It is now fifty-one years since US bombers began spraying this deadly toxin upon rural South Vietnam. The consequences have been disastrous. Four million people have been affected, including second and third generations, and there are many thousands of people who continue to be born with terrible defects.
I recently attended a meeting addressed by Len Aldis, Secretary of the Britain Vietnam Friendship Society and former secretary of the Britain Vietnam Association, who has visited Vietnam each year since 1989. Agent Orange destroyed huge areas of magnificent forest and all its dependent plant and animal life, and it got into the food chain. We were shown photographs of babies born with no arms or legs, babies joined together with missing limbs, babies with grossly enlarged heads and in other ways so terribly disabled that they needed twenty-four-hour care. Len Aldis spoke of a family where a seventy-six year old woman has been caring for her forty-two and thirty-six year old daughters for all of their lives. They can do nothing for themselves.
He also gave us inspiring accounts of how people with very severe deformities were finding ingenious methods of living with and overcoming their disabilities. Some have been helped by donations from overseas charities, which have provided wheelchairs, donations, artificial limbs and other aids.
The Vietnamese are clearly grateful for all this help and for the forty years of campaigning by the Britain Friendship Society, which raises money for the victims and works politically to raise awareness so that a solution can be devised. Some positive results to date include a recent meeting with David Cameron where he was presented with handmade gifts made by children from Da Nang affected by Agent Orange.
This work is so vital because to date not one penny in reparations has been paid to the Vietnamese by the US government, nor by Monsanto or Dow Chemical, two of the leading companies that made Agent Orange. American veterans have been rather more successful; they won $180 million in an out of court settlement. The Vietnam organisation VAVA took a case to an American court but their claim was turned down, the presiding judge saying that Agent Orange had been “used to save our troops”. A dangerous precedent which could justify the use of tactical nuclear weapons and has already been used in relation to depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to mention the double standards and blatant hypocrisy of waging an illegal war against Iraq because of Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons!
The West London branch of the National Assembly of Women has already written to the American Embassy and will now make representations to Dow Chemical, Monsanto, the United Nations and Michelle Obama. We have also donated £100 and would encourage other organisations and individuals to take similar action. The Britain Vietnam Friendship Society can be contacted at Flat 2, 26 Tomlins Grove, London E3 4NX, and cheques can be made payable to the BVFS. All money donated is sent to the Vietnam Red Cross Agent Orange Appeal which the BVFS has been supporting since 1992.
The Northern Friends Peace Board is celebrating its centenary in 2013: founded in 1913 “to advise and encourage Friends in the North... in the active promotion of peace in all its height and breadth”. This month-to-view engagement calendar features twelve striking Quaker peace posters of the 20th century and is available at the modest price of only £5 plus p&p.
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Treasurer Julie Higgins would like to say how much she appreciated the fact that so many members paid up promptly last month. Reminders are enclosed with this Newsletter where subs are still owing, and it would be a great help if these could be paid before the Christmas rush. If you do not wish to continue to receive the Newsletter please let us know. Many thanks.
Next May we shall be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Fête of the Earth, returning to our original home in St Mark’s Church Hall (Compton Rd/St Mark’s Place). Admission will be free on this special occasion, so please reserve the date in your diary: 19th May 2013.
On November 29th we achieved a ‘first’ in parading down Wimbledon Broadway as part of a Sustainability troupe in Merton’s run-up-to-Christmas celebration, culminating in the official switching-on of lights and a noisy firework display from the roof of Centre Court shopping centre. This all came about as the result of our membership of the local Green Coffee network (9·30–11am, first Tuesday of every month: contact Joyce Pountain <firstname.lastname@example.org>) Fellow members, the Merton Cycling Campaign, had been invited to enter their historic rickshaw in the Wonderland Parade and felt it would be more worthwhile as a joint exercise with other campaigning colleagues.
In the end we mustered representatives of at least nine groups (WDC/CND, UNA, Friends of the Earth, Transition Town, 20’s Plenty, Merton Cycling Campaign, the local Animal Sanctuary, Abundance Merton and Quakers for Peace). We were required to produce a name for ourselves and “Thinking Ahead for Merton” was chosen with extreme rapidity so that the organisers could produce us a banner. We were all happy with this name except for the practical point that its length made the banner we had to carry very unwieldy: next year we shall go for something snappier!
It was a motley crew that eventually paraded down the Broadway but the Cycling Campaign rickshaw looked magnificent, illuminated inside and out thanks to borrowed equipment, festooned with greenery and carrying a beaming WDC/CND Chair Maisie Carter with a tinsel-decorated “Peace and Sustainability” placard. The Animal Sanctuary was able to supply a few fancy-dress costumes (thanks, Alice) and the rest of us did our best to look festive with rainbow ‘Peace’ flags and Christmas baubles. Jill Beauchamp used her professional expertise to dress herself as a Dove of Peace, and amused onlookers with much prancing and flapping of wings.
It was an altogether novel experience to receive a rapturous reception from a big crowd and has whetted our appetite for Mitcham Carnival.
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On November 28th more than a dozen of us went up to Westminster to lobby Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond. Members of WDC/CND, Quakers, Merton NUT and Merton Palestine Solidarity Campaign were joined by others who spoke personally and powerfully. This was a national lobby and it was packed. Mr Hammond had booked a room in Westminster Hall and although it wasn’t possible to discuss issues in any depth in the limited time available, he did listen carefully and courteously.
