News & Current Affairs

November 11, 2010

Location, location and how the West was won

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:38 pm
Union flag hoisted in Beijing

On his current visit to Beijing, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said China will soon reclaim its position as the world’s biggest economy – a role it has held for 18 of the past 20 centuries. But how did the US, Britain and the rest of Europe interrupt this reign of supremacy? It comes down to location.

Why does the West dominate the world?

Europeans have been asking this question since the 18th Century, and Africans and Asians since the 19th. But there is still not much agreement on the answers.

People once claimed Westerners were simply biologically superior. Others have argued Western religion, culture, ethics, or institutions are uniquely excellent, or that the West has had better leaders. Others still reject all these ideas, insisting that Western domination is just an accident.

But in the last few years, a new kind of theory has gained ground.

What is the West?

image of Ian Morris Ian Morris Professor, Stanford University


Distinctive ways of life began emerging in different parts of the world 11,000 years ago, when the first farmers created more complex societies. Great civilizations grew out of the original agricultural cores (in what we now call southwest Asia, China, Pakistan, Mexico, and Peru), all of which steadily expanded as population grew.

The westernmost of the Old World’s agricultural cores, in southwest Asia, was the foundation of what we now call Western Civilization. By 500 BC, the Western core had expanded across Europe, its centre of gravity shifting to the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. By 1500 AD it had expanded still further, and its centre was shifting into Western Europe. By 1900 AD it had expanded across the oceans, and its centre was shifting to North America.

People, it suggests, are much the same all over the world. The reason why some groups stuck with hunting and gathering while others built empires and had industrial revolutions has nothing to do with genetics, beliefs, attitudes, or great men: it was simply a matter of geography.

China and India are, of course poised to pick up the baton of global superpowers, but to explain why the West rules, we have to plunge back 15,000 years to the point when the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age.

Geography then dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where farming was possible, because only they had the kinds of climate and landscape which allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could potentially be domesticated.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay towards the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call south-west Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outwards across Europe.

Farming also started independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but the West long retained its early lead, producing the world’s first cities, states, and empires.

But if this were all that there was to the story – that the West got an early lead and held onto it – there would be no controversy over why the West rules. In reality, when we look back across history, we see that things were more complicated. Geography determined how societies developed; but how societies developed simultaneously determined what geography meant.


The first city – 6,000 years ago in Iraq

image of Richard Miles Richard Miles Archaeologist and historian


The ancient Greeks called it Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates. But it is also the land between two seas – the Mediterranean Sea and Persia Gulf. It is also the land between mountain and desert, lagoon and salt marsh. All these geographical features have to be borne in mind when considering the birthplace of the first civilisations.

Geography v history – it’s impossible to know which takes precedence. There’s no getting away from the brutal facts of nature – rivers that flood will dry up, rainfall that’s intermittent, mountains that are impassable, deserts that are hostile.

Applying this kind of analysis to Mesopotamia, where summers are hot, winters are cold and rainfall is low, I’d sum it up like this: difficult but not impossible. No garden of Eden, but no howling wilderness either.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world’s empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World’s great empires – from Rome in the West to Han China in the East – all came apart; but the political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th Century AD, while the West never did so.

For more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on earth, and the East pulled ahead of the West.

East Asian inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 their ships could cross the oceans and their crude guns could shoot the people on the other side. But then, in the kind of paradox that fills human history, the East’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.

Dr Richard MilesPlease turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Richard Miles at Tell Brak – a city first excavated by Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan

Western Europe – sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centres of action – had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s ocean-going ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, neither too big nor too small. It was just big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; and just small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

The Pacific, by contrast, was much too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California – just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th Century’s finest sailors – the Chinese – who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th Century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th Century in what we now call the Enlightenment.


Will China soon rival the US?

George Bush

Many observers think so, but not George W Bush. In an interview with the Times this week, he said that “internal problems” meant it was unlikely to rival the US any time soon. “Do I think America will remain sole superpower? I do.”

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed western Europeans into mechanising production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

But the transforming power of geography did not stop there. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the resources of North America, changing the meaning of geography once again. The US, until recently a rather backward periphery, became the new global core.

And still the process did not stop. In the 20th Century, the American-dominated global economy in turn drew in the resources of Asia. As container ships and jet airliners turned even the vast Pacific Ocean into a puddle, the apparently backward peripheries of Japan, then the “Asian Tigers”, and eventually China and India turned into even newer global cores.

