The exploitation of Mongolia

More from the Green Party conference in Liverpool

Saturday at conference in Liverpool is a relative day off for me, at least compared with yesterday.

In a way I went back to my roots today (I used to be national campaigns co-ordinator before being Principal Speaker), chairing two fringe meetings about issues-based campaigns.

The first was planning and brainstorming for how we can promote and grow the Census Alert campaign to stop the UK census in 2011 from being run by arms company Lockheed Martin.

Greens campaigning locally can make a real difference here, because local councils depend on the data from the census for their funding, and also have to work closely with the chosen contractor to help ensure compliance in the kind of ‘hard to reach groups’ we think will be most put off by giving the contract to Lockheed.

Because the campaign is cross party, even Green parties without councillors can help by getting councillors from other parties to object to this involvement. There were lots of other ideas at the meeting of course, but I won’t mention them here – out of studying-Lockheed-induced paranoia.

After that, I showed a film by the International Chair of the Mongolian Green Party, Purevsuren Shah, given to me when he visited London earlier this summer.

An accomplished journalist and broadcaster, he directed the film himself to draw attention to the huge problems being caused by rampant gold and copper mining across Mongolia.

With only half a translation of the Mongolian language dialogue, plus my notes from being talked through the film, I had to put together subtitles myself. They got a bit sparse and comical in places, but the presentation got across the gist of the problem, which is anything but amusing.

The problem is that Mongolia has some of the best and largest gold and copper deposits in the world and since 1997, with a massive acceleration since 2000, the government has been selling licences to mine these at a huge rate. The area of Mongolia covered by mining licences is now about 45%, and they are going for a relative song - $20 a hectare for a 30-year license is typical.

One ‘stock watch’ website I consulted just before conference said that Mongolia is literally a gold mine for investors because of, "the incredible ease and speed of securing exploration and mining licenses." There are literally hundreds of mining companies involved in this new gold rush, but most of the biggest offenders are based in Canada, Australia, South Africa and London.

Not all of these licenses have been exploited yet, but those that have are causing immense problems already – literally carving chunks out of Mongolia’s beautiful landscapes and leaving a legacy of pollution that will be there for years to come. More than 2,000 of the country’s small and medium sized rivers have disappeared, due to mining operations digging up their sources, and there is widespread soil and water pollution from the mercury and cyanide used in the mining and extraction process.

Only 20% of the land used for mining is rehabilitated afterwards, and the film is full of images of gorgeous hills and valleys being turned into dried up, uninhabitable rubble.

The environmental problems will become bigger and more irreversible if something isn’t done soon, so Perevsuren Shah is aiming to draw international attention to the issue in order to increase pressure on the irresponsible mining companies and the irresponsible government that is encouraging the destruction.

He also wants help to bring environmental scientists and investigators to Mongolia measure properly the pollution and damage caused so far. He is a soil scientist himself, and much of the research shown in the film is his own, but it’s too big a job for one team and they badly need more investment in their projects.

We talked about how the Greens in the UK can help and plan to make contact with other green groups to help get this onto the agenda here. One obvious task is to sort out a full translation of the film, so anyone out there with skills in both Mongolian and English, please get in touch.

Oh, and finally, there’s an awful lot of talk here about the upcoming referendum on whether to have an actual Leader and Deputy (or Co-Leaders) instead of the two Principal Speakers we now have as our main representatives. But the main debate on that is on Sunday, so I’ll save that for later.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.