Monday 26 July 2010

Cambodian mass murderer held to account

Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, who ran the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng “special interrogation centre” in Phnom Penh, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison. It is the first verdict handed down by Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal, though Duch’s sentence will be reduced by the 16 years he has already spent in captivity.

Crowds attended the court and many more listened to the live broadcast of the verdict. The prosecution had asked for a longer sentence, and many relatives of Duch’s victims wanted him gaoled for the rest of his life, but one of the prosecutors said the sentence showed that senior Khmer Rouge who had committed crimes would be punished. Four more are awaiting trial.

In the mid-1970's, up to 2 million people – a quarter of the population – were murdered by Pol Pot and his fanatical followers – perhaps 17,000 of them at Tuol Sleng. Before it became a centre for torture and murder, it had been a high school. Now it is a genocide museum, and a very, very sobering place to visit.

(See also my blogs of March 4, June 29 and November 22, 2009.)

Sunday 25 July 2010

Labour and the USA - no change

Even the Labour party must by now realise that one reason why it suffered one of its heaviest ever defeats in May’s general election was its nauseating subservience to the United States. But apparently not. Indeed, Labour’s “justice spokesman” in the Scottish Parliament, Richard Baker, seems to be propounding the view that we are nothing more than a province of America.

The Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill had refused a summons from American senators to cross the Atlantic and be berated like a naughty schoolboy over his decision to release Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the man convicted – many believe wrongly – of the Lockerbie bombing. (See my blogs of 27 July, 16 and 22 Aug, and 19 Sept, 2009 and 17 July, 2010.)

Mr Baker was incensed. When America hands out an instruction, he thinks we Brits should jump to it. Fortunately, Mr MacAskill seems to have a better understanding of where his duty lies. "I am elected by the Scottish people, I am accountable to the Scottish parliament,” he said. If only Labour politicians could get their heads around this, they might not dragoon us into disastrous American adventures, like Iraq.

How about a counter-invitation to the American senators? Why don’t they go to Afghanistan and stand in for some of the British soldiers currently risking life and limb there to save the US from embarrassment?

Thursday 22 July 2010

Iraq - a war crime in Fallujah? + my new book

A study has revealed that birth defects suffered by children in the Iraqi city of Fallujah are greater than those inflicted by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Since a ruthless American attack in 2004, there has been a twelve-fold increase in childhood cancers, and a fourfold increase in cancer overall.

Children have been seen with grotesque deformities – an eye or nose in the middle of the forehead, and so on. The suspicion is that the Americans’ use of depleted uranium and other “special weapons” is to blame, but the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson pointed out last night that US law would make it virtually impossible for the victims to hold the USA to account. Maybe Americans will feel they should hand over some of the $20bn they’re extracting from BP? No, thought not.

The Fallujah revelation comes just as we are learning that in 2002, the then head of Britain’s secret service MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, was warning Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair that if he joined in the attack on Iraq it would expose Britain to a greatly increased risk of terrorism. Blair and his Labour cronies ignored this, of course, just as they ignored the biggest mass protest in history by the British people. We are now paying the price.

*My new book London’s Disasters: from Boudicca to the Banking Crisis is out! Published by the History Press, ISBN: 9780752457475. City AM was kind enough to write about it yesterday:-

Sunday 18 July 2010

BP - Of spills and compensation

Before BP, America’s worst offshore oil accident was the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. That was much smaller than BP (11 million gallons against 184 million so far). However, many experts believe the BP spill is likely to cause less damage because the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico will break up the oil much quicker.

The Exxon Valdez spill is reckoned to have killed more than 20 whales and a quarter of a million sea birds. Fishermen in the affected area say that herring were wiped out permanently, destroying their livelihood. So far the BP spill is known to have killed just less than 1,400 birds. But while BP is having to pay $20 billion in compensation, Exxon had to shell out just half a billion.

Here’s another interesting fact. President Obama has appointed Kenneth Feinberg to administer BP's $20 billion BP fund. Mr Feinberg also administered the compensation fund for 9/11, when nearly 3,000 people were killed. That paid out just $7 billion.

America’s, and the world’s, worst oil spill, incidentally, was probably the Lakeview Gusher in California, which released more than 370 million barrels over 18 months in 1910-11, flooding an entire valley.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Lockerbie - let's have the right inquiry

I worry more and more about the BBC’s supposed flagship 10 o’ clock Television News. Last week it consumed more than half the programme in an extraordinarily repetitive, virtually information-free report on the hunt for Raoul Moat.

Last night it devoted seven minutes to American outrage over the release eleven months ago of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. You will remember that al-Megrahi was freed from his Scottish prison on compassionate grounds, after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.

Two BBC reporters told us how cross the Americans were that al-Megrahi had had the temerity to not die, that the new UK government now considered the release a “mistake”, how the Americans were accusing their favourite villain, BP, of having engineered the release etc, etc. Neither reporter seemed aware that there are very serious doubts about al-Megrahi’s guilt, shared by the families of some of the UK victims. (These doubts appear not to be much thought about in America where questioning the guilt of Arabs is not really part of the culture.)

Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in the attack, has condemned the US’s “mass hysteria” and its cynical attempt to use al-Megrahi as another means of taking “revenge” on BP. The Scottish government are standing firm and have coolly pointed out that the prisoner was released under due process of Scots law, after taking into account the testimony of independent medical experts.

The Americans want an inquiry into al-Megrahi’s release, but Scottish MSP Christine Grahame has a better idea. Why doesn’t the US stop blocking a full independent inquiry into who really bombed Flight 103? Then we might finally get the truth. The new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is in Washington next week. He has promised to be less subservient to the Americans than Labour were. The next few days may reveal whether he will keep his word.
(See also my blogs of 27 July, 16 and 22 Aug, and 19 Sept, 2009)

Friday 16 July 2010

Hotel fires

At least 29 people have died in a hotel fire at Suleimaniya in the Kurdish autonomous area of northern Iraq. Among the dead are four children, and a number of foreign oil engineers. Some perished trying to jump from their windows to safety.

