Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Campaign Letters #5: Israel and Palestine

Thank you for writing to me about the human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Between 2008 and 2012 I was a frequent visitor to Israel, employed as part of an offshore energy project, so some of my opinions will be at variance with Liberal Democrat party policy. I shall point out the differences as they occur.

 The Liberal Democrats are committed to seeing a negotiated peace settlement, with two-state solution to the conflict. However, both sides will need to make some significant compromises to ensure the rights of people from both communities are respected. Liberal Democrats in Government have been working hard to ensure that the UK continues to play its part in the pursuit of peace. We have supported direct negotiations between the two sides, provided £122m over four years to help the Palestinian Authority develop and £107m worth of essential services to vulnerable refugee communities.

 After seeing the country, I personally feel that on the Israeli side, there is no intention to either commit to or deliver a two-state solution. As an example is the proposed location of the Palestinian Authority's International Airport. It is to be sited near the town of Netanya, which is on the Mediterranean coast. When I expressed surprise at this, I was further informed that Israel intended to keep control over both people and goods passing into any separate Palestinian state. It is therefore clear that a two-state solution is an impossibility.

 Where does that leave us? The state of Israel is a reality and is to be accepted upon that basis. Since the Oslo Accord, land has continued to have been annexed by illegal (but state-supported) Israeli settlements, leaving the areas remaining in Palestinian hands isolated and unviable. The only way forward I can see is to call for equal rights and equality before the laws for all people that live in Israel and the West Bank. I would have no problem if Israel were to recognise and apply the law, with impartiality, to all people within its original borders, the West Bank and Gaza. The recent elections, where Benjamin Netanyahu shamelessly rallied the Israeli right by claiming bus-loads of Arabs were being shipped to polling stations to vote, shows that such an aspiration is almost as difficult to achieve as the much promoted two-state solution.

 In response to the specific questions that you pose: I urge the UK Government to uphold the principles of equality, human rights and international law in all its relations and dealings with Israel.

Yes - as I have made clear above. Israel should have both the rights and responsibilities of any state and should not be accorded any unique status. Liberal Democrats in Government have put human rights and international law at the centre of our foreign policy. These are some of our core values and we would only join a government if they were at the heart of our relationship with Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and every other country around the world.

 I consider the construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal and unjustifiable.

Yes - as stated above. These settlements are illegal and they make finding a two-state peace settlement even harder - personally I would say impossible. At the Liberal Democrat conference last October we passed a motion which called for the UK to “apply continued pressure on the Israeli Government to cease its illegal acquisition of land in the West Bank.”

 Do you agree that one of the first acts of the next UK Government should be the recognition of Palestine? Liberal Democrats believe the UK Government should encourage the EU to recognise the State of Palestine. When MPs voted on recognising Palestine I was delighted to see Liberal Democrat MPs overwhelmingly supported it. The UK Government has said it will continue to support a negotiated two-state solution and will work with other countries to secure one. The government said they look forward to recognising a democratic, sovereign and viable Palestinian state when it will help the peace process most. I now believe the time for such a two-state solution to have passed. To answer your question directly, I don't know. I have looked with interest at Swedish recognition of Palestine and acknowledge it is a welcome boast for the cause of an oppressed people. What practical aid such a move is able to bring, that I am not so certain of.

 Do you agree that the blockade on Gaza should be lifted immediately?

Yes The UK Ambassador in Israel has been raising this with senior Israeli Government officials since the ceasefire in Gaza last summer. We have been calling for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted and for trade routes to be reopened. The UK has also been working with the EU and UN to put pressure on Israel for this to happen, while recognising their legitimate security concerns.

 Do you agree that we should stop trade with Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land, and stop settlement goods being sold in Britain?
No Putting trade sanctions on Israeli goods will only make achieving a peaceful solution much harder. I think the Government is right to support the voluntary guidelines so that customers can identify whether goods come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and make a decision for themselves if they want to buy them.

 Do you agree that the EU Israel Association Agreement should be suspended until Israel meets its human rights obligations? No The EU-Israel Association Agreement allows the EU to regularly raise human rights concerns with Israel and work to address these. However, I think the EU should review its Association Agreement to consider whether Israel continues to uphold peace and human rights.

 Do you agree that the government should stop supplying arms to Israel until it complies with international law? Yes Israel has also been listed as a country of concern in the UK Government’s Human Rights and Democracy Report and Liberal Democrats believe that there should be a presumption of denial when considering whether to grant arms export licenses for equipment bound for countries that are listed in that report.
I would go further. It is my firm belief that the whole economy, not just of Israel but the entire region, is based upon war. Every arms export to the area continues to fuel the conflict. If I may be blunt, during my time in Israel, I have never encountered so many arms dealers in my life! From the financiers organising the capital, the technical experts and the sales teams, the business of war is fully represented.

