Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Oxfam’s silence on Johansson reveals all

The fallout from Scarlett Johansson’s recent decision to become “brand ambassador” for SodaStream, the drinks carbonation company with its factory in a settlement on occupied Palestinian territory, is no longer chiefly either about the immoral behaviour of a Hollywood actress or about the illegal activities of a major corporation. Both, unfortunately, are regular occurrences.

This is now about the outrageous silence of Oxfam, which features Johansson as one of its global goodwill ambassadors. Given that Oxfam is a charity that places ethical issues at the heart of its charter – in fact, ethical concern is the only reason it exists – it is right that we should judge harshly its failure to react swiftly to Johansson’s backing of SodaStream. It is clearly untenable for her to be associated with both organisations.

Ali Abunimah points to the fact that there is what he characterises as an “internal revolt” in Oxfam, especially between its UK and US operations. A tweet by Oxfam GB suggesting that Oxfam was considering taking action against Johansson was quickly deleted – a move apparently ordered by Oxfam America.

An Oxfam insider explained: “Oxfam America doesn’t invest one cent in the Palestinian territories, or even Israel. They don’t have any programs in the West Bank or Gaza. Yet they [Oxfam America] always claim that anything Oxfam says on Palestine or Israel affects their fundraising. They almost have veto power on what Oxfam does on Palestine.”

Johansson, it seems, is worth as much to Oxfam America in its fundraising efforts as she is to SodaStream in its profit-making efforts. Oxfam America doesn’t want to upset wealthy patrons in the US, including presumably the leaders of US Jewish organisations, who are notoriously hawkish on Israel, and thereby damage its fundraising prospects by provoking an organised backlash. Oxfam would hardly be the first supposedly ethical US organisation to cow before the Israel lobby. Human Rights Watch has done so in the past too, as I have noted in previous posts.

All this reveals something about the power of money that many of us are only too keen to avert our eyes from. I have lost count of the debates with friends who find my views about the western media dangerous or preposterous. I argue that the notion of a free, pluralistic press is an illusion, an obvious one when one considers that the mainstream media are corporations and profit is the only motive that tests their consciences. It is not just that most media cannot survive without corporate advertising; it is that they themselves are giant businesses, embedded in an economic system that views greed as good.

For those who think such ideas are grossly cynical consider Oxfam’s behaviour here. Oxfam isn’t a money-grubbing corporation, or at least not one like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. And yet it and SodaStream are not so different, it seems. The buck for both stops with making a quick buck.

If Oxfam cannot do the right thing, when that is the very reason it was established, why do we imagine that the New York Times, CNN, the Guardian or the BBC can do any better? In fact, given that they are either explicitly corporations themselves or, in the case of the BBC, run by senior staff and directors embedded in the corporate media system and answerable to the British government, we would be wiser to assume they will do far, far worse than Oxfam.

Sadly, there is only one way to make Oxfam remember its founding principles. That is by hitting it in the pocket. Now is the time to be writing to Oxfam telling it that your donations, second-hand clothes and purchases will go elsewhere unless it swiftly acts against Johansson.

What about the media? That will be a far harder struggle that involves not just finding new sources of information and rethinking the way we practise journalism but also challenging the very structures of our greed-driven societies. That is a tall order, I know. So let us at least begin by working hard to liberate our minds from the illusion that we have a free media. Until we do that, we will keep swallowing the same old lies, and keep making the same mistakes. More


NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Barack Obama may have a to-do pile full of Edward Snowden-related headaches, but the NSA whistleblower might be joining him on one of the world's more prestigious clubs.

Mr Snowden has been nominated by two Norwegian MPs for the Nobel Peace Prize, a gong the President himself won in 2009.

Baard Vegard Solhjell, a former environment minister, and Snorre Valen said on Wednesday the public debate and policy changes "in the wake of Snowden's whistleblowing has contributed to a more stable and peaceful world order."

Mr Snowden, who had worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency, made global headlines beginning in June last year when he unleashed revelation after revelation about government snooping in various countries.

His releases sparked diplomatic grumbles aplenty. One of the more problematic was the revelation that US spies tapped the German Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal mobile phone.

Having fled the USA, initially for Hong Kong, he is currently in Russia under temporary asylum, though there have been hints that he could return to his native US, where the government deems him a criminal, under a plea bargain.

Late last year he was pipped to another august title - that of Time magazine's Person of the Year, which Pope Francis won.

In a joint statement, Solhjell and Valen said: "There is no doubt that the actions of Edward Snowden may have damaged the security interests of several nations in the short term.

