DAWN - Editorial; February 17, 2006

Published February 17, 2006

Benefits of free trade

THE federal cabinet ratified the South Asia Free Trade Area (Safta) agreement, drafted by the Islamabad Saarc Summit 2004, on Wednesday and decided that bilateral trade with India would continue under the positive list of 773 items. Import of no other products, including those on the list of sensitive items, will be allowed despite the Safta agreement coming into force from January 1 this year and tariff cuts from July next. But the Federal Commerce Minister Humayun Akhtar Khan has said that items on the positive list could be increased following progress on other issues between the two countries. The ratification of the Safta agreement is to be followed by the opening of the Khokhrapar-Munabao rail route linking Sindh with Rajasthan and a ferry service between Karachi and Bombay for seaborne trade. Both of these will provide a further impetus to bilateral trade. All Saarc members have ratified the Safta accord with the exception of Sri Lanka with which Pakistan has signed a bilateral free trade agreement. Another FTA is expected to be signed with Bangladesh by September 30.

From the decisions taken so far, it appears that Pakistan is making both bilateral and multilateral efforts to increase its trade and economic co-operation with Saarc countries. Pakistan and Bangladesh have agreed to expand the current trade of just over $200 million to one billion dollars by 2007 and the apex trade bodies from the two countries have also signed a memorandum to step up trade and investment. Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia wants the two nations to work together to serve the global apparel market and develop global brands of garments. Four MOUs have also been signed between the two countries to promote cooperation in the fields of agriculture, tourism, export promotion standardization of quality control.

Apart from political factors, Pakistans cautious approach towards trade with India is perhaps also linked to concerns over non-trade barriers erected by New Delhi and its continuing unfavourable balance of trade with that country that amounted to $259 million in 2005. India needs to address these concerns with an effective multilateral monitoring system and a mechanism for removing snags. The two neighbours are blessed with the fastest growing economies in the region that offer them considerable mutual trade and investment opportunities besides those of exchange of goods and services at competitive prices because of cheap labour and geographical proximity. In fact, the cost of doing business will be considerably lower than at present with increased bilateral trade for the benefit of both sides and provide a competitive edge to their export trade. With a more dynamic approach to compensate for its much smaller economy following the example of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Pakistan’s trade and industry could benefit from the enormous size of the Indian market, now the fourth largest economy in the world, on the basis of purchasing power parity, and a burgeoning middle class of 300 million. Pakistan has a reasonable production capacity and a comparative edge, say, in the leather industry and some other areas which can be used for exports to India and can replace goods that India buys from other countries at a higher cost. It is regional economic cooperation that now serves as the engine of global economic growth and is an important enabling factor for fighting the problem of widespread poverty. Indeed, multilateral trade holds forth the promise of greater progress and prosperity for all Saarc countries.

Killing of Chinese engineers

IN yet another incident of terrorism, this time in the Balochistan town of Hub, three Chinese engineers were shot dead by assailants while driving home after work. The Baloch Liberation Army has reportedly claimed responsibility for the killing of the engineers, who were working at a cement plant, and said that the attack was a warning to outsiders engaged in exploiting the province’s mineral resources. This was the third attack in two years on Chinese technicians working in the country. A bomb blast carried out by suspected Baloch insurgents in Gwadar killed three Chinese workers in May 2004, and five months later two Chinese engineers working on the Gomal Zam dam project were kidnapped in South Waziristan by extremists. A botched rescue effort resulted in the death of one Chinese. The Pakistan government has strongly condemned Wednesday’s killing that comes on the eve of President Musharraf’s state visit to China. Chinese President Hu Jintao has asked Islamabad to beef up security for the estimated 1,000 Chinese workers in the country.

While it is deplorable that militants in both South Waziristan and Balochistan — as in other parts of the country — should be targeting foreign workers engaged in development work that would benefit their own people, it is equally shocking that the government should be unable to prevent such attacks. The Chinese workers in Wednesday’s attack were apparently returning home without an armed escort. Knowing the history of attacks against foreign workers in Pakistan — including the suicide bombing in 2002 that left 11 French naval engineers dead in Karachi — and fully aware of the present hostilities between the army and Baloch tribesmen, why were the engineers allowed to travel without security guards? In fact, considering how vital Chinese participation is to our development projects, there should have been extra security for the men who were willing to work in troubled areas. Quite naturally, Chinese workers in the country are concerned about their safety after the incident. The government must make a serious effort to allay their fears by increasing security and arresting the assailants and giving them exemplary punishment. Continuing attacks of the kind might force the Chinese, or indeed other foreign workers, to decide against staying on and working in Pakistan.