The “rise of the East”, so shocking to so many Westerners, was entirely predictable to those who understood that geography determines how societies develop, and that how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

When power and wealth shifted across the Atlantic from Europe to America in the mid-20th Century, the process was horrifyingly violent. As we move into the mid-21st century, power and wealth will shift across the Pacific from America to China.

The great challenge for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working; it is how to manage its effects without a Third World War.

Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future is published by Profile.

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July 20, 2009

Iran bails UK embassy employee

Iran bails UK embassy employee

Protesters in Tehran, Iran, on 17 July 2009

The election sparked weeks of protests by critics of President Ahmadinejad

Iran has released on bail the last of the British embassy employees arrested in Tehran in connection with last month’s election protests.

Hossein Rassam – the embassy’s chief political analyst – was one of nine local embassy staff originally held.

He was charged with inciting the unrest over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election and is due to stand trial.

Britain has denied Tehran’s accusations that embassy staff had been involved in instigating mass demonstrations.

Abdolsamad Khorramshahi, a lawyer for the released employee, said he had left Tehran’s Evin prison, and that bail had been set at about $100,000 (¬£61,000).

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed Mr Rassam’s release, adding: “The detention of Embassy staff was completely unjustified.”

Protest ban

Violent street protests broke out after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected in the 12 June vote.

At least 20 people are thought to have died during weeks of clashes.

IRAN UNREST
12 June presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled for electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

All gatherings were banned and the protests have died down in recent weeks.

Iran has repeatedly accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of stoking the demonstrations.

Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says the vote was rigged in favour of Mr Ahmadinejad.

The president and Iran’s main election body, the Council of Guardians, have rejected the charge.

On Friday former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani called for the release of jailed protesters.

Speaking at Tehran University, he also said many Iranians still doubted the election results, and that the media should be allowed to discuss the dispute openly.

“It is not necessary to pressure media. We should allow them to work freely within the law,” he said.

As Mr Rafsanjani spoke, thousands of opposition supporters rallied near the university – the first opposition demonstration for more than a week.

July 7, 2009

Fans and family remember Jackson

Fans and family remember Jackson

Michael Jackson’s family and fans have said farewell to the pop superstar at an emotional memorial service.

Jackson’s daughter Paris, 11, fought back tears to describe him as as “the best father you can ever imagine”.

The singer’s coffin was placed in front of the stage during the event at the Staples Center in Los Angeles after an earlier private funeral.

Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey paid tribute before the family joined a sombre finale on stage.

Stevie Wonder said: “This is a moment I wished I didn’t live to see come. Michael I love you.”

The crowd cheered as the golden flower-draped coffin entered the arena to the strains of a choir singing “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re going to see the King” from the song Soon And Very Soon.

Michael Jackson's family

Michael Jackson’s brothers wore his trademark single gloves

Mariah Carey opened the show, performing I’ll Be There, ending with the words: “We miss you.”

Jackson’s brother Jermaine took to the stage to perform the song Smile. It was said to be the King of Pop’s favourite song, featuring the lyric: “Smile though your hearts are aching.”

Others paying tribute included Lionel Richie, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah and Brooke Shields.

Some sang, while others spoke about their memories of the King of Pop and his influence on music and society. Many embraced family members as they left the stage.

The BBC’s Matthew Price, who was in the arena, said: “It’s had to clearly see the family but the glimpses I’m getting show a family both in mourning, and in celebration of his life.

“There are moments of the intensely personal in this very public event.”

Civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton gave a fiery speech, telling Jackson’s children: “There weren’t nothing strange about your daddy.”

“It was strange what your daddy had to deal with but he dealt with it.”

Michael was a personal love of mine, a treasured part of my world, part of the fabric of my life in a way that I can’t seem to find words to express
Diana Ross

Motown boss Berry Gordy, who signed the Jackson Five, ended his tribute with the words: “Michael, thank you for the joy, thank you for the love. you will live in my heart forever.”

Actress Brooke Shields, who first met Jackson when she was 13, broke down in tears as she took to the stage.

Describing Jackson as “pure”, she said: “He was often referred to as the King but the Michael that I knew was always the little prince. Michael saw everything with his heart.”

The 17,500 people in the arena cheered as clips of Jackson’s life and music were played on big screens.

Messages were read from absent guests including former South African President Nelson Mandela, poet Maya Angelou and singer Diana Ross.

