Olympics protest

Lynne Featherstone with Tibet protestorsJoined the protests earlier today – with Hornsey councillor Monica Whyte – over China’s record on Tibet and human rights as the Olympic Torch passed through London.

Free speech – and speaking out against that which we oppose – is a key part of our society, and it was great to see so many people exercising that right to speak out today – a right, of course, that China doesn’t extend to people in Tibet or China.

The Chinese Government has been repeatedly politicising the Olympics for its own ends – and yet Gordon Brown seems too timid to show any real displeasure at China’s repeated abuse of basic human rights.

Numerous other government heads have spoken and acted – but not our own. What is the point of having the privilege of holding a post such as Prime Minister if you’re not willing to use it to speak out when needed?

Well done Steven Spielberg

Impressed to see in the news today that Steven Spielberg has pulled out from his role in the Beijing Olympics because of the Chinese Government’s failure to do enough to influence the Sudanese Government, which is continuing to oversee horrific atrocities in Darfur.

His willingness to speak out stands in stark contrast with Gordon Brown – who, as on so many other issues, seems afraid of taking a clear stance and leading the way – and hence the failure to put serious extra pressure on China in his recent visit there. As it’s dear old Gordon, perhaps the best we can hope for is for him to set up yet another of his reviews to go away, ponder for a long time and then come back to tell him what to do!

Olympics and the right to protest

Back in November I wrote about the importance of allowing protests around the Olympics:

Glad to see that Chris Huhne has made it quite clear in a news release that when the show comes to town in the form of the Olympics, the right to peaceful protest must be upheld:

The Olympics are a chance to put our values in the global showcase which is why the organisers should plan for and allow the right of peaceful protest, which is such an important part of our political tradition. It will not be on display at the Beijing Olympics.

Diversity and freedom of expression is what has always made our society strong, and we should not be afraid to show it.

And I suspect given the number of countries competing whose human rights record may not be quite what we would wish – there will be quite a number of protesters wishing to protest. A good thing too. As a country – we should be proud that peaceful protest is one of our guarantees of freedom of expression.

So – it was good to read that Nick Clegg’s taking this line too:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has accused British Olympic chiefs of a “real abdication of our moral responsibility” over moves to restrict athletes from speaking out about China’s human rights record.

A new clause in the contract Olympians must sign before competing in Beijing this year forbids them from making political comments about the host country.

Clegg told BBC1’s Politics Show: “It’s extremely disappointing. It’s part of a pattern of us kow-towing to the Chinese communist authorities.

“We have to be very clear with the Chinese: They now play a significant role in the world economy and international affairs.

“That brings certain domestic responsibilities with it and I think for us to sort of gag ourselves is a real abdication of our moral responsibility to push for human rights wherever they are being abused.”

Referring to the prime minister’s recent visit to China, Clegg said: “Unlike Tony Blair and certainly unlike President Sarkozy from France, Chancellor Merkel from Germany and even President Bush from the United States, he said nothing publicly on China’s appalling human rights record.”

Does the right to protest matter?

Glad to see that Chris Huhne has made it quite clear in a news release that when the show comes to town in the form of the Olympics, the right to peaceful protest must be upheld:

The Olympics are a chance to put our values in the global showcase which is why the organisers should plan for and allow the right of peaceful protest, which is such an important part of our political tradition. It will not be on display at the Beijing Olympics.
Diversity and freedom of expression is what has always made our society strong, and we should not be afraid to show it.

And I suspect given the number of countries competing whose human rights record may not be quite what we would wish – there will be quite a number of protesters wishing to protest. A good thing too. As a country – we should be proud that peaceful protest is one of our guarantees of freedom of expression.

That’s something that won’t be the case in Beijing and it might not be the case here judging from the Labour Government’s desire to stop all forms of freedom of expression and protest – even when it is just reading out the names of the war dead!

Still – now Chris has thrown down the gauntlet on it – will Nick follow suit? There was a pattern last time round of Chris leading the way on issues – troops out of Iraq, the environment, etc – where he proposed a radical policy, others weren’t so keen – but in the end, it was Chris’s radical position that won the day.

That’s why I like about leadership contests – they push each candidate on and as a party we end up with a better set of policies as a result. Hurrah!

This time round hopefully the issue of the right to protest will become a key point for our party. And then we can also shame the Government into doing the right thing.

Darfur

Whist the by-elections play out on the political stage, long before they were called – I had arranged the inaugural meeting of my Haringey Local Darfur Action Group (HLDAG) today. (Read here for my earlier posting on why such a local group is needed).

