DAWN - Editorial; 19 October, 2004

19 Oct 2004

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Kofi Annan's plain talk

Mr KOFI Annan's statement that the Iraq war has not made the world any safer spells out a truth that no one can disagree with. The UN secretary-general's remarks, made in an interview with a British television channel, coincided with another anti-war march in London. Some 70,000 people marched through the streets of London, demanding an end to the war.

But a lot worse was happening in Iraq itself, where militants inside Fallujah were battling a US-led offensive. The aim of the attack is to take alive Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the Tauhid wal Jihad leader. In the latest act of violence, the Zarqawi group claims to have beheaded 11 police recruits.

Evidently, the bloodletting in Iraq is unlikely to come to an end, for two obvious reasons: one, the government led by Mr Iyad Allawi is looked upon by the people of Iraq as an American puppet; two, the US occupation looks open-ended because Washington does not have a credible exit strategy. The country is under occupation, the technical transfer of power last June being of no consequence.

The elections scheduled for December-January now look like an impossibility, because of widespread violence and anarchy. But even if held, they will lack credibility because they will be held under American bayonets. To be transparent and to be accepted by the world as such, elections to the transitional assembly must be conducted under the UN auspices. However, throughout the Iraqi crisis leading finally to the war and occupation, the world body has been conspicuous by its absence.

This has frightful consequences for the world, especially the Middle East. The attack on Iraq was launched without UN authorization. Earlier, UN inspectors, headed by Mr Hans Blix, had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction - a fact later acknowledged by American sources themselves. The western press later confirmed that the speeches made to the world for justifying the attack were based on faulty, even doctored intelligence.

The moral and political consequences of the Iraq war for the world at large are disastrous. First, the war sidelined the UN, stripped it of its legal and moral authority, and made a mockery of the concept of collective security. Second, it underlined the Bush administration's unilateralism, especially the chauvinism inherent in the principle of pre-emption. Third, it derailed the war on terror.

Baathist Iraq, it is now confirmed, had no links with Osama bin Laden, whose religious movement was anathema to Saddam Hussein. Fourth, the war and occupation have turned Iraq into a country without a credible state apparatus. The government installed by Washington commands no respect, with the scene dominated by resistance groups and religious leaders - all armed to the teeth. WMDs may not be there, but the resistance groups have enough conventional weapons to defy the American might.

The Americans cannot leave Iraq at this stage. If they do, there will be a terrible civil war, with well-armed militias and terrorist groups posing a threat to the entire Middle Eastern region. Mr Annan is thus very right when he says that the Iraq war has not made the world any safer. The only way in which that country can become normal again is to induct the UN in its management in a big way. Elections should be held under its auspices and power transferred to the genuine representatives of the Iraqi people, so that Iraq can become a normal member of the world community.

Media role

The Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors has just, and rightly, expressed its strong criticism of the federal information minister's warning to the media that action might be taken against those 'glorifying' terrorists or acts of terrorism though 'undue projection'. The minister's remarks had come at the conclusion of an inter-provincial conference of information ministers in Peshawar last week when he also said if someone portrayed terrorists as heroes, action could be taken under the anti-terrorism law.

The government is reported to have taken umbrage over TV interviews of some of the persons involved in the troubles in Wana and other militant activities and one private channel is said to be under pressure to discontinue a particular current affairs talk programme. The ubiquitous 'national interest' has also been invoked in this context. The information minister needs to be reminded of a few things.

The media in Pakistan has not been half as questioning as it should have been on the Wana operation or the 'war on terror' under which many people have been arrested, detained and then released without proper explanation. The government itself has been wobbly over and sometimes hypocritical about who should be defined as an extremist, militant, miscreant or jihadi. Access to information about the Wana operation and similar other activities has been severely restricted and controlled, with official handouts or briefings often the only source of information.

The government appears to be somewhat confused about what constitutes news and what is comment. In editorial comments, the press has by and large been supportive of the campaign against both religious extremism and foreign fighters sheltering in Pakistan. News is something else: if today a newspaper anywhere in the world gets a chance to interview Osama bin Laden or al-Zarqawi, the information minister can safely bet his left arm that it would do so.

Would this be 'glorifying' a terrorist or simply seeking to inform the people of what he is thinking and doing? The government has so far followed a fairly liberal media policy, even if not entirely out of a deeply held belief in press freedom. Let's not blow it by loosely-fired canon balls and by hurling threats.

Protecting the mangroves

Had we as a society been more appreciative of the wonders of the mangrove forests that line the Indus deltaic region in the south, we would have made serious efforts to curb their wanton destruction at the hands of the timber mafia, as reported recently in this paper. As it is, Pakistan's mangroves, that constitute the sixth largest forest of their kind in the world, have to contend with a host of difficulties that is causing their numbers to dwindle at an alarming rate.

In fact, experts have said that these natural barriers to cyclones that double as nurseries for a variety of marine life, could be totally destroyed in a matter of years if urgent steps are not taken to protect them. Population pressure, dam construction and rampant pollution, caused by industrial effluent and other waste, have contributed to a situation with serious repercussions for the mangrove ecosystem.

One of the graver threats has come from the fishing community that resides near these forests. Not being able to catch enough fish to sustain themselves economically, many fishermen have joined hands with the timber mafia and turned to felling trees to eke out a living. To save these forests and provide fisher folk with decent earnings, it is important to open up avenues for alternative means of subsistence that would not entail environmental destruction.

The government must explore all avenues to help the poor in the coastal areas, with an alternative livelihood - and this could include jobs in environmental protection such as safeguarding the very mangrove trees that they are felling at the moment. Moreover, raising awareness in communities about the importance of their natural surroundings will almost certainly bring down the rate of destruction.