Stevie Wonder performing
The stage was adorned with flowers and a tribute to Jackson

The message from Ross was read by Smokey Robinson. “I’m trying to find closure,” it said.

“I want you to know that even though I am not there at the Staples Center I am there in my heart.

“Michael was a personal love of mine, a treasured part of my world, part of the fabric of my life in a way that I can’t seem to find words to express.

“Michael wanted me to be there for his children and I will be there if they ever need me. I hope today brings closure for all those who loved him.”

Other people taking part include Usher and Britain’s Got Talent finalist Shaheen Jafargholi, who has played the young Michael Jackson in the musical Thriller – Live.

The stage is adorned with the star’s image, alongside a mural carrying the words: “In Loving Memory. Michael Jackson King of Pop – 1958-2009.”

Millions of fans around the world are watching on TV.

Roads were closed off and concrete barriers erected outside the Staples Center, where Jackson had been rehearsing a comeback show before his sudden death aged 50 on 25 June.

More than 1.6 million fans applied to attend the memorial event, with 8,750 people chosen at random to receive a pair of tickets.

One person not attending is Jackson’s former wife and the mother of two of his children, Debbie Rowe.

“The onslaught of media attention has made it clear her attendance would be an unnecessary distraction to an event that should focus exclusively on Michael’s legacy,” her lawyer Marta Almli said in a statement.

About 50 cinemas across the US are showing the memorial live. It is also being relayed to big screens across the UK, Australia and Hong Kong.

Family members earlier attended a short funeral service at the Forest Lawn cemetery.

July 4, 2009

UK investigates Iran charge claim

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:14 pm

UK investigates Iran charge claim

Iranian hardline students burn US and British flags during a protest outside the British embassy in Tehran on 23 June 2009

Anti-British protests have been held outside the UK embassy in Tehran

The chief political analyst at the British Embassy in Iran has been charged with “acting against national security”, reports suggest.

The UK Foreign Office is investigating claims by his lawyer that he has been charged and will stand trial shortly.

A senior cleric has said some of the nine embassy staff arrested last month will be tried for inciting protests over Iran’s disputed election.

Britain denies fomenting discontent to undermine Iran’s Islamic regime.

Iranian news agencies have said all but one of the embassy staff have been released, although the UK government claims two remain in custody.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband says he is “deeply concerned” about the situation and has asked for talks with his Iranian counterpart.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman could not confirm reports that the adviser had been charged.

‘Confessions’

“We are still investigating. The situation remains extremely unclear and fluid,” she added.

News agencies have reported the lawyer as saying he has not yet been able to meet with his client or see the text of the indictment.

Protests gripped Tehran and other Iranian cities after June’s presidential election, amid claims the vote had been rigged in favour of the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On Friday, Ahmad Jannati, leader of the Iran’s supreme legislative body the Guardian Council, said: “The British Embassy had a presence and some people were arrested.

“Well inevitably they will be put on trial. They have made confessions too.”

However, he did not say how many employees would be tried or on what charges.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported this week that one of the detainees had played a “remarkable role during the recent unrest in managing it behind the scenes”.

Nine embassy staff were held last weekend. Britain says all but two have now been freed.

Mr Miliband said Britain was urgently seeking clarification from Iran about any possible trial or charges, which have reportedly been brought against one employee at Evin prison in Tehran.

Deterioration

“We are confident that our staff have not engaged in any improper or illegal behaviour,” he added.

The Foreign Office later confirmed that Iranian envoy Rasoul Movahedian had been summoned and the same message reiterated.

IRAN UNREST
12 June presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled for electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

European Union governments have summoned Iranian ambassadors to protest against the detentions.

An EU official told us that, in addition, visas for Iranians holding Iranian diplomatic passports would be suspended.

The official said other measures, including the withdrawal of EU ambassadors from Iran, would be considered if the two staff members were not released.

Our diplomatic correspondent¬† says Ayatollah Jannati’s speech marks a significant deterioration in the already bad relationship between London and Tehran.

Tehran has repeatedly accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of stoking unrest after the election.

In the fallout from the crisis, Tehran expelled two British diplomats and the UK responded with a similar measure.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last month described Britain, as the “most evil” of its enemies.

The issue of how to deal with Iran is set to dominate the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations in Italy next week.

Some EU countries have urged caution, arguing that Europe should engage with Iran, not isolate it.