"We are, however, convinced that the public debate and changes in policy that have followed in the wake of Snowden's whistleblowing has contributed to a more stable and peaceful world order.

"His actions have in effect led to the reintroduction of trust and transparency as a leading principle in global security policies." More



Monday, January 20, 2014

It's About Blackmail, Not National Security

Spying has a history almost as ancient as humanity itself, but every now and then the rules of the game change. This post-9/11 moment of surveillance is one of those game-changers and the National Security Agency (NSA) has been the deal-breaker and rule-maker. The new rules it brought into existence are simple enough: you -- whoever you are and wherever you live on Planet Earth -- are a potential target. Get used to it. The most basic ground rule of the new system: no one is exempt from surveillance.

But then there’s human nature to take into account. There’s the feeling of invulnerability that the powerful often have. If you need an example, look no further than what key officials around New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were willing to commit to emails, even in this day and age, when it came to their scheme to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge. Something similar has been true of the system NSA officials set up. Its rules of the road were that no one was to be exempt from surveillance. (Call me Angela Merkel.) They then plunged their creation into the deepest secrecy, in part because they couldn’t imagine a world without at least one categorical exemption: themselves.

As it happens, Edward Snowden’s revelations fit the logic of the system the NSA created to a T. What the former agency contractor revealed, above all, was that the surveillance of anyone and everyone was the essence of our new world, and that not even the NSA would be exempt. He made that agency his own object of surveillance and so opened it up to the scrutiny of the rest of the planet. He gave its officials a dose of their own medicine.

Much of the ensuing outrage from the U.S. intelligence community, including the calls for his head, the cries of “treason,” the demands to bring him to “justice,” and so on, reflect outrage over the fact that the agency had gotten a full-scale dose of its own rules. It turns out that you don’t have to be an ordinary citizen or a world leader to feel terrible when someone appropriates the right to surveil your life. When it happened to agency honchos, they undoubtedly felt just like Merkel or Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff or so many other figures who discovered that their lives and communications weren’t private and weren’t their own. In a perfectly human manner, reality being far too ugly for their taste, they wanted payback.

There’s humor in the fact that the key figures involved in creating the foundations of a new, all-encompassing global security statesimply couldn’t imagine the obvious happening. Unfortunately, as TomDispatch regular and historian of U.S. surveillance practices Alfred McCoy points out, what the NSA set up, despite the blowback it's now causing, is irresistible to Washington. Not surprisingly, as new information about the agency's methods continues to ooze out, the president’s recent NSA speech makes itclear that genuine “change” or “reform” isn't on the agenda, thatlittle that matters will alter in the NSA’s methodology, and that nothing will be allowed to shake the system itself.

Surveillance and Scandal Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power
By Alfred McCoy

For more than six months, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) have been pouring out from theWashington Post, the New York Times, theGuardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and Brazil’s O Globo, among other places. Yet no one has pointed out the combination of factors that made the NSA’s expanding programs to monitor the world seem like such a slam-dunk development in Washington. The answer is remarkably simple. For an imperial power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere times, the NSA’s latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies in line -- like, in fact, the steal of the century. Even when disaster turned out to be attached to them, the NSA’s surveillance programs have come with such a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.

For well over a century, from the pacification of the Philippines in 1898 to trade negotiations with the European Union today, surveillance and its kissing cousins, scandal and scurrilous information, have been key weapons in Washington’s search for global dominion. Not surprisingly, in a post-9/11 bipartisan exercise of executive power, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have presided over building the NSA step by secret step into a digital panopticon designed to monitor the communications of every American and foreign leaders worldwide.

What exactly was the aim of such an unprecedented program of massive domestic and planetary spying, which clearly carried the risk of controversy at home and abroad? Here, an awareness of the more than century-long historyof U.S. surveillance can guide us through the billions of bytes swept up by the NSA to the strategic significance of such a program for the planet’s last superpower. What the past reveals is a long-term relationship between American state surveillance and political scandal that helps illuminate the unacknowledged reason why the NSA monitors America’s closest allies. More



Sunday, January 19, 2014

Of negotiations and high treason: Israel-Palestine 'peace'

No good for Palestinians will come of the current Middle East talks. Worse, harm seems likely. These negotiations threaten to undo years of work by Palestinian civil society and solidarity partners around the world who have been working tirelessly for a just peace.

Their work has been done -principally- through global nonviolent resistance campaigns such as the Boycott Divestment & Sanctions campaign(BDS), the Russell Tribunal, and mounting popular local and international protests, among other tactics.

