Friday, April 25, 2014

Turkey's fickle support for Palestinian struggle

On a flight from Istanbul to Brussels last night, I learned something that I had not previously known. Armenians have used the term aghed -- catastrophe -- to describe the massacres inflicted on them by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Palestinians, of course, also refer to the vicious ethnic cleansing undertaken by Zionist forces in 1948 as a catastrophe -- or nakba in Arabic.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, this week offered his condolences to the grandchildren of Armenians killed 99 years ago. He also promised to respect those who voice "different opinions." Could this mean that a taboo is finally being broken?

Under the Turkish penal code, those who argue that the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians constituted a genocide are liable for prosecution. Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was convicted of denigrating Turkishness for expressing such views in 2005; two years later he was murdered.

Political football

Victims of injustice -- and their descendants -- deserve acknowledgement that horrific crimes were perpetrated against them. They should never be used in a game of political or diplomatic football.

In the recent past, Israel's parliament, the Knesset, has toyed with the idea of formally recognizing that Armenians suffered a genocide. This same institution has approved a law designed to punish Palestinians who commemorate the establishment of Israel as a catastrophe.

More than likely, Israel will not recognise the Armenian genocide any time soon. Doing so would aggravate tensions with Turkey at a time when both sides want to boost their economic ties -- at the Palestinians' expense, needless to say.

Attending the Palestine International Forum for Media and Communication in Istanbul, I listened to a representative of Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) Party proclaim his country's support for the Palestinian struggle.

That support is fickle.

Trade rises

If Turkey really supports the Palestinians, it would be imposing tough economic sanctions on Israel. Instead, the value of annual trade between Turkey and Israel has increased: from $3.4 billion in 2008 to $4 billion in 2012.

Turkey introduced an arms embargo on Israel in 2011. Yet it has continued to take delivery of military products ordered before then. And despite the embargo, Israel's defense ministry is reportedly examining how to arrange fresh weapons sales to Turkey.

It's not hard to understand why Israel is eager to resume business. Turkey has long been a loyal customer for the Israeli arms industry. It is second only to the US in having the largest army in NATO. Turkey splurges around 1.8 percent of its gross domestic product on the military - higher than the average for European countries.

Erdogan had a public row with Shimon Peres when Israel was bombing Gaza in 2009. Though his stance was commendable, it does not erase the fact that Erdogan's government had been willing to buy Israeli weapons until then.

In 2005, Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit won a contract to supply Turkey with drones. These two firms were the main manufacturers of the warplanes that Israel has used to attack Gaza. (IAI is now called Israel Aerospace Industries).

The aforementioned arms embargo, it should be recalled, was only imposed after Israel murdered nine Turkish human rights activists while they were sailing towards Gaza. In 2010 - the year that attack occurred - Turkey was the second largest importer of Israeli weapons.

Dash for gas

Another news story this week related to Turkey's potential investment in the Leviathan natural gas field off present-day Israel. Energy firm Turcas confirmed that it is in discussions with another Turkish company Enerjisa to buy gas from this field. It had previously been reported that Turkas was exploring the development of a pipeline to bring gas from Israel to Turkey.

This news offers a reminder as to how it was energy issues that made the imperial powers so interested in Palestine in the first place. In the early twentieth-century, Haifa hosted a pipeline transporting oil from the Persian Gulf.

The Turkish Petroleum Company had a virtual monopoly on this oil from 1925 to 1961. The firm's name (later changed to the Iraq Petroleum Company) was misleading. It was controlled by British and German banks and Royal Dutch Shell.

I suspect we will hear much more about Israel's reputedly abundant energy reserves. By some estimates, Israel's shale deposits could supply 250 billion barrels of oil.

Shale oil has become synonymous with an ecologically destructive extraction process known as fracking. But a firm called Israel Energy Initiatives claims that new technologies can allow this oil to be produced with "low environmental impact."

The claim lacks credibility. The only way that fossil fuels can have a low environmental impact is if they are left in the ground.

If there is a rush to exploit the energy resources under Israel's control, then we can be sure that those who stand to benefit won't care a fig about human rights.

Turkey's professions of solidarity with the Palestinians will ultimately remain hollow, then, so long as the Ankara authorities continue to eye business deals with Israel.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 25 April 2014.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Shining Big Tobacco's shoes

Two very powerful Americans - let's call them VPAs - have been welcomed to Brussels by the EU's grovelling grandees over the past month.

The first of these visitors was Barack Obama. Displaying his usual charm, the president received a lot of attention when he declared his love for Belgian beer and chocolate.

By contrast, the second visit of a VPA went largely unreported. It was by Tom Donohoe, head of the US Chamber of Commerce. Last week, he met top-level representatives of the European Commission.