Avoiding a second disaster

AS if things weren’t bad enough for survivors of October’s devastating earthquake, Wednesday’s news that flash floods from a giant lake could break through a dam and wreak havoc in Muzaffarabad is cause for serious concern. Experts called in to assess the risks fear that if the dam (caused by landslides that occurred at the time of the quake) bursts, millions of gallons of water will rush towards the already-ravaged city and cause serious loss of life. This second large-scale disaster needs to be averted at all costs and urgent action must be taken since so many victims have set up temporary shelters and tent villages near the river and are likely to suffer the worst in such a case. To do so, a drainage channel must be built to empty the lake before July. Although the Pakistan Army and the geological survey are aware of the dangers this poses, they will have to take more decisive action than just promise to “keep an eye on rising water levels”. Experts say that draining the lake will require international efforts, for which awareness about the imminent dangers must immediately be created.

Time is running short and there are other hazards in the region that also call for urgent attention. Thousands of lives were lost when the area was seriously jolted but it would be criminal if deaths that can be averted are allowed to recur because of the government’s inaction. Already the world is forgetting about survivors in the quake-hit areas and lack of funds may force the United Nations to cease helicopter flights to deliver food and relief items still desperately needed. It will prove difficult to prioritize at a time when the reconstruction phase is soon to begin and so many survivors’ needs have to be met, but the government must work hard to avoid further suffering.

The answer is boycott

By M.J. Akbar


SEQUENCE and consequence do not always follow the same logic: the publication of the gratuitously offensive cartoons against the Prophet of Islam (you can translate that, literally, to the Prophet of Peace for Islam means peace) has already resonated through contemporary events.

It will also echo far into the future. Any single day’s newspaper was sufficient to indicate that simmering resentment against the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, for instance, found a reason to escalate into anger. There are too many questions around this conscious provocation by an irresponsible Danish newspaper, fuelled by a less than comprehensible Danish government, and not enough answers.

The first question must surely be the simplest one: why? More than one answer has been offered. One editor of the paper appeared on European television and said, so primly that he was on the verge of sounding pompous, that the cartoons were not meant to hurt Muslims but only to represent, through an image, that a number of Muslims had become terrorists. This is the sort of argument that sounds reasonable to a neutral mind until you pare open the first layer of deception.

If that was the purpose, why not use an image of Osama bin Laden? Why use the image of the Prophet, which by itself is offensive to a faith that rejects, very strongly, any iconography or deification? We have published cartoons on Osama fairly regularly in our papers without anyone raising any objection. This is buttressed by the “freedom of press” argument, a view endorsed so strongly by the media of continental Europe (but not, repeat not, by British media) that sensible publications like Le Monde have reprinted the cartoons twice.

Far be it for me to decry press freedom. It is my bread and butter. But I have yet to come across a nation or society that offers freedom of expression without the qualification of libel or similar safeguards. One of our editors asked the Danish embassy in Delhi to let us know if they had any libel laws. They promised to get back to us. We are still waiting.

But text is not difficult to find in the age of Internet. I quote from Section 266B of the Danish penal code: “Any person who publicly or with the intention of dissemination to a wide circle of people makes a statement or imparts other information threatening, insulting or degrading a group of persons on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation, shall be liable to a fine, simple detention or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.” Section 140 adds, “Those who publicly mock or insult the doctrines or worship of any religious community that is legal in this country, will be punished by a fine or incarceration for up to four months.”

This is as civilized as it gets. The reason for such legislation is not a history of abuse against Islam, but a history of virulent anti-Semitism, for which Europe holds some kind of pernicious record. I warmly applaud such laws which protect Jews from verbal and image-barbarism. There are laws in Europe by which anyone denying the Holocaust can end up in jail, and a poor British historian is in an Austrian jail at the moment for doing so. Excellent.

Then why is the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, pleading helplessness? He did not have to convict anyone himself, for the very good reason that he cannot. But he could have easily referred the matter to his own country’s judiciary and awaited their decision. During the long months when nothing happened over the cartoons this would have been sufficient to calm Muslim unease over the insults. The cartoons appeared on September 30. There was no public reaction in October, November, December and most of January. But there was official reaction.