What we are hearing is that US Secretary of State John Kerry has presented both parties with an interim agreement to "serve as a framework for continued negotiations towards a permanent agreement". The "final status agreement" would be "based on the 1967 borders". Concrete concessions with profound implications are being demanded of the Palestinians, but not so for Israel, which is "negotiating" on territory, rights, and resources that already belong to Palestinians.

Much of this rhetoric is familiar, as it is recycled from the failed Oslo Accords, in which an agreement was reached exacting permanent Palestinian concessions in exchange for promises of Israeli reciprocity that never materialised. Thus, Palestinians are now being sold the same lie they bought 20 years ago. This time, the concessions demanded of Palestinians amount to a complete relinquishment of our rights as a native people, in exchange for the same empty promises and pocket change from the EU and US to sustain the status quo a little longer, enough time to permanently alter the landscape and complete the economic, political andsocial engineering of the Palestinian population towards the goal of permanent impotence, in which profound divisions, corruption, and dependence preclude the emergence of organised impactful resistance.

Known truths

The details of the agreement, we are told, "are being worked out between the parties". But here are some certainties: Palestinian self-determination will not be realised from this agreement. A viable Palestinian state with a contiguous land mass will remain impossible given the physical alterations of the landscape Israel has made through rapacious land theft, colonisation, and "Judaisation" of Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank. Israel will not cease illegal settlement construction, even if it does so temporarily. Palestinians will not have control over their airspace, natural resources (eg water, newly-discovered oil), borders or economy. Segregated roads, housing, and buses will still be a reality.

Demolition of Palestinian homes will continue. The siege of Gaza will remain and perhaps tightened further. The separation wall will still be there with guard towers and snipers. Israel will still bomb our world when they please. They will still conduct night raids. They will continue to terrorise our children. Administrative Detention will remain a cost of living for Palestinian youth. Our Jerusalem, a few kilometres away, will still be as far as the moon for the majority of Palestinians. Israel will continue to import foreign Jews from all over the world and settle them on stolen Palestinian land, where they take up arms against the native Palestinian population.

The incentives being offered to Palestinians in the current talks are so insignificant, suggesting that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will accept funding over freedom. There is talk of an "unprecedented economic package", and other "concessions", all of which amount to temporary anaesthetics. On the other hand, Israel will likely walk away with Palestinian blessing for their theft of the Jordan Valley, the most fertile land in the West Bank, and continued control of Palestinian lives and resources.

There is also talk that they might achieve a boost to their racist demographic goals - touted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Henry Kissinger, a WINEPadviser - by transferring large proportions of their undesirable non-Jewish citizenry to Palestinian control. But that's gravy. Their immediate aims are two-fold: To deal a heavy blow to the growing Palestinian solidarity and boycott of Israel; and to finally gain legitimacy as a racist state.

BDS' effect

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society as a nonviolent means of national and human liberation from Israeli colonisation and apartheid, has spread into mainstream culture, promising global action on the scale that helped end the similar system of apartheid in South Africa. I believe that the popular BDS movement (including related solidarity actions) is the principal factor motivating Israel to try to come to some interim agreement with Palestinians at this point.

Israel is panicking, and rightfully so, because its power lies only in the realm of government and corporate elites. Israel has no defences against mass mobilisation calling for justice and basic human rights. This was precisely the case in the late 1980s, when the first intifada captured the popular imagination of the world. Even before mass communication and instant information, the images of Palestinian children with rocks facing heavily armed soldiers and tanks began to sear into international consciousness, threatening Israel's image as the victim despite their best public relations and hasbara campaigns.

Thus, Israel, in concert with the US, orchestrated the Madrid Conference, followed by the Oslo Accords. Although Palestinians made the painful sacrifice of relinquishing claim to 78 percent of Historic Palestine, agreeing to establish a state on a mere 22 percent of our homeland, Israel continued to act in bad faith, escalating the colonial and ethnic cleansing projects to create "fact on the ground" that currently preclude any meaningful realisation of a Palestinian state as envisioned by the Oslo Accords.

Not only did the Oslo "diplomacy" consolidate the land Israel took through terror and war in 1948 and create a new baseline from which to expand Israel's settlement endeavours, it also effectively siphoned the only real power we had - popular mobilisation - and broke our collective back by giving us false hope that liberation was around the corner. In return, we got an illusion of self-rule - a contingency of elected-for-life "leaders" who helped turn our proud people into a nation of beggars, dependent on international aid for sustenance. We saw further colonisation of our lands, which are now Jewish-only domains. And we got a well-trained Palestinian police force that, far from protecting Palestinians, collaborates with Israel to suppress legitimate resistance against tyranny.