 Before finishing, I think it is only fair that I mention also the stresses upon the average Israeli citizen too. I found Israel to be a very suppressed state on many levels, with very high degree of surveillance by the authorities upon its citizens. Although discussion and debate are wide ranging, actual attempts to deviate from expectation, such as conscientious objection, are punishable either by prison or by being declared of unfit mental state, meaning, for example, the withdrawal of one's driving licence and financial independence.
 The cost of housing and inability of many Israeli young to afford a roof over their head, led to widespread protest while I was there, and may also be a driving force in Israeli settlement of the West Bank. When considering the outrages routinely visited upon Palestinians, it is sometimes easy to forget that not all Israelis back their government's policies on human rights and relations with their neighbouring states.

 My fundamental position is to be against all violence, whoever the perpetrator; for equality of human rights and enforcement of the rule of law: regardless of birth, ethnicity or religion.

 Yours sincerely,
 Martin Veart
 Scottish Liberal Democrats,
 Edinburgh North and Leith

Campaign Letters #4: Amnesty International and Human Rights.

Thank you for your email concerning support for Amnesty International, the Human Rights Act, and supporting victims of torture and injustice around the world.

Please be reassured: I have already met with Edinburgh Amnesty, signed the pledges and tweeted my support.  The Liberal Democrats stand for human rights and stand up for them in the face of power, so have no problem giving this wonderful organisation our wholehearted endorsement.

I could end my letter to you here.  I shall not.

While in office, Lynn Featherstone worked tirelessly on a campaign to end female genital mutilation within a generation.  Liberal Democrats thwarted Theresa May's attempts to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights: a body created by Winston Churchill with the view of unifying Europe under a code of universal decency.

I could again end my letter here. Again I shall not.

I have spent now twenty years travelling the world's continents.  In Kazakhstan one could not discuss the president unless to praise him.  The same in Baku.  In Equatorial Guinea, I was in the capital Malabo when the entire population were summoned to the football stadium to hear the president's speech.  One had to be in the hospital in order to be exempted.  In Russia a few years back, I was there when the Duma passed the law that made it a criminal offence to accuse state officials of corruption, owing to the distress it brought upon individuals so accused and their families.  In Israel, I was waiting for a technician to to flown to the rig in order to fix the air conditioning.  He was refused permission to travel by the young security staff at Haifa airport, owing to him being an Israeli Arab.  In Qatar, I attended a health and safety seminar: only to hear that on the construction sites for the 2020 World Cup, an average of ten workers a week are dying owing to the lax standards there.

I really could go on at length: believe me.  It is one thing to voice support, quite another to know why it is so vitally important to do so.

When I hold up this sign, I know exactly why I am doing it.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Campaign Letters #3: Equal Marriage

Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

I am intensely proud to represent a party that believes in equality of rights for all people and accepts people as they really are, and not how others would wish them to be.  I see the role of the Liberal Democrats as bringing out the best in all people.  

From time in immemorial, the institute of marriage has been seen as a good thing in all societies.  If two people wish to dedicate their lives to each other, based upon the tenants of mutual love and respect, this is something that should be recognised and applauded by society, and not condemned.  If two people of the same sex feel this way about each other, that in no way stops or denigrates the marriage and partnership of a man and a woman who feel the same intensity of love.

To me, it is a matter of both human rights and of all enjoying the greater stability that the institution of marriage brings to society as a whole.

If my arguments cannot convince you otherwise, and since you have brought the name of God into the discussion, I fear that they may not be able to, then may I suggest you study the manifestoes of the other parties and I hope you find somebody more suitable to represent your views.

Kindest regards,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Campaign Letters #2: Press Freedoms and Media Ownership.

Thank you for your email on media ownership and the abuse of power.

If I give you a long answer to a short question, please understand why.  For a politician to go charging into to a freedom of speech debate knowing all the answers is extremely dangerous.

Yes, my initial reaction on Leveson was to back the report in full and ignore the howls of complaints from the big media.  But when Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, joins in the criticism of the report, one should sit up and take notice.  Private Eye has repeatedly covered the stories that many other mainstream papers would not touch until there was no other option.  Any comment from it concerning press freedom is therefore worthy of the upmost consideration.