We concentrated on the forthcoming UN vote in the General Assembly (‘observer status’ for the Palestinians which would implicitly recognise their proto-statehood) but we reached stalemate over the Foreign Secretary’s Commons statement of that afternoon, imposing conditions on the Palestinians which he must have known would never be met. Although Mr Hammond deplored the bloodshed in Gaza he continued to maintain that this was mutual aggression only to be solved by a ‘peace process’.
He did not accept that the UK was in a position to put pressure on Israel to stop building illegal settlements on occupied land, saying that he did not “believe in sanctions” (although Maisie reminded him about apartheid South Africa). We suggested that perhaps pressure might be best applied via whatever influence the UK has in the United States and he did not reject this idea. He did however unequivocally agree that Israeli mistreatment of child prisoners was unacceptable and we shall be asking him to pass on our concerns, but sadly he seems to feel that there is very little that the UK can do to influence the Israeli government. We raised other matters such as the Israeli appropriation of water (and the despoliation of the Jordan valley), the intimidation of the Gaza population by drones and the shortages of medical supplies arising from the blockade, and can feel that we left Mr Hammond in no doubt about the strength of our feelings about the plight of the Palestinians.
As a separate issue, I was able to raise the question of the (now postponed) UN conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Middle East which Finland was endeavouring to convene by the end of 2012 as instructed by the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York [see November Newsletter]. I updated him on the current position, which is that it is now “pretty well confirmed” that the conference will not take place in December (with the Finns preferring to use the term ‘adjusted’ rather than postponed) but that there is still plenty of room for diplomatic manœuvre.
Report by Joanna
The final ‘Food for Thought’ lunchtime discussion at Holy Trinity Church took place on November 15th. Speakers were Bruce Kent (Movement for the Abolition of War) and Sam Walton (Quaker Peace and Social Witness) and they complemented each other perfectly. Bruce spoke about his schooldays, with the school cadet corps an unquestioned part of his adolescence. He was issued with a rifle at the age of 13 and on Wednesday afternoons his teachers adopted military rank as officers. National Service in 1947 was an “interesting time” and really just an “extension of school” with the conscripts only having a very hazy idea what it was all in aid of. They remained wholly ignorant of the creation of the United Nations during this same period.
In Bruce’s view all secondary school pupils of today should be issued with a copy of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is general ignorance of international law that enables politicians to “wrap us round their little fingers” and embark on military action with appalling casualness.
Institutions such as the tank museum in Bovington are granted the charity status denied to CND (CND being ‘political’) and advertise “entertainment for all the family”. Recently our government has introduced an Armed Forces Day. Perhaps a Nobel Peace Prize Winners Day might show a healthier appreciation of priorities? Charities such as ‘Help our Heroes’ focus on the heroism of war, forgetting that 90% of those who die in modern warfare are civilians. (And in any case, why should the needs of wounded soldiers be met by private charity?) The government has a vested interest in conditioning the population to think a certain way: people simply don’t know how to build the structures of peacemaking.
Sam took this argument further, claiming that far from being historically entrenched there is a new wave of militarism in society, promoted by the government and prompted by UK involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Money has been found for army recruitment in schools, military ‘free schools’, a ‘troops to teachers’ programme, ‘camouflage days’ (children dressing up) and, since 2010, National Armed Forces Day. The frequency and magnitude of regimental ‘returning parades’ has increased, troops are encouraged to wear uniform off duty and ‘never again’ Remembrance Day poppies are now instead sold to ‘support our troops’. Sam had many more examples to give of how there is cross-party support for this sustained political campaign. Non-military routes to real security are never discussed: war is seen as vital to our economy.
The centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914 will present a great opportunity to teach people about the lessons of that tragedy, and we urgently need to start planning events to counter the government triumphalist narrative. In fact one of the most profound questions during the discussion that followed the speakers came from the Rev. Andrew Wakefield, who asked “How do you change a narrative?” It is a sad fact that once a version of events has entered public consciousness (the Hiroshima bomb ending World War II, the ‘poor little Israel’ version of events in the Middle East, the post 9/11 ‘terrorist threat’) it is next to impossible to eliminate it. We can be proud of this autumn series of monthly discussion meetings which has reached a new public and been informative and stimulating, and we hope that the format can be further developed.
Professor Mary Kaldor’s lecture on “Old and New Wars” was impressive and well-attended. Her thesis is that the ‘Old Wars’ of the past (between states) have now been superseded by something rather different. These ‘New Wars’ tend to take place in weak/fragile states and she describes them as “identity politics”, in which violence can itself become a way of establishing identity. Population displacement is a key feature, and the main violence is against civilians.
These wars are typically financed by violence (loot and pillage) or by diversion of funds from well-intentioned humanitarian assistance from the outside world and ‘diaspora’ support. Criminal gangs exploit such wars (it is easy to claim to be a jihadist) and a situation is reached when all parties have a vested interest in continuing the violence.
Prof. Kaldor extended her thesis to the recent wars of the West. President Bush had a vested political interest in his ‘war on terror’: fighting was more important than winning. She had no easy answers, but argued that understanding the problem was a first step because imposing “old war thinking” on new war situations makes things much worse.