The Saudi and Libyan governments withdrew their ambassadors. The Danish prime minister, who is desperate for a peaceful dialogue now, held no press conferences then. Eleven ambassadors of Muslim countries wanted to talk to him. They got a polite letter which they construed as a snub.

One reason for the anger is the conviction of gratuitous bias against Muslims. It has now emerged, thanks to a story in the Guardian, that the same Danish newspaper rejected a series of cartoons against Jesus some three years ago because they were deemed to be offensive. It was the correct decision. Journalists like the editor of the German publication Die Welt, who has gone on record to say that the publication of the cartoons is “at the core of our culture” would not find enough freedom in his press to publish a cartoon (produced in a British newspaper, the Independent, in January 2003) showing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dining off Palestinian babies.

I am a journalist too, and would not publish it either. But the editors of continental Europe have suddenly broken into paroxysms of moral indignation at any attempt to question their right to publish offensive cartoons against Islam. Freedom of press was not trotted out to defend nastiness against Jesus or indeed Israel’s prime minister. To do so now is mendacity.

The International Herald Tribune of February 9 reported that Fleming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten (the Danish newspaper that started the controversy) told CNN that his paper was ready to publish cartoons of the Holocaust that were being encouraged by an irresponsible Iranian newspaper, as if two wrongs added up to a right. His newspaper, however, quickly denied any such intentions.

I was in Britain last weekend when this storm was raging. I don’t think that British newspapers have any less desire for a free press than their Continental counterparts. And yet, none of them published the cartoons, although there was doubtless pressure to do so. The BBC (more accurately known as the British Boredcasting Corporation) did a typical weaselly sort of fudge, showing a bit and then removing the image so that it could claim to have it both ways, but no one was very impressed.

Instead, newspapers from across the ideological spectrum, from the Observer on the left to the Sunday Telegraph on the right, published powerful and moving accounts of what it meant to respect the faith of the other. The British media, which is not wimpish and which can be the most aggressive in the world, can today claim the respect of Muslims because of its restraint. British Muslims today feel closer to their country.

Hindus and Muslims have lived with one another as long as Muslims and Christians have. You can go through the literature, popular songs or journalism of India and you will not come across a Hindu writer insulting the Prophet of Islam or a Muslim writer insulting a Hindu god. This does not mean that either has changed his faith. It merely means that in India we have a culture that respects the right of another to believe in a different creed, and values a neighbour’s sentiment as much as his own.

The Danish prime minister began to perspire only when Muslims across the world started boycotting Danish products. His god is commerce, so the only retribution he understands is an insult to that commerce. Muslims who think that violence is the answer, have got it wrong. Violence is wrong in itself, and counterproductive. A boycott of Danish products is far more productive.

Who did we Indians learn this from? Mahatma Gandhi, of course. His challenge to the British empire began with a boycott of British goods. It is only when he made a bonfire of the coloniser’s cloth did the world’s mightiest empire begin to shiver. It is not too difficult to live without Danish cheese, or even Bang and Olufsen. One would, in fact, like to extend the logic. If you have to buy a European product, buy British. That would be a nice way of saying thank you.

The Danish prime minister is searching for answers. But in order to get the right answers you have to ask the right questions. Here is a suggestion, Mr Prime Minister, do not worry about the enemies Denmark has made. Worry instead about the friends Denmark has lost.

The writer is editor-in-chief of Asian Age based in New Delhi.

Forward on Asbestos

IN a triumph of good sense and bipartisan cooperation, the US Senate voted last week to go forward with a bill that would fix the broken asbestos litigation system. Hundreds of thousands of asbestos injury claims have already landed in the courts, contributing to the bankruptcy of more than 70 companies. Without reform, this process will drag on, triggering the bankruptcy of yet more firms, many of which have only tenuous asbestos connections, because the main firms responsible have already gone under.

Meanwhile, many who are ill from asbestos-related diseases won’t be able to get timely compensation or, in some cases, any compensation. Unless the bill passes, Navy veterans, for example, will go uncompensated for diseases caused by asbestos on ships. Veterans are not allowed to sue the government, and many of the shipbuilders are long since bankrupt.

The bill will be debated and amended, and it may face a second attempted filibuster before it gets a vote. Some amendment may be reasonable at the margins, but the bill’s central idea — to replace litigation with a $140 billion compensation fund to be financed by defendant companies and their insurers — must be preserved. Democrats complain that the fund won’t have enough money to compensate asbestos victims; Republicans complain that the fund will have too much money, the raising of which will constitute a burden on small and medium-size firms.

—The Washington Post



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