Liberal Democrats share the hope of Lord Justice Leveson that the incentives for the press to sign up to genuinely independent self-regulation will succeed. But if, in the judgment of the Press Recognition Panel, after 12 months of operation, there is significant non-cooperation by newspaper publishers, then – as Leveson himself concluded – Parliament will need to act, drawing on a range of options including the legislative steps necessary to ensure that independent self- regulation is delivered. Where possible, we would seek to do this on the same cross-party basis that achieved the construction of the Leveson scheme by the Royal Charter

On the phone hacking scandal and payment to public officials, there are already laws covering such issues.  Operation Elveden is making it clear that enforcing these laws and bringing successful prosecutions is extremely difficult.  I would be open to ideas to tighten up upon illegal acts committee by individuals; making the owning corporations and senior executives culpable in their responsibility.  At this time, it seems that claiming ignorance or a failure to recollect the facts are indeed enough of a defence.

As a Liberal Democrat, I believe it is vital to uphold freedom of speech.  Part of that process is that, in a democracy, people have the right to be wrong in the view of others.  This has to be balanced with responsibility.  The major question is to what and to whom?  My best answer are to the facts of a given situation.  Thus the responsibility of media should be answerable to presenting not the best, but the most balanced evaluation of available facts.

In order to protect journalists who pursue facts with the aim to uncover corruption, Liberal Democrats would:

Introduce statutory public interest defences for exceptional cases where journalists may need to break the law (such as RIPA, the 2010 Bribery Act, and the 1998 Computer Misuse Act) to expose corruption or other criminal acts.

Ensure judicial authorisation is required for the acquisition of communications data which might reveal journalists’ sources or other privileged communications, for any of the purposes allowed under RIPA; and allow journalists the opportunity to address the court before authorisation is granted, where this would not jeopardise the investigation.

Undertake a post-legislative review of the 2013 Defamation Act, which Liberal Democrats drove through Parliament, to ensure the new provisions are reducing the chill of libel threats.

Introduce, after consultation on the detail, the changes to the 1998 Data Protection Act recommended by Lord Justice Leveson to provide a fairer balance between personal privacy and the requirements of journalism, ensuring that the position of investigative journalists is safeguarded.

To guarantee press freedom, we will pass a British ‘First Amendment’ law, to require the authorities and the courts to have regard to the importance of a free media in a democratic society.
To nurture public interest journalism and protect the public from press abuse, we are committed to a system of accountability that is totally independent of both government and the newspaper industry, as set out in the Royal Charter on Press Regulation.

On media ownership, again it is in everybody's interest that a single individual does not become too powerful.  I did not want to particularly name an individual organisation but in the case of News International, it has been very successful in building up its own global power by putting itself and the service of the ruling elites of wherever it is operating: Fox News and The Wall Street Journal in the US, Sky News Arabia and, until last year, Star TV China.  I do not have to quote to you more local examples.

News International's global reach just shows how difficult it is for a single nation to uphold desired standards.  We certainly do not want any state of affairs that resembles that of Italy, when while in power Silvio Berlusconi was in control of the majority of private companies and as prime minister control the state media outlets too.  

The trouble is that, as Nome Chomsky pointed out in his book Necessary Illusions, big business owns most big media and thus has many more shared values to protecting the status quo than in depicting reality as it stands.

This leads us to the nub of the matter: the depiction of the facts.  A year ago I was asked to comment by a friend on a ten minute video presentation by film director David Puttnam, in which he asks the question whether the media has a duty of care towards the public.  My blog piece is here:

Why media responsibility towards facts are so important is because it is where most people get their information from.  In the end, it has to come down to respecting facts and protecting those who pursue them.

If you have any further points you would like to raise, or indeed subjects, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

PS.  Unlike Labour, the Conservatives or the SNP, The Sun and Rupert Murdoch has never supported the Liberal Democrats nor urged their readers to vote for us.  I'm fine with that.  mv.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Campaign Letters 1. TTIP

As a candidate, one gets a lot of letters, mostly pro forma, on the issues of the day.  I have decided to post copies of my replies on the blog.

The first is on the issue of TTIP -

Thank you for contacting me about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

First of all: what is TTIP?  TTIP is more than just a trade agreement.  It is a process of mutual recognition of equivalent rules and regulations.  At this time, products made to similar standards must undergo local retesting and evaluation when imported.  I'll give a couple of real examples.

Cream-making machines in the US and Europe are made to difference standards.  At this time, this means that foods containing cream cannot be traded across the Atlantic.  TTIP will allow for this: after all, it is the cream that is being exported, not the machines.
Sun screen is tested differently in the US and the EU. Imports have to retested.  TTIP will allow for the swapping of test results and the rapid evaluation of equivalent standards without the product having to be retested.