I had been amazed by the response to my initial email – and to the number of people who wanted to join me in this pressure group. My idea is to set up an organising group to lobby and put pressure on the sensitive political spots that might prompt the Government of Sudan to stop the genocide and let the African Union / United Nations troops be deployed before 2008 – the current best estimate following President Bashir’s promise to finally allow them in.

But there are many other things that need doing – including the extension of the UN arms embargo across the whole of Sudan as weapons are coming into Darfur from there. The difficulty of getting the UN resolution through is I guess because China and Russia have a veto and they both earned well over £20 million each on arms sales to Sudan in 2005. So – an example of what I hope the group will do (and the group will grow in size) is to all send emails to the Chinese Ambassador asking him not to use the veto, for example – as it would be a shame if the Olympics in Beijing were to become a political football, etc etc.

I invited a Darfuri refugee to come and speak to the Group, and Ishmail Jarbo, whose parents were murdered and he himself injured before fleeing to this country, told us his tale. This was very powerful and brought home the reality of the genocide. My Lib Dem councillor colleague, Errol Reid (Hornsey ward), then spoke. Errol has long been involved with Sudan and is also the secretary for the International African Lawyers, fighting on human rights and anti-slavery.

We all then contributed a great range of ideas and a number of those attending stepped forward to take this campaign forward.

I know, I know – how can what we do in Haringey affect Darfur? Well – I totally believe in people power. I also believe, that at this particular juncture, China will be sensitive to world opinion and as China is the most influential foreign power in terms of Sudan – pressure on China is one way forward. And there is divestment – as we pressure groups not to invest in companies who are supporting the genocide. And, this is my pilot, and I will be trying to extend this nationwide in due course.

Being impotent and doing nothing is why dreadful things continue for decades in this world. This is a complex situation and in the end, only a negotiated peace will bring real peace to the area – and both Arabs and Black Darfuris will have to come around the table with all the groups and militias and rebel bands. But that cannot happen until the killing is stopped. So first deployment and stopping arms.

The communication for this group will be primarily by email – and if you live in Haringey and you want to join in what will be a relatively simple exercise in targeted lobbying – then let me know. You can also join the Facebook group.

The group will hopefully have its first organisational meeting to decide the action program in the next two weeks and then we will email out the first proposed action; after all – this is an action group!

The best dog in Hillfield Park

Street Party season is in full swing – and I go to as many of those that I am invited to as I possibly can. Today first off was the Woodland Fun Day organised by the Friends of Queens Wood. Yes – of course it was a shame about the weather – but they had a really good turn out anyway because the activities for children were a big draw. And children need entertaining whatever the weather – and it is fantastic for parents to have such organised fun – story-telling and face-painting and a giant chess board, a band and much more.

Congratulations to the Committee for organising such a lovely day for local families. Huge amounts of work go into these events – and there is no better way for children to come into one of the most beautiful natural environments in our area.

Second Lynne Featherstone MP with Grace Parker and Vegas - winner of the Hillfield Park dog agility Olympicsoff was the Hillfield Park ‘Olympic Games’ street party. Peter Thompson (my local hero for the work he does in the community) and his team organise a really fantastic bash every year. During the afternoon there are organised competitions for everyone – from Grow your Own (a plant growing competition where we all got to vote); dog agility course (my personal favourite – see me pictured with the winner ‘Vegas’) and three-legged races, and much more – including in the evening the banquet and the bands. Well done Hillfield.

In fact, it is these events that I have put in my chapter in a book on social liberalism to be published this autumn. Without going into detail – I am suggesting that communities provide structures that we need to nurture. Did you know that crime falls in proportion to the number of people who know each other within a fifteen-minute walk from their house? I rest my case!

International Questions: Darfur

International Questions today before PMQs – and I go in on Darfur:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Secretary of State has just said that pressure was important. Bashir’s agreement for the deployment of the force does not come into effect until 2008, so has the Secretary of State considered using the international spotlight on China, owing to the Olympics, as leverage to encourage China to use its influence with Khartoum to end the genocide and stop Darfuris being killed between now and when Bashir may or may not allow troops to be deployed in 2008?

Hilary Benn: We certainly have encouraged China and all members of the Security Council and other nations to play their part in encouraging the Government of Sudan to do the right thing. I welcome the fact that the Chinese have now appointed a special envoy, Liu Guijin. That, plus the effort made by China in November when we had the meeting in Addis Ababa, chaired by Kofi Annan, which came up with the proposals for the hybrid force that have now been agreed by the Government of Sudan, demonstrates that China has taken a greater interest in trying to play a part. But the truth is that every single country has a responsibility to do more and to use all the influence that it has, including, if required, the threat of sanctions, to ensure that fine words are turned into action, because action is what is needed.