We are now in a similar place to where we were in the late 1980s. After years of struggle, organising and activism, Palestinian resistance has once again captured popular imaginations and civil society around the world - academics, activists, clergy, intellectuals, artists, trade unions, universities, municipalities, churches, and other individuals and institutions of conscience - are mobilising in solidarity with Palestinian aspirations for basic human rights and to hold Israel accountable for its unrelenting systematic crimes against the indigenous Palestinian population.

Intergovernmental diplomacy is not a pathway to a just peace, but rather a sinkhole for Palestinian rights.

- Richard Falk

High treason

As Israel has no legitimate argument against demands for Palestinian basic rights, they are looking to stamp out BDS as they did the first intifada, both popular nonviolent resistance movements, by recycling the charade of negotiations. While the Palestinian people cannot be fooled again, such interim agreements do risk fooling our solidarity partners.

And so, the stakes now are far greater. Curtailing the expansion of BDS might actually end up being a sweet aside. The real prize for the supremacist and imperialist ideology of Zionism is Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State. Many ask why is this such an important goal for Israel. The answer is simple. When the true heirs of the land, those who are native in every sense - historically, culturally, legally, genetically - recognise Israel as a Jewish state, they are effectively giving away their claims to their own homeland. Like a home owner who officially relinquishes her home to a squatter, Palestinians would give Israel the only real legitimacy it can ever hope to have. Making such a declaration is tantamount not only to renouncing our Right of Return to a land we just sanctified as belonging to world Jewry, but it would also mean abandonment of our Palestinian brothers and sisters who hold Israeli citizenship to permanent second-class status and institutional racist inequality.

Continued bilateral negotiations in the current gross imbalance of power will destroy us. In the words of Richard Falk, "Intergovernmental diplomacy is not a pathway to a just peace, but rather a sinkhole for Palestinian rights." One can forgive the PLO for being hoodwinked by Oslo the first time (despite warnings from luminaries like Edward Said). But to lead us into the same trap with the same language and empty promises is unconscionable. At this point, any interim agreement that does not fully end Israeli occupation, end Israeli apartheid (including full equality for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship), and repatriate Palestinian refugees should be viewed as an act of high treason against the Palestinian people. More


Friday, January 10, 2014

The Day We Fight Back Against Internet Surveillance


In January 2012 we defeated the SOPA and PIPA censorship legislation with the largest Internet protest in history. A year ago this month one of that movement's leaders, Aaron Swartz, tragically passed away.

Aaron Swartz

Today we face a different threat, one that undermines the Internet, and the notion that any of us live in a genuinely free society: mass surveillance.

If Aaron were alive, he'd be on the front lines, fighting against a world in which governments observe, collect, and analyze our every digital action.

Now, on the eve of the anniversary of Aaron's passing, and in celebration of the win against SOPA and PIPA that he helped make possible, we are announcing a day of protest against mass surveillance, to take place this February 11th. More



Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dear Apple: Don't Work With Russian Company Whose Creative Director Advocates "Burning Gays in Ovens"

On Sunday, a coalition of over 15 Russian LGBT organizations encouraged Apple to avoid business dealings with Euroset, the largest phone retailer in Russia, whose creative director gained recent notoriety for wanting to shove all gay people "alive into an oven."

Ivan Okhlobystin, who stars on a Scrubs-like sitcom in addition to working for Euroset, also compared homosexuality to fascism and declared it an "overt sign of mental abnormality" at a "spiritual talk" in Novosibirsk last month. He later confirmed his comments on Twitter, suggesting his anti-gay stance would draw customers to Euroset stores for a "good mood."

In an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook dated January 5, the LGBT rights coalition emphasized the dangerous potential of hate speech in an already volatile environment: "[Okhlobystin's] statements have been enthusiastically published by the Kremlin's propaganda press and distributed across entire Russia just adding additional fuel to the rampant homophobic campaign that already resulted in at least 26 murders and countless hate crimes against Russian LGBT population [sic]."

The letter calls on Cook to "set Apple as an example of a corporate citizen who supports basic human rights."

Activists are turning to Western suppliers like Apple after getting little response from Okhlobystin's employer. Six LGBT rights organizations wrote to Euroset President Alexander Malis on December 26, asking him to "clarify how [Okhlobystin's] views are aligned with the values and principals of Euroset company, and to make a statement on inadmissibility of bullying and violence based on prejudice."