I would like to point out that the TTIP negotiations are still ongoing. What these negotiations are about is allowing for local standards to be upheld.  An inferior product that is clear for usage in the US should still not be allowed for sale in the EU if its performance does not meet EU minimum regulations.

 The main stumbling block however isn't TTIP, but rather the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism.  It is clear to me that these negotiations are being led by German and French concerns.  Last year, Minister of Foreign Trade, Matthais Fekl, told the French Senate that “France did not want the ISDS to be included in the negotiation mandate.  We have to preserve the right of the state to set and apply its own standards, to maintain the impartiality of the justice system and to allow the people of France, and the world, to assert their values,"  according to an article on the EurActiv website.

It is this very section, the ISDS that has also led critics of the project to claim that the NHS would be opened up further to corporation takeover, whether the government of the day welcomed it or not, for the ISDS would allow corporations to challenge legislation that they claim would be putting a brake upon profits.  The US is loath cut this section but it seems that Germany is not going to sign any agreement that contains ISDS in its current form.
The probable endgame for these negotiations is that the EU will get their / our way and a watered-down ISDS mechanism, matching the powers of many already in existence in other trade treaties, will be finally agreed upon.  The benefits of doubling cross-Atlantic trade are just too big for either side to walk away from.  For Britain alone, the extra trade expected from the successful signing of a TTIP treaty is in the order of £10billion a year.

Liberal Democrats support the TTIP negotiations and it is our party’s policy to ensure the success of TTIP in the best interests of the UK.  However, we are clear that we will not sign up to any deal which is not right for Britain.

Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, has said he wants to see the proposed ISDS clause tightened up.  While ISDS clauses are commonplace in existing trade deals, there is understandable concern that companies could sue us for losses and win if the Government takes a decision in the wider public interest.  To put this into context, there are around 3,400 investment treaties in force worldwide and around 2.5% of these have led to ISDS cases where the investor has won.  There has not been a single successful ISDS case brought against the UK and nothing in TTIP puts the UK at any more risk from being successfully sued by a company.  To be clear, ISDS cannot force the Government to open markets or privatise public services.

The UK has a large number of trade agreements already in place with other countries and over 90 bilateral investment treaties.  Not one of these has been watered down or threatened the high levels of environmental protection, food safety, consumer protection or any other regulatory standards we rightly insist upon.  Neither the EU nor the US is looking to reduce standards but Vince has been clear that if the US cannot match our standards, we will not lower our own.  They will have to raise their game and match ours.

Transparency is an issue that concerns many and this is something Vince Cable has been keen to improve.  Vince has met the EU Trade Commissioner to discuss this and has asked her to give senior UK parliamentarians access to the TTIP treaty text as it is being developed so they can raise questions or concerns on the public’s behalf.  This is on top of the significant moves the European Commission has already made to make previously restricted material available to MEPs. Where our interests are not harmed by disclosure, then disclosure must take place.

The EU Commission is rather irked by the standard of debate in the UK on the topic and have claimed that here it is being suppressed for our own domestic political reasons.  I know there is much worry over the matter: a lot of which is generated by a lack of information.  Therefore, in the hope of addressing this matter, I have included a link to the EU website, which far greater details of the TTIP process than any I know of in the UK media.

In this letter, I hope I have both given you some idea what the TTIP process is about and what the issues are that face it.  Negotiations are very much ongoing, with both the Liberal Democrats and our European partners keen to see delivery of a successful package that does not lower consumer and environmental standards, nor infringe upon the sovereignty of governments to set policy or decide how to best spend public money.

If you have further questions on the issue, or any other, I will be glad to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Hustings statement: Yes for a Better Scotland. 8th April 2015.

Statement to Hustings, organised by Yes for a Better Scotland.  South Leith Parish Church.  8th of April.

As a Liberal Democrat, it is easy to feel that the entire world is against us, even the job.  Although I was due to be back before this time, I am sorry to say that the cost-cutting that is globally taking place in the oil and gas industry has meant that my employer's client is saving money on personnel, leaving me literally stuck in the middle of the Persian Gulf.  So apologies for not being here: I sincerely regret not being with you this evening.

Let's cut to the chase, as the Americans have it.  Why should I be your MP?

First of all, the basics:

I live in the constituency with my family.  Our child goes to Trinity Academy.

I work in the constituency (at least when not galavanting off to distance parts of the world) with a local company that specialises in oilfield-related software.  Last year I was made redundant from my previous post, so from recent experience I know the taste of unemployment and the stresses that it brings.