But if the embassy staff are put on trial, the EU may have few other options than to tighten the diplomatic screw, correspondents say.

July 1, 2009

Iran ‘disqualifies’ EU from talks

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:09 pm

Iran ‘disqualifies’ EU from talks

13 June

Britain has denied allegations of involvement in the Iranian riots

The EU is no longer qualified to take part in talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, Iran’s military chief says.

Maj Gen Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran’s chief of staff, accused the EU of “interference” in riots which followed June’s disputed presidential elections.

The EU has for the past few years been involved in talks to try to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

EU states, meanwhile, are considering withdrawing their ambassadors from Iran in a growing diplomatic row.

External pressure

Britain has proposed the step, after Iran detained nine of its embassy staff in Tehran last week. Eight have since been released.

The diplomatic correspondent says the diplomatic signalling seems to have had an effect, and EU governments will now be looking for the remaining detained staff member to be released.

He adds that the problem more generally is that any external pressure tends to be used by the Iranian government to bolster its own narrative of outside interference.

In the wake of mass street protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s relection, Iran’s Basij militia has called for the defeated opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi to be prosecuted.

‘Nine offences’

The semi-official Fars news agency said the militia – a volunteer force of Islamic government loyalists – had accused Mr Mousavi of nine offences, including propaganda against the state, and complicity in disrupting national security.

It is our historic responsibility to continue our complaint and make efforts not to give up the rights of the people
Mir Hossein Mousavi
Iranian presidential candidate

In a letter to the chief prosecutor, the militia said Mr Mousavi had been involved in the street protests, in which about 17 protesters and a number of militia members were killed.

The Iranian presidential elections, held on 12 June, returned President Ahmadinejad to power for a second term in office.

But the opposition disputed the result, saying the vote had been rigged.

Both Mr Mousavi, and another defeated opposition candidate Mehdi Karoubi, have issued statements on their websites describing any government led by President Ahmadinejad as “illegitimate”.

Mr Mousavi wrote: “It is our historic responsibility to continue our complaint, and make efforts not to give up the rights of the people.”

And he called for the release of the “children of the revolution” – a reference to the hundreds of reformist figures detained during the unrest.

‘Hostility’

In his statement, reported by Fars, army chief of staff Gen Firouzabadi accused some EU members of supporting the riots, and demonstrating their hostility to the Iranian people.

The EU has yet to comment, but earlier urged Iran to avoid conflict with the international community.

Previously, Iran had aimed its allegations at Britain in particular and at the weekend detained the local employees of its embassy. Five were released on Monday, and a further three on Wednesday.

Iran says it is enriching uranium for power plants, but some Western countries suspect it plans to build nuclear weapons.

Three EU countries – Britain, France and Germany – have led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, along with the United States, Russia and China.

‘Non-negotiable’

At their last talks, they offered Iran a package of incentives if it would stop its nuclear activities.

But Iran insists that its right to enrich uranium is non-negotiable.

In a separate development, officials in Tehran said President Ahmadinejad had cancelled his trip to an African Union summit in Libya.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s office did not give any reason for the decision.

June 21, 2009

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greece urges return of sculptures

Greek President Karolos Papoulias has renewed his country’s call for Britain to return sculptures removed from the Parthenon in Athens 200 years ago.

At the opening of the Acropolis Museum, Mr Papoulias said it was “time to heal the wounds” of the ancient temple.

The new museum, opened five years behind schedule, houses sculptures from the golden age of Athens.

Britain has repeatedly refused to return dozens of 2,500-year-old marble friezes housed in the British Museum.

“Today the whole world can see the most important sculptures of the Parthenon assembled, but some are missing,” said Mr Papoulias.

“It’s time to heal the wounds of the monument with the return of the marbles which belong to it.”

‘International context’

The sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, originally decorated the Parthenon temple and have been in London since they were sold to the museum in 1817 by Lord Elgin.

He had them removed from the temple when he was visiting Greece, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

After several adventures, obstructions and criticism, the new Acropolis Museum is ready
Antonis Samaras

The British Museum long argued that Greece had no proper place to put them – an argument the Greek government hopes the Acropolis Museum addresses.

The opening ceremony was attended by heads of state and government and cultural envoys from about 30 countries, the UN and the EU.

There were no government officials from Britain, but the most senior British guest, Bonnie Greer, the deputy head of the board of trustees of the British Museum, said she believed more strongly than ever that the marbles should remain in London.

