legacy of the rendition programme will last for many years to come. Even if the order becomes the agency’s standard practice, who’s going to believe them?

Everyone loves treasure


A Norse horde uncovered by a father and son metal-detecting team is causing quite a stir in England.

The 10th Century find — conservatively estimated to be worth £750,000 (E1.1m) — is the biggest such find since the 1840s and has coins and all sorts of cool stuff from as far afield as Afghanistan and Ireland (thieving Viking feckers).

The Examiner is running an article on it in the July 20th edition. I’ll post a link when it goes online. You can read it here or you could nip out to the shop and buy a copy of the paper, thus keeping me in a job (a feat I admit will be somewhat difficult for the 46% of my visitors who are from North America).

Commentary posts have been few and far between recently apart from my Iraq rant and bit on clerical sex abuse. I should have at least one up over the next few days, possibly two if my brain is in the right gear.

Update: the first post I have in mind will be a personal one about music. It’s almost written in my head but alas the flesh is weak at this hour of the morning (2am by my reckoning). Not like anybody but me gives a damn.

Money is no compensation

The LA archdiocese of the Catholic Church is to pay an average of $1.3m (E940,000) to each of the 500 people involved in claims of sexual abuse.

Once this $660m settlement is complete the Church in the US will have paid TWO BILLION DOLLARS since 1950. It’ll take much more than a few extra collections at Sunday Mass to cover that.

I’m not bitter. I’m angry.

For decades perverted priests destroyed children’s innocence, irreparably scarring untold numbers of people. For some the trauma was too much and the ensuing depression and guilt — because many victims feel guilty — saw them take their own lives. I don’t think we will ever know the full extent of clerical sex abuse.

Head of the archdiocese Cardinal Roger Mahony told the faithful:

There really is no way to go back and give them that innocence that was taken from them. The one thing I wish I could give the victims … I cannot. Once again, I apologize to anyone who has been offended, who has been abused. It should not have happened, and it will not happen again.

These words are not enough. I am willing to accept they are sincere — even if Mahony’s reputation is tarnished by claims  he protected a priest who molested 20 children, including a nine-month-old baby (he says he did not know the man was a paedophile — but they still ring hollow given the scale of the issue.

Giving money to the victims, while certainly making their lives easier, can never compensate for abuse of trust and body. Besides, the Church isn’t even stumping up all of the cash.

Archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan said:

The archdiocese will pay $250 million, insurance carriers will pay a combined $227 million and several religious orders will chip in $60 million. The remaining $123 million will come from litigation with religious orders that chose not to participate in the deal, with the archdiocese guaranteeing resolution of those 80 to 100 cases within five years

I don’t recall when the sex abuse scandals first came to the popular Irish consciousness. In fact I have been aware of it for so long there are times I forget it was not a problem isolated to my island nation.

Perhaps the most damning case was that of Ferns diocese. A report by the government identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against 21 priests. It found the Church authorities failed to tackle the problem after they became aware of it, while the police failed to properly investigate complaints.

The inquiry also found Bishop Donal J Herlihy treated claims of sex abuse by priests in his diocese as a moral problem.

In his defence, I must point out that by 1980 he realised there was a psychological element; however, he still appointed these priests to posts for which they were unsuitable.

The worst cretin to have served in the diocese was Seán Fortune. This serial child molester, who killed himself in 1999 while awaiting trial on 66 counts of abuse involving 29 boys (although I can’t say they were all in Ferns), had a reputation for abuse since his days at the seminary. The 2002 BBC documentary Suing the Pope traced his legacy and ultimately led to the Ferns Report.

One diocese. More than 100 claims of abuse. I’m sure you begin to understand why I feel the true extent of clerical sex abuse will never be known.

These priests — and we should never make the mistake of thinking all priests would do this — were put in a position of trust and took advantage of it in the most horrific way they could.

The Church teaches forgiveness, but how can it expect these priests to be granted such a mercy? Should a victim forgive his abuser, he or she is a bigger person than I.

We live in interesting times

Russia has pulled out of a key European arms treaty.

The Conventional Forces in Europe treaty was signed between the Soviet Union and NATO in 1990 and limits the signatories’ deployment of tanks, heavy artillery and combat aircraft.

Russia has threatened to pull out of it in the past because of US plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe. The move means it can deploy as many troops and weapons as it likes along its borders; it has complained there are too many limits on moving troops within its territory despite security concerns.

This is a political act. Presidential elections take place next year and this is a good way to get citizens motivated.

The missile programme is key to what has happened, but it is not the only factor.

The treaty was amended in 1999 to reflect the break-up of the Soviet Union, but part of the revised deal was that Russia would withdraw troops from parts of Georgia and Moldova with Russian-speaking majorities. It has not. NATO members haven’t ratified the treaty (although Russia has) because of this.

According to BBC, it will be 150 days before Russia’s move takes effect. The country will no longer allow military inspections or give details of its deployments.

Russia has become increasingly assertive under Vladimir Putin. After years of economic decline and shrinking global standing a boom from oil wealth has given the country new confidence. The great Russian bear has re-awoken and is flexing its muscles.

But its wealth under Putin has come with the erosion of democratic liberties. To put it bluntly, the nation is a political basket case and has been for many years.

By focusing on a target outside Russian borders — or in this case two, the old Cold War reliables of NATO and the United States — legislators can deflect from internal problems.

Withdrawal from the CFE raises the spectre of old conflicts and sparks fears of new ones. While essentially a move to curry favour with the Russian electorate and raise the nation’s profile internationally, it does not imply a new Cold War looms.

However, nobody can predict who Putin’s successor will be. That is why these diplomatic issues must be resolved soon. Failure to do so will only widen the schism between Russia and NATO/the US. Who knows where that will lead?