My travel, both with my new and in previous employment, has been an education in its own right:  Unfiltered by media outlets, one sees how the world really works.  Nothing beats that first-hand experience.  During the past twenty or so years, I have seen places that have regularly come up in the news:  Russia, Israel, North Africa, the Middle East, and of course Europe.
With so many powers devolved to us here in Scotland, isn't it better for our Westminster MPs to have a strong knowledge of foreign affairs?

Closer to home I have lived in other parts of the UK, Ireland and Norway.   These last experiences in particular informed my opinion in the recent independence referendum.  I voted No.

I am not against Scottish Independence because of bloodymindedness or out of a wish to dupe anybody.  I am against independence because at this time I can only see the movement deliver a different future for our country, not a better one.

The Yes movement has put the cart before the horse.  Surely we should be all working hard to improve Scotland today, with the powers we already have, instead of promising the land of milk and honey tomorrow.

If in time Scotland evolves in a different direction from the rest of the United Kingdom, and the south will not follow our example and our lead, then the time for independence will have come because the case would be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.  I applaud the energy and enthusiasm that the Yes Campaign has brought to politics.  We should be directing that energy to making Scotland more progressive.
Greener.  Better.  Today.
Do not wait upon uncertain outcomes: we have the power to do the right things now.  Use them.

And whatever that future holds, it is clear that Scotland still needs liberalism.  Liberal values are the values of human rights: on the side of the the individual in the face of power.  While often copied, they can only be delivered and upheld by a person, by a party, that holds liberal values to the core of their beliefs.

In today's Scotland, I am not seeing these liberal values being upheld.  Power is being increasingly concentrated and centralised.  It is not a trend limited to these shores.  Across the world, governments grow in power and knowledge and as they do, the rights of individuals are being eroded.  We must not let that continue.

Help stop that trend by voting for the party with a proven track record on upholding people's rights, both in Holyrood and at Westminster.  On May 7th vote Liberal Democrat.

Monday, 30 March 2015

USA & Iran - It Isn't About the Nukes

Two articles have allowed me to understand the US-Iran dynamic and why Obama is so keen to seal the deal.  Of course, the Telegraph story really is the answer. which was met with dismay by an online North Sea oil forum tonight: predicting more woe for the UK sector.

To begin.  Israel in recent weeks have been making all out efforts to derail the US-Iranian talks, wheeling out the old adage that Iran is within five years of developing nuclear weapons.  It is old because that is what enemies of the Iranian regime have been saying since the 1980s.  If the Mullahs of Tehran really wanted nuclear weapons, they are really taking a leisurely time about it.

The first article is this from Arutz Sheva US Declassifies Documents Revealing Israel's Nuclear Program.  In diplomatic terms, the US deciding to release details of the now-aging Sampson nuclear weapons system is a real (but not widely publicised) slap in the face for Israeli complaints over Iranian nuclear research.  In no uncertain terms, the Israel government are being called a bunch of hypocrites by Obama.  It is a particularly sharp rebuke because the Sampson system is now elderly and in need of either upgrade or replacement.  The US is reminding Israel that if that is going to happen, they will need American help.

So if the US are willing to put Israel in its place over these negotiations, there must be something very big at stake.  Indeed there is.  The Telegraph story makes it clear that big oil wants to move into Iran after being forced to withdraw from the country following American-led boycotts.  Now the story says that the oil majors want to return and that is indeed the case.  Serious money will also be made in repairing Iran's existing fields though.  They have not had free access to Western technology since the late 1970s and the wells are seriously inefficient.  It would be no exaggeration to say that hundreds of billions of dollars of business will be generated for US companies if the barriers to trade and technology transfer come down and Iranian fields are resurveyed, repaired and reworked in the decades to come.  Companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton are set to be major beneficiaries.  

Where does this leave the UK sector?   On the up side, a lot of British-based companies, many based around Aberdeen will be able to benefit from the opening of Iran to business.  As this time, they are simply not allowed to trade.  In 2013, BP had, at least for a time, closed the Rhum field in the North Sea as it is partly owned by the Iranian National Oil Company.  The financial sector in both Edinburgh and London will also gain.  Skilled individuals will doubtless find work, and in an environment much more stable and safe than to be found in neighbouring Iraq.  The down side however is large.  The North Sea is expensive to explore and develop.  When it comes to oil, it isn't the price of a barrel that is the only factor.  Thought is first given to how much will it cost to extract the stuff and then ship it to market.  With calm waters, large areas of land-based fields (cheaper to develop than offshore) and sitting on the world's major tanker route, when Iran opens for business, it will only make the UK offshore by comparison more expensive and even less attractive to new investment.