She argued that in London they are displayed in an international cultural context.

She said a loan was possible, but that would require Greece to acknowledge British ownership, something Greece refuses.

The British Museum holds 75m of the original 160m of the frieze that ran round the inner core of the building.

‘Act of barbarism’

Their reconstruction in the Acropolis Museum is based on several elements that remain in Athens, as well as copies of the marbles in London.

The modern glass and concrete building, at the foot of the Acropolis, holds about 350 artefacts and sculptures from the golden age of Athens that were previously held in a small museum on top of the Acropolis.

The structure is Greece’s answer to the British argument that there is nowhere in their country to house the Elgin marbles
Razia Iqbal, BBC arts correspondent

The £110m ($182m; 130m euros) structure, set out over three levels, also offers panoramic views of the stone citadel where they came from.

The third floor features the reconstruction of the Parthenon Marbles.

The copies are differentiated by their white colour – because they are plaster casts, contrasting with the weathered marble of the originals.

Museum director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis said the opening of the museum provides an opportunity to correct “an act of barbarism” in the sculptures’ removal.

“Tragic fate has forced them apart but their creators meant them to be together,” he said.

Bernard Tschumi, the building’s US-based architect, said: “It is a beautiful space that shows the frieze itself as a narrative – even with the plaster copies of what is in the British Museum – in the context of the Parthenon itself.”

December 25, 2008

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope Benedict XVI has used his traditional Christmas Midnight Mass to call for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East.

Addressing a huge congregation at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica, he appealed for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, amid tight security.

The Pope will deliver his Christmas Day message from St Peter’s later.

Appealing for new efforts to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, Pope Benedict urged people to pray that “hearts will be opened, so borders will be opened”.

The 81-year-old pontiff plans to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next May, although final details of his trip have yet to be worked out.

Also in his homily, Pope Benedict appealed for an end to child abuse.

“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.

“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised to the depths of their soul.

Children being blessed by Pope Benedict during Midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

The Pope blessed a number of children in his congregation

As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of the flood-lit St Peter’s Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

For those unable to enter, giant screens were set up in St Peter’s Square.

Most of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians mark Christmas this week.

Others, chiefly from among the 200 million Orthodox Christians who use the Julian Calendar for their feast days, celebrate the Nativity on 7 January.

Across the world, believers have been attending Christmas church services and, in some countries, families gathered for a traditional festive dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve.

‘Explosion of love’

There was a heavy security presence in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as thousands of Christian pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas.

Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe
Stefano Croce
Italian fashion photographer

Among those who attended the service in Bethlehem, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, were about 200 worshippers from the Gaza Strip whom Israel granted special permission to make the journey.

Extra Palestinian security personnel were deployed to Bethlehem from the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jericho to safeguard visitors.

Correspondents in the town met elated pilgrims, gathering around nightfall outside the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A dozen believers from India, Canada, Britain, the US and other countries sung impromptu renditions of Christmas carols, the Associated Press reported.

US citizen David Bogenrief, 57, played the trumpet, telling a gaggle of local children who were listening: “Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you.”

In Manger Square, vendors sold roasted peanuts and Santa Claus hats to the crowds, among whom were some local Muslims out enjoying the annual international fuss over their town.

Correspondents say a relative lull in violence in the Middle East seems to have encouraged pilgrims to return to the “Holy Land”.

“Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it’s like an explosion of love here,” said Italian fashion photographer Stefano Croce, 46.

In his traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” speech – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – from the balcony of St Peter’s, Pope Benedict is expected to touch on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican.

He will then issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.

October 2, 2008

Britain’s top policeman resigns

Britain’s top policeman resigns

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has announced his resignation, blaming a lack of support from London mayor Boris Johnson.

Sir Ian said that “without the mayor’s backing I do not think I can continue”.

Mr Johnson, who took over as chairman of the police authority on Wednesday, praised his service but said the Met would benefit from “new leadership”.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said deputy commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson will take over as acting head of the Met.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Sir Ian had made a “huge personal contribution to the safety and security of our country”.

He paid tribute to Sir Ian’s leadership at the time of the July 2005 suicide bomb attacks on London’s transport system.

Ms Smith said: “I pay tribute to Sir Ian for the massive reductions in crime that his leadership of the Met has overseen and his continuing efforts to tackle gun, gang and knife crime.”

“His part in leading neighbourhood policing across London has led to Londoners being safer and more confident.”