Malis told Russian newspaper Izvestia that "Ivan expressed his personal opinion, and we will not fire him for that. Of course, we are against burning anyone in furnaces."

The coalition plans to reach out to other Western mobile phone companies doing business with Euroset. Current suppliers for the company include Google and Samsung.

Apple has not yet responded to a request for comment on its relationship with Euroset or its plans for addressing the letter's concerns. In September, the two companies were negotiating iPhone sales, and in late October, Euroset began sellingiPhones in some of its Russian stores.

Read the coalition's full letter below:



Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Israel: Gas, Oil and Trouble in the Levant

Israel is set to become a major exporter of gas and some oil, if all goes to plan. The giant Leviathan natural gas field, in the eastern Mediterranean, discovered in December 2010, is widely described as “off the coast of Israel.”

At the time the gas field was: “ … the most prominent field ever found in the sub-explored area of the Levantine Basin, which covers about 83,000 square kilometres of the eastern Mediterranean region.” (i)

Coupled with Tamar field, in the same location, discovered in 2009, the prospects are for an energy bonanza for Israel, for Houston, Texas based Noble Energy and partners Delek Drilling, Avner Oil Exploration and Ratio Oil Exploration.

Also involved is Perth, Australia-based Woodside Petroleum, which has signed a memorandum of understanding for a thirty percent stake in the project, in negotiations which have been described as “up and down.” There is currently speculation that Woodside might pull out of the deal: “ …since the original plans to refrigerate the gas for export were pursued when relations between Israel and Turkey were strained. That has changed, more recently, which has opened the door for gas to be piped to Turkey.”

The spoils of the Leviathan field has already expanded from an estimated 16.7 trillion cubic feet (tcf ) of gas to nineteen trillion – and counting:

”We’ve discovered nearly 40 tcf of gas, and we have roughly 19 tcf of that gas that’s available for export to both regional and extra-regional markets. We see exports reaching 2 billion cubic feet a day in capacity in the next decade. And we continue to explore.”, stated Noble Vice Chairman Keith Elliot (ii) There are also estimated to be possibly six hundred million barrels of oil, according to Michael Economides of (“Eastern Mediterranean Energy – the next Great Game.”)

However, even these estimates may prove modest. In their: “Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the Levant Basin Province, Eastern Mediterranean”, the US Department of the Interior’s US Geological Survey, wrote in 2010: “We estimated a mean of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and a mean of 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in this province using a geology based assessment methodology.”

Nevertheless, Woodside Petroleum, might also be hesitant to become involved in further disputes, since they are already embroiled, with the Australian government, in a protracted one in East Timor relating to the bonanaza of energy and minerals beneath the Timor Sea, which has even led to East Timor accusing Australia “of bugging East Timorese officials during the negotiations over the agreement.”(iii)

Woodside’s conflict in East Timor however, may well pale against what might well erupt over the Leviathan and Tamar fields. The area is not for nothing called the Levantine Basin. Whilst Israel claims them as her very own treasure trove, only a fraction of the sea’s wealth lies in Israel’s bailiwick as maps (iv, v) clearly show. Much is still unexplored, but currently Palestine’s Gaza and the West Bank between them show the greatest discoveries, with anything found in Lebanon and Syria’s territorial waters sure to involve claims from both countries.

In a pre-emptive move, on Christmas Day, Syria announced a deal with Russia to explore 2,190 kilometres (850 Sq. miles) for oil and gas off its Mediterranean coast, to be: “… financed by Russia, and should oil and gas be discovered in commercial quantities, Moscow will recover the exploration costs.”

Syrian Oil Minister, Ali Abbas said during the signing ceremony that the contract covers “25 years, over several phases.”

Syria, increasingly crippled by international sanctions, has seen oil production plummet by ninety percent since the largely Western fermented unrest began in March 2011. Gas production has nearly halved, from thirty million cubic metres a day, to 16.7 cubic metres daily.

The agreement is reported to have resulted from “months of long negotiations” between the two countries. Russia, as one of the Syrian government’s main backers, looks set to also become a major player in the Levant Basin’s energy wealth. (vi)

Lebanon disputes Israel’s map of the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border, filing their own map and claims with the UN in 2010. Israel claims Lebanon is in the process of granting oil and gas exploration licenses in what Israel claims as its “exclusive economic zone.”

That the US in the guise of Vice President Joe Biden, as honest broker, acting peace negotiator in the maritime border dispute would be laughable, were it not potential for Israel to attack their neighbour again. In a visit to Israel in March 2010, Biden announced: “There is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security- none at all”, also announcing on arrival in Israel:”It’s good to be home.” More