The low profile nature of his trip belies Donohoe's influence.

The US Chamber of Commerce boasts of being the world's largest business association. It has spent more than $1 billion on lobbying since 1998.

Donohoe, who commands a $5 million annual salary, was in town to discuss the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment agreement.

Nothing to hide?

While Donohoe was chatting with Karel de Gucht, the EU's trade commissioner, their meeting took place behind closed doors. De Gucht's spokesman refused to give me any details about what was discussed, replying with a bland comment about how it was a "stakeholder meeting", rather than a formal negotiation. That was despite how de Gucht claimed not long ago that he has "nothing to hide".

As it happens, de Gucht has many things to hide. And he has good reason not to be transparent. Because if de Gucht was really candid about what he and his colleagues are doing, they would probably face mass public resistance.

The truth is that de Gucht is conniving with big business to destroy or dramatically weaken health, environmental and labour standards and democracy itself.

The US Chamber of Commerce was the American pressure group most consulted by officials working for de Gucht in 2012 and 2013. The proposals which the EU side has put on the table for the trans-Atlantic trade talks closely resemble the chamber's wish-list.


Tom Donohoe is an ideological extremist. Under his leadership, the US Chamber of Commerce has vigorously opposed all attempts to make health insurance more affordable. Any regulation that puts the interests of ordinary people before corporate profits will be fought "with every resource at our disposal," he has said.

Even though he has been at odds with Obama on medical care, Donohoe has pledged his support for what he recently described as the "aggressive trade policy" now being pursued by the Obama administration. Both the US and the European Union have the potential to set the "gold standard" for twenty-first century agreements on trade and investment, he said last week.

Karel de Gucht has been saying pretty much the same thing, while trying to give the impression that he is standing up for the interests of ordinary people.

Towards the end of March, de Gucht launched a "public consultation exercise" on one particularly controversial idea. This idea involves setting up a specialised court system that corporations could use to sue governments and demand financial compensation for laws and policies that harm their bottom line. In trade jargon, the idea is known as "investor-to-state dispute settlement".

The public consultation exercise is a sham.

De Gucht remains committed to having the specialised court system introduced. He has done nothing more than to promise that the idea will be handled a little differently than it was in the 3,000 other international trade agreements in which it has been included.

Until now, for example, the judges - or arbitrators as they are called - who assess cases brought under such systems have often been corporate lawyers. De Gucht has made a commitment to introducing a code of conduct designed to guarantee the impartiality of these judges.

The questionnaire which de Gucht has invited members of the public to fill in as part of the "consultation" exercise does not grapple with the most problematic aspects of the proposed system.

It does not address how the system would help perpetuate inequality. Only corporations would have access to this system. The rest of us would have none. The system has been designed almost exclusively for the 1%, to use a term made popular by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Earlier this year, de Gucht stated that he understood why there was much concern about how the tobacco industry had availed of the "dispute settlement" provision in previous investment accords to challenge anti-smoking initiatives.

Philip Morris, the cigarette-maker, is exploiting an agreement between Uruguay and Switzerland to seek a $2 billion payment over losses it allegedly incurred after Uruguay became the first Latin American country to ban smoking in public places.

More recently, the same Philip Morris has begun proceedings against Australia over a law requiring that cigarettes be sold in plain packages, with graphic images of suffering and disease.

Intimately involved

What de Gucht neglects to mention is that the whole concept of having these specialised investment courts set up through a trans-Atlantic agreement can be traced to the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry has quite literally drafted some of the key proposals for the planned accord.

Back in 1995, both the EU and US authorities formally tasked a corporate club called the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue with providing advice on how trade between the two sides could be increased. British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have been intimately involved in this lobby group, which has since been renamed the Trans Atlantic Business Council. For much of its history, the group's Brussels office was run by Jeffries Briginshaw, a former representative of British American Tobacco.

Not surprisingly, this group wants the kind of "robust mechanisms" included in the trans-Atlantic deal that have enabled Big Tobacco to challenge health legislation in other parts of the world.

The US Chamber of Commerce has close connections with Big Tobacco, too. It has tried to thwart an American government effort to have a clause inserted in another planned trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would recognise that tobacco is a special product requiring stringent regulation to protect human health.

Given the secret nature of their conversation, we don't know if Karel de Gucht upbraided Donohoe last week for supporting an industry that deliberately aims to get children and adolescents hooked on its lethal products. But I very much doubt that he did.

For all his promises to defend the public interest, de Gucht has been happy to shine Big Tobacco's shoes.

•First published by EUobserver, 14 April 2014.