So – he didn’t really answer the key point – whether the Government has the guts to apply the screws to get China to help focus Bashir’s mind on delivering on his promises – and earlier than he wants.

International issues: water and Darfur

Water, water everywhere – but not where it’s needed. Speaking for the Liberal Democrats in the Water and Sanitation in Developing Countries debate in Parliament yesterday, I went on two main themes: firstly that at some point in the future there will be a major war (or wars) over water. Water wars will dominate the next decades as scarce supply send millions into migratory patterns in the developing world.

There are 263 rivers that cross borders – and as the supply shortens the temptation for countries to divert a river their way and cut off the river from another country will become greater and greater.

Back in 1997 the UK sponsored a UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Waterways – which basically put rules around this tinderbox issue to prevent the looming disasters that would arise as countries fought for access to scarce supply. Ten years on – the UK has not ratified the Convention. I asked Hilary Benn when it would be done. He failed to answer – albeit he said that I raised a truly important point. One has to wonder if it was that important – why has Labour failed to see this through?

Second issue I pursued was on the funding we give to the PPIAF (a public private group that is supposed to deliver infrastructure projects in the developing world). I had previously question Benn in Parliament as to why we were funding this organisation as Norway had withdrawn because its projects kept failing. Benn had answered that some projects fail and some succeed – and he would take a look at it. Clearly – no progress had been made by the debate today as he once again simply re-iterated that some projects succeed some fail.

Personally, given the level of funding with tax from our hard-earned wages you would think he would be a little more careful and caring about the effectiveness of that spend. Italy too has now withdrawn.

Later same day – we had a debate on Darfur. For the most part all speakers wrung our hands and demanded instant deployment of the AU / UN troops, a no-fly zone, targeted sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes and some suggestions that China is being pretty damn brave – propping up and supporting the Sudanese Government (thereby perpetuating and paying for the killing fields) when the Beijing Olympics are coming down the track!

We will see what action is taken at the G8 as we are all fed up with fine words as genocide continues unabated.

Queen's Speech: home affairs debate

Home Affairs debate day on the Queen’s Speech! Nick Clegg (numero uno in the Home Affairs team) gave a bravura performance which clearly rattled John Reid as he stood up to intervene on Nick. He wished to make clear that the leadership question for the Labour Party had nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with his statements on home affairs. He and Gordon Brown were not trying to out -tough each other and it was absolutely wrong of Nick to suggest any such thing. Of course, the plethora of stories to back this up in the previous week’s papers from ‘sources close to’ etc. were all mythological!

As for me – what I am needed for in reality on occasions like this is to cover the front bench for the hours of the debate when back bencher MPs speak. I quite enjoy listening to the debate – but it was very cold in the chamber. I get relieved for half an hour to go and do a pre-record for Beeb on the escalating cost of the Olympics. Knock around with Sadiq Khan – who gamely tried to defend the indefensible – and with Steve Richards as referee. I am no party pooper – having supported the Olympic bid and been over the moon when we won. But a blank cheque – I don’t think so.

The Pensioners' Lobby

On Wednesday several pensioners from Hornsey & Wood Green came to see me and lobby me as part of the Pensioners’ Lobby. Their very passionate argument is that the Government’s promise to link pensions with earnings which is promised for 2012 will see many of them dead – i.e. it doesn’t help those who are in poverty right now. So I will be tabling some questions to Gordon Brown. Moreover – the one-off payment of £200 to pensioners by him just before the last General Election has not been forthcoming again (surprise) and yet pensioners are expected on their tiny fixed incomes to cope with the rises that will come in April on Council Tax and the Mayor’s precept for the Olympics.

Then I had to accompany Ming to a meeting with Sir Ian Blair (Met Police Commissioner). The meeting was private – so sadly can’t reveal all – but I myself did raise the issues (which are not confidential) over the future of police properties in London – there is a big review of their use of property, the location of police stations etc. Our local Commander, Simon O’Brien, has promised he will consult – but in his most recent email to me said he need to get so far (including identifying the actual premises) so that he had something to consult on.

The other issue was my question to Sir Ian a while back off of one of my written parliamentary questions about the disproportionately high numbers of black and ethnic minority people being arrested by the police. Amongst those arrested but not then charged or cautioned, people from the black and ethnic minority communities make up 60% of the total – hugely more than their share of the population. 28% of London’s population are from those communities, but they make up 60% of people arrested but not cautioned or charged. In other words – an innocent black man is much more likely to be arrested than an innocent white man. Sir Ian will get back to me.