Mr Johnson, who has repeatedly avoided publicly backing Sir Ian since being elected mayor in May, had called for the commissioner to be directly accountable to City Hall.

Speaking after Sir Ian’s resignation, the mayor said: “There comes a time in any organisation when it becomes clear it would benefit from new leadership and clarity of purpose. I believe that time is now.”

The former London mayor Ken Livingstone said the circumstances of the resignation appeared to be a political decision.

“Whoever now takes the job as Sir Ian’s successor will know that they may be asked to leave at a change of election.”

‘No secrets’

Sir Ian, who became the UK’s top police officer in February 2005, said he would be stepping down on 1 December.

Defending his record, Sir Ian said: “I am resigning not because of any failures of my service and not because the pressures of the office and the many stories that surround it are too much.

The new mayor made clear, in a very pleasant and determined way, that he wished there to be a change of leadership
Sir Ian Blair

“I am resigning in the best interests of the people of London and of the Metropolitan Police Service.”

He said he had wanted to stay on until his contract ran out in February 2010.

“However, at a meeting yesterday the new mayor made clear, in a very pleasant and determined way, that he wished there to be a change of leadership at the Met.”

Sir Ian’s tenure has been dogged by controversy.

MPA auditors are in the process of examining Scotland Yard contracts given to consultancy firm Impact Plus, run by a friend.

Sir Ian has said he had been “open and straightforward in informing both the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] and the MPA about my relationship with someone who was subsequently awarded a contract with the MPS”.

Sir Ian has also faced criticism over the racism row involving the Met’s most senior Asian officer Tarique Ghaffur.

There have been questions too about his handling of events surrounding the 2005 death of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead at Stockwell Underground station in south London after being mistaken for a suicide bomber.

The Met Police were later convicted of a health and safety offence over the incident.

Erionaldo da Silva, speaking on behalf of the de Menezes family, said Sir Ian should have resigned three years ago and the decision to do so now should not deflect attention from Jean Charles’ ongoing inquest.

Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said Sir Ian had taken the “right decision” in standing down.

“We have been calling for Sir Ian to step down for almost a year – since the serial and systematic failings at the Metropolitan Police [service] disclosed during the de Menezes trial – whilst cabinet ministers from the PM onwards continued to express total confidence in him.

HAVE YOUR SAY

It’s a very difficult job, and I don’t believe that he did badly, but he needs to go

Nic Brough, London

“It is now clear that they have shown a serious lack of judgment about the leadership of the most important police force in Britain.

“It is vital that a successor is appointed who can restore public confidence.”

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said Sir Ian “had become part of the Met’s problem, not its solution”.

“His resignation is long overdue following a string of embarrassments for his force… the Met now needs a tough professional, not a wannabe politician.”

Sir Edward Henry was the last commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to quit in 1918. His departure came after the hugely damaging police strike of that year, the last time officers were allowed to walk out.

September 13, 2008

Details of Zimbabwe deal emerge

Details of Zimbabwe deal emerge

Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe, file images

Both Mr Tsvangirai (l) and Mr Mugabe claim to have won this year’s elections

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is to retain control of the army and chair cabinet meetings, according to leaks of Thursday’s power-sharing deal.

South African President Thabo Mbeki said Mr Mugabe had agreed to share power with Morgan Tsvangirai but said details would be released on Monday.

Mr Tsvangirai will control the police force and chair a new council of ministers, the sources say.

The deal followed seven weeks of talks and this year’s election violence.

Mr Mugabe has yet to comment on the agreement, brokered by South Africa’s leader.

Fair division?

BBC News is banned in Zimbabwe, but a correspondent inside the country says MDC supporters are not rejoicing on the streets, nor are Zanu-PF backers protesting.

Instead a silent optimism prevails – and after so many false dawns, Zimbabwe is holding its breath, our correspondent says.

REPORTED DEAL
Robert Mugabe:
President
Heads armed forces
Chairs cabinet
Zanu-PF has 15 ministers
Morgan Tsvangirai:
Prime minister
Chairs council of ministers
Controls police force
MDC has 16 ministers – 3 from smaller faction

International donors have said they would resume financial aid for Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy if Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is given a genuine share of power.

The EU said it would “evaluate the situation” at a foreign ministers’ meeting on Monday.

The agreement appears to give Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai roughly equal shares of power.

In cabinet, Mr Tsvangirai’s MDC and another MDC faction will together have 16 seats, while Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF will have the remaining 15.

