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DAWN - Editorial; February 6, 2003

February 06, 2003

Not too late to step back

WITH an increasingly concerned world holding its collective breath, US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the Security Council on Wednesday offering fresh evidence to prove that Baghdad is not complying with UN disarmament resolutions. The response to the speech from members of the Security Council will be critically important, if not decisive. It will determine whether the US seeks a new resolution aimed at disarming Iraq or goes ahead with military action on the basis of earlier UN resolutions. With the US and Britain determined to attack Iraq regardless of what the Security Council decides, hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Iraq crisis seem to be rapidly receding. This is an ominous development and comes despite a rising crescendo of voices calling for more time to be given to the arms inspectors to complete their job before launching any attack on Iraq. On Tuesday, chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix echoed this view. Asking for more time for his inspectors to determine whether or not Iraq is developing or concealing weapons of mass destruction, Blix refused to concede that Baghdad was in ‘material breach’ of UN resolution 1441, as the US and Britain allege. Despite such pleas, the US continues to assert that it is losing its patience and will move against Iraq “within weeks rather than months.”

It is clear that three out of the five permanent members of the Security Council are deeply sceptical about the need for military action against Iraq. While China and Russia have made their reservations about any hasty attack known, it is France that has emerged as the most vocal opponent of war. Hoping to narrow their diverging positions on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew to France on Tuesday to meet the French President Jacques Chirac. At the joint press conference that followed, it was clear that Blair had not brought Chirac round to his way of thinking. The French president categorically asked for more time for the inspectors and stated that “war is always the worst of solutions” and that “there is still lots to be done on the issue of disarmament through peaceful means.” Unless Colin Powell produces some compelling new evidence of Iraq’s culpability, it is more than likely that France will veto any new resolution. This could force the US to go it alone without any renewed sanction from the UN. This unilateralist action would set a bad precedent and could seriously undermine the role of the UN. Aware of the terrible consequences of a war, millions of people across the globe have taken to the streets to protest.

The Muslim world is particularly concerned about the current drift towards a deadly and destabilizing conflict in the region. Even Saudia Arabia, traditionally allied to the US and deeply distrustful of Saddam Hussein, is deeply worried about a potential conflagration in its backyard. Riyadh has called for restraint and a meaningful dialogue to settle the issue. Arguing that the move would distract the world from the task of fighting international terror, the Saudis fear that a US attack on Iraq would strengthen the forces of extremism and win more recruits to the terrorists’ cause. There is still time for the US to pause and ponder. Washington must heed the calls from all the divergent forces urging a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis and step back from the brink. The alternative could be a cataclysm that would plunge the Middle East into utter chaos and anarchy.

Sambrial tragedy

TUESDAY’s deadly blast at the Sambrial dry port near Sialkot, which killed 18 people and left over 50 badly burnt and injured, betrayed not so much the lack of safety standards as criminal deception and corruption on the part of the importers and the authorities concerned. The container that exploded causing death and injury contained firecrackers imported from China, which were shipped under a false consignment bill stating the shipment in question contained perfumes and toys. This is not a simple case of misdeclaration but, knowing the inflammable nature of the consignment, a criminal offence of the first degree. The president — even though he was in Moscow on a state visit when he was informed of the tragic occurrence — has done the right thing by ordering an immediate inquiry into the incident. The federal information minister and the National Assembly speaker have also promised a high-level inquiry, but the Punjab government has so far kept mum. The dead and the injured included a customs inspector, many daily-wage labourers at the dry port and some school children passing by. The explosion was so powerful that it shattered glass windows of buildings located within a radius of one kilometre from the site of the blast, and sent human body parts flying into a wider area outside the port precincts.

The blast occurred as the deadly consignment was being unloaded to be trucked off to its local destination. This was despite the fact that the shipment did not contain what the papers said it did, which gives credence to the allegations of culpability on the part of the importer and the customs officials posted at the Sambrial dry port. Firecrackers are no benign material, and isolated incidents involving these in a clandestinely operating cottage industry spread across the country, have been cause of blasts from time to time. That an incident of the present magnitude has occurred at a place where firecrackers should be the last thing to be present calls for tough action against the parties involved. This blast could have occurred at the Karachi port or en route to Sambrial, and could have caused a greater disaster in terms of human and property losses. The authorities must institute a high-level inquiry into the incident and bring those responsible to book in a swift and exemplary manner.

When protectors turn hunters

ALMOST half the membership of the Sindh Wildlife Management Board has thought it fit to apply for a hunting licence. Those who have obtained a permit include a former chief secretary of Sindh, a former provincial minister and would-be senator, and the head of a major financial institution. In response, the province’s wildlife conservator told this newspaper that there was nothing illegal about this. He said that under the law any person who had a licensed gun could apply for and be given a hunting permit and that being a member of the management board does not render a person ineligible for such permission.

Technically, the official might be right in saying that no law has been broken. However, the point is that it seems wholly improper that those entrusted with the conservation of wildlife should see it fit to ask for a hunting licence. The issue is one of propriety and consistency. In any case, it is quite possible that they might be using their official position to get preferential treatment in the matter of hunting permits. If certain members of the wildlife management board feel very strongly about going on shoots, which happens to be quite a tradition among some landed families in the province, it would be better if they stepped down from their positions as members. Otherwise, it sets a very bad precedent.