Does the US really believe that the future of the planet is threatened if it allows Thermos flasks into Iraq?

There are certain words and phrases that gloriously defy reality. "Tory moderate" or "British tennis champion", for example, are expressions that should only ever be used in jest. It is almost guaranteed that I will start to giggle when I hear "Channel 5" and "news" said in the same breath.

On reading "United Nations" and "peacekeepers" in the same sentence, a contemptuous smirk will often appear. And the prize for the vilest piece of "logic-mongering" must go to the US on the UN sanctions committee, which describes the Iraq oil-for-food programme as "humanitarian".

All exports to Iraq must be scrutinised by the UN, which either allows the items through, "blocks" them, or puts them on "hold". So, in the face of the continuing and genuine humanitarian crisis in Iraq, where more than a million people have died (UN sanctions being the major cause), the fate of many is decided by the Kafkaesque logic of the United States. Of the "holds", 90 per cent are imposed by the US, with the UK contributing the remaining 10 per cent.

The effect of these "holds" has been criticised by senior UN officials. Benon Sevan, the executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme, said: "The improvement of the nutritional and health status of the Iraqi people . . . is being seriously affected as a result of [the] excessive number of holds placed on supplies and equipment for water, sanitation and electricity."

His point is illustrated by a contract for ambulances worth $5m. In December 1999, the Iraqis duly submitted a request to the UN to import the ambulances (com number 601201).

Eighteen months later, the vehicles have still not arrived. The US mission on the committee put the ambulances on "hold" because they contain vacuum flasks, used for keeping plasma or medicines at the correct temperature. These are, in essence, glorified Thermos flasks, but without the tartan pattern. The US objects to them because, it says, they could be used to manufacture weapons.

If the US is prepared to block ambulances, and seriously wants the world to believe that the only thing standing between life and the total annihi-lation of the planet is a Thermos flask, then let the air strikes on the camping equipment retailers begin! Round up the ramblers and anglers! Get UN teams to enforce random inspections of their Thermos flasks to ensure that the Cup-a-Soup hasn't been converted into anthrax. It would take only a rise in the price of Gore-Tex waterproofs for ramblers to get angry enough to unleash a chemical weapon nightmare. Ban all picnics! Ban family outings! Extend the "no-fly zone" to cover any geographical areas where there is a potential to consume warm beverages!

"But this is absurd," the coordinators of these sanctions will say. "You are taking this idea to bizarre and surreal proportions, way past the realms of political reality." Well, you started it! The supreme irony of the flask fiasco is that, because of the black-market economy in Iraq, the Thermos flask is one of many items that are readily available in Baghdad, but unaffordable to most Iraqis.

The new Labour government, embarrassed by the negative publicity that the petty cruelty of UN sanctions attracts, has sought to introduce "smart sanctions". These, officials assure us, will target the Ba'athist regime and reduce the impact on ordinary Iraqis. This tacitly acknowledges that, until now, sanctions have been dumb, creating misery for most Iraqis while ignoring the billion-dollar black market in oil, revenues from which go directly to the Ba'athist elite. Any attempt to rearm Iraq would logically be made using the money raised through black-market oil, rather than using the UN's oil-for-food programme. Surely it is easier to trade illegally than try to convince the UN weapons inspectors that bits of Scud missile are in fact hospital incubators?

Smart or dumb, the effect is the same. Dr Eric Herring, the specialist on Iraqi sanctions at Bristol University, explains that the smart sanctions policy "merely restates the existing position . . . with a new list of what goods Iraq can't, can or might get".

Leaked UN documents, obtained by Herring, show that, in reality, it is still difficult for Iraq to get the most basic goods approved by the sanctions committee. On 12 February this year, the UN Office of the Iraq Programme sought to approve a list of housing materials that could automatically go to Iraq. The UN monitoring, verification and inspection committee approved the list. None of the items on it had previously been considered to have any military potential.

But on 26 February, the US mission blocked the automatic approval of the following items: light switches, three-pin plugs, telephone sockets, door frames, ceramic tiles, window frames and epoxy wall paint. The US did not give a reason why these particular goods should not be automatically approved for a country that has had more munitions dropped on it than were dropped by the Allies in the Second World War.

So I can only guess that the US mission has information that Iraq's elite Republican Guard has infiltrated BBC1's Changing Rooms. Carol Smillie must be a double agent who plans to con an innocent couple from St Ives into turning an Iraqi loft conversion into a plutonium-processing lab. No doubt Handy Andy will wire up a thermonuclear device to a light-dimmer switch that effortlessly blends in with the MDF rococo ceiling rose. Either that, or Iraqi sanctions are creating genocide by means of paperwork and spite.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.