Mr Mugabe will control the armed forces, while Mr Tsvangirai will be in charge of the police.

Our correspondent says the devil will lie in the detail and in the ability of the two men and the power blocks under them to wield genuine authority.

Mbeki hails deal

Work on finalizing the agreement will continue over the weekend. Some opposition MDC voices have already called the deal a climb-down, although others have said it is the best available.

MDC chairman and Zimbabwe’s parliamentary speaker Lovemore Moyo told that although his party was pleased with the deal, it had been a compromise.

“We wanted a titular head of state with an executive prime minister but that did not happen,” he said.

“So what we got at the end of the day perhaps was probably nearly a sister-sister power-sharing, so I’m saying it’s not exactly initially what we wanted.”

Negotiations started at the end of July, but stalled over the allocation of executive power between Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai – bitter rivals for a decade.

The breakthrough came after the last four days of talks in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

Mr Tsvangirai was first to announce the breakthrough, telling reporters on Thursday simply: “We’ve got a deal.”

Later, Mr Mbeki told a news conference the two sides had agreed to form an inclusive government.

He said: “I am absolutely certain that the leadership of Zimbabwe is committed to implementing these agreements.”

The deal would be signed at a ceremony in Harare attended by African leaders, he said.

British concern

Zimbabwe’s envoy to the UN, Boniface Chidyausiku, told the BBC that the deal was a “triumph for African diplomacy”.

The UN special representative on Zimbabwe, Haile Menkerios, said the announcement marked a way forward that all sides could live with.

HAVE YOUR SAY

This deal will work if outsiders stop prescribing to Zimbabweans what is good or not good for them

Dzvinyangoma, Zimbabwe

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was following the situation closely, adding that “our concern is the welfare of the Zimbabwean people”.

Zimbabwe has the fastest shrinking economy in the world with annual inflation of more than 11,000,000%.

Mr Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, won a controversial presidential run-off election in June.

He ran unopposed after Mr Tsvangirai withdrew, claiming the MDC was the target of state-sponsored violence.

In the first round of the presidential election in March, Mr Tsvangirai gained more votes than Mr Mugabe, but official results say he did not pass the 50% threshold for outright victory.

September 12, 2008

Fears for package holiday firm XL

Fears for package holiday firm XL

Spanish beach

Tour operators have been hit by soaring fuel costs

Package holiday firm XL has filed for administration after experiencing financial difficulties, reports say.

The firm is Britain’s third biggest tour operator and flies to 50 destinations, mainly in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.

XL is the latest travel firm to face financial difficulties as the industry struggles with sky-high fuel costs and an economic downturn.

Low-cost transatlantic airline Zoom collapsed last month.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said the company currently continued to hold a license to operate as a tour operator and commercial airline.

He said: “It has not been confirmed to us that XL have filed for administration.”

Financial protection

The carrier had already cancelled its schedule of flights to the Caribbean.

If the firm were to collapse, package holidaymakers would be protected under the Atol scheme, a financial protection package.

Administrators might be able to help the company continue.

“But many companies have gone into administration and not survived, it’s a sign there is severe problems with the company’s accounts,” he said.

“Other airlines who have had similar problems have had aircraft impounded.”

If the news is true, it is a major, major thing for the industry
Bob Atkinson, Travel Supermarket

Travel writer, Simon Calder, described XL’s airline operation: “A pretty large airline with 21 aircraft, [it] flies all over the world, the Caribbean; Mediterranean; North Africa and North America, from airports across the UK.

“It does most charter work, but also quite a lot of – effectively – no-frills, scheduled work.”

Bob Atkinson, of the price comparison website Travel Supermarket said XL’s troubles would be blow for the travel trade.

He said: “If the news is true, it is a major, major thing for the industry, the British travel industry. They are a very large operator and this will send serious shock waves through the industry.

“And what it’s going to do more than anything, it’s going to highlight how precarious the airline industry is at the moment.”

XL customer Marion Foster of Thame, Oxfordshire, has a flight booked to Rhodes next week and was contacted by customer services on Wednesday to ensure her tickets had arrived.

She said: “At the time I thought it was a nice customer service touch to receive such a phone call but now I don’t know what to think.

“As I only booked flights with them it looks like I will lose my money which seems somewhat unfair.”


Are you affected by the issues in this story? Do you have a holiday booked with XL? Send us your comments and experiences

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