It was seven hours before the blaze could be brought under control. Officials say it was caused by an electrical fault, and that there was no indication that it was started deliberately.

Perhaps the worst hotel fire in history was the one that devastated the 15-storey Winecoff in Atlanta, USA on December 7, 1946. Built in 1913, the building had 150 rooms, and was claimed to be “absolutely fireproof”, but it had no fire escape, no fire doors and no sprinklers.

About 160 guests escaped – some through jumping from their windows. Others using this desperate escape method died, and the total death toll was 119. The official reason for the blaze was that a cigarette set fire to a mattress, but some still claim it was arson.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Heatwaves, drownings and vodka

I loved the hot weather while I was in Cornwall, but, as ever it has been claiming victims, especially among the old. In the UK, the Health Protection Agency says its initial impression is that there have been “several hundred excess deaths” over the past two weeks.

This is not particularly surprising. The heatwave of 2003, probably the deadliest Europe has ever seen, is believed to have cost more than 2,000 lives in the UK, and perhaps 50,000 over the continent as a whole.

More surprising is the news from Russia, where temperatures have been pressing close to the all-time Moscow record of 36°C, and the country is suffering what may be its worst drought in a century.

In just a week, more than 230 people have drowned, many of them through going for a swim when tanked up with vodka. The death toll also includes six schoolchildren who drowned, while the summer camp workers who were supposed to be looking after them were drunk.

(See also my blogs of 2nd Feb, 27th June, 26th July, 2009.)

Tuesday 13 July 2010

A tale of two disasters - BP and BhoPal

BP has just put a new cap on its leaking oil well in the Gulf Of Mexico. It’s not clear yet whether this latest attempt to halt the flow of oil will work. The US government has been uncompromising in its punishment of BP. The clean-up has cost the company $3.5bn so far, and the Obama administration has forced it to set aside another $20bn to pay for further clean-up, compensation and other costs.

When an American company is the guilty party, though, US attitudes are rather different. Yesterday, protestors in India demanded the extradition from America of Warren Anderson. Mr Anderson was the boss of US company Union Carbide when cyanide gas leaked from its plant in Bhopal in 1984, and the Indian authorities have a warrant out for his arrest. The US has resisted all their efforts.

While the BP accident killed 11 people, Bhopal cost the lives of at least 3,800 in the immediate aftermath, while up to 20,000 more may have perished since, and perhaps another 120,000 are still suffering ill effects – making this probably the deadliest industrial accident in history.

So how many billions in compensation did Union Carbide pay? Er, no billions actually - just $470 million.

(See also my blogs of June 9 and Aug 1, 2009; March 17, April 24, May 1, June 7 and 9, 2010.)

Monday 12 July 2010

Haiti earthquake + 6 months

It’s six months today since the Haiti earthquake. It was not one of the most powerful in history, but it was one of the most deadly because of its epicentre’s proximity to major centres of population.

Even before the quake struck, Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and we now know that it killed more than 222,000 people, and left more than 2 million homeless. Thousands of civil servants and hundreds from international relief agencies were among the dead. Only one government ministry building was left standing.

In spite of this almost total destruction of what Haiti had in the way of an administrative infrastructure, food was provided for more than four million, and nearly one million were vaccinated, helping to avert the epidemics and starvation that so often come in the wake of disasters.

Six months on, though, 1.5 million people are still living in temporary camps, and the hurricane season is about to begin. Bill Clinton, co-chair of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Committee, has complained that 90% of the $5 billion pledged by the world’s governments to help has still not been handed over.

(See also my blogs of Jan 14, 15, 19, 22, 23, 24; Feb 2; April 22.)

Friday 9 July 2010

The Penlee lifeboat disaster

Just back from Cornwall. It’s hard to visit the county without thinking of the Penlee lifeboat disaster – not the worst Cornish disaster, but perhaps the most poignant.

On December 19, 1981, a coaster, the Union Star, got into difficulties on its maiden voyage off Cornwall’s south coast. In addition to the crew of five, the captain’s wife and two teenage daughters were on board.

As winds gusted to 95 miles an hour, she began being driven onto the rocks. After attempts to rescue those on board by helicopter failed, the Penlee lifeboat was launched into mountainous waves.

Its crew of eight – all volunteers - managed to get four people off the coaster, then said they were going back to try to save the others. No more was heard from her. The Union Star was later found capsized on the rocks, while wreckage from the lifeboat was discovered along the shore. Everyone aboard the two vessels perished.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

The worst ever tanker accident?

Apologies for my silence. I’ve been away for a few weeks, and during my absence, that unhappy country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, fell victim to one of the deadliest road accidents the world has ever seen - on Friday, 2 July.

An oil tanker overturned as it was overtaking a bus on a dirt road in the village of Sange, close to the border with Burundi. The authorities say that as local people rushed to try to gather the leaking fuel, a lighted cigarette caused it to explode.

At least 230 people were killed, including some watching a World Cup match in a nearby cinema. Roads in the area are notoriously bad after years of war and chaos, while Sange’s population has been swelled by people fleeing the fearsome Lord’s Resistance Army militia.

This may have been the worst ever accident involving a tanker. In 1978, 217 people perished when one carrying liquid propylene overturned near a campsite at Los Alfaques near Taragona in Spain, while in 2000, up to 200 died after a petrol tanker ploughed into stationery vehicles caught in a traffic jam near Ibadan in Nigeria.