News in brief N°8

A summary of select international news: Inequality in the US is as bad as it was nearly a century ago, public opinion ignored, people support better pay even if prices increase, chemical weapons in Syria, a short history of chemical weapons in the Middle East.

The concentration of wealth and incomes to the top 1% and 0.5% wealthiest people in the United States of America are now more extreme than they were in the early to mid 1920s.

On a related note, the average African American household has far less wealth than it did in the early 1980s. Their wealth shrank to about a quarter of what it used to be, when comparing 1983 to 2013. The median wealth of white households in the US was $116,800 compared to $1,700 for black and $2000 for hispanic households (2013). This is a clear indication of the continuing marginalisation and discrimination that black and hispanic households must struggle against in that country.

A poll conducted on behalf of the US restaurant industry’s National Restaurant Association (NRA) found that 71% of people surveyed would support raising the country’s federal minimum wage to at least $10 per hour. This large association has significant sway on wages, thanks in part to its efforts to lobby governments. According to The Intercept, the NRA CEO’s total compensation from 2014 amounts to $1,867.88 per hour. A restaurant worker paid the current federal minimum wage would have to work about 6 full-time weeks in order to equal the hour of work put in by this CEO.

The US state of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has approved a massive increase in the extraction of local well water by the Nestlé corporation. Prior to the approval, Nestlé was permitted to pump out 1,137 litres (250 gallons) of water per minute. The new permit has increased that number to 1,818 litres (400 gallons) per minute. The state requested public input and comment before a decision was made. They received over 80,000 comments from the public, a record for that state. 80,945 of those filed were against the permit, while only 75 supported it. The agency approved it despite such wide opposition, ignoring the public input. The state of Michigan is notorious for the toxicity of the drinking water in the town of Flint. Flint is a majority black city where 40% of the population lives under the poverty level. A common theme of the comments opposing Nestlé’s increased access to local well water regarded opposition to the notion of the sale of water as a profit-making enterprise.

The alleged chemical weapons use in Syrian town of Douma is not at all certain. The incident was made popularly known in part thanks to a video released from a medical treatment centre that showed people being washed as a response to the reported attack. A doctor who works at the clinic has confirmed that the video is accurate, to a point. Doctor Assim Rahaibani was not at the clinic at the time the video was taken but he states that he and other doctors remember well the events of the incident in question. He claims that the area was under heavy shelling and aerial bombardment from Syrian forces. As is common, people took shelter, “but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet’, shouted ‘Gas!’, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.” This on the ground report was conducted by the journalist of very long-standing, Robert Fisk. He also tried to find White Helmets in order to get their side of the story. He couldn’t find any. A resident told him that most of the White Helmets joined the convoy of rebel fighters that went to Idlib province under truce agreement with the Syrian government and with the protection of Russian troops. The White Helmets are partly funded by the UK Foreign Office. The US, Britain and France conducted rocket attacks against Syrian government facilities as a response to the alleged chemical attack. All of them, save the French government, claim that they are more-or-less sure a chemical attack took place and that it was conducted by Syrian forces. The French government claims that it has secret evidence of this, which it has yet to make public.

The Syrian government is supposed to have destroyed its stock of chemical weapons in 2016, after a deal was struck between them, the US, and Russia, among others.

“We judge it likely that […] chemical exports by UK companies were subsequently used by Syria in their programmes to produce nerve agents, including Sarin.” This is a statement by former UK foreign secretary, William Hague, in 2014. The chemicals mentioned were sold in the 1980s. These are believed to be among the ingredients used to develop those Syrian weapons which the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has said are now destroyed. The UK government is heavily invested in and directly involved in the general negotiations around the sale of weapons and related materials. This is not unique to that country. Those countries that have the industrial capacity to produce masses of weaponry are similarly engaged in such negotiations. The reasons commonly given are economic, job creation, national security, and national interest.

The 1980s was a time when chemical weapons were indeed used in the vicinity of Syria. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein used such weapons in the nearly decade long war against Iran. These weapons struck soldiers and civilians. They were also employed in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Iraq’s Kurdish population. The chemicals involved were sold to them by outside countries and firms. More on this below.

The Iraqi invasion of Iran was supported throughout by Western and Gulf Arab countries. This support amounted to political, military, and financial assistance. The Iraqi invasion came on the heels of a successful 1979 revolution in Iran that ousted the Pahlavi monarchy from power. The last king of Iran was a staunch ally of the US and the UK. He had, in the 1950s, fled the country after a parliamentary democratic movement rose to successfully oppose him. That brief period of parliamentary democracy ended after US and British intelligence organised a coup that forcibly returned the king to the throne and granted him the powers of an absolute monarch.

Following this coup, liberal, left wing, and national independence groups were attacked. They were effectively ground down and destroyed. Political religious organisations were not similarly crushed. They were left as one of the few places within which to discuss and organise politically. These groups eventually broke with the established traditions of their religious schools and entered into attempts for direct political control, a surprise to many. The Islamic Republic of Iran is, in short, a result of this. It was established in 1979.

This new republic was deemed weak at the time of its inception, the perfect time to wage war in order to once again return Iran to its role as a client state. Iraq was made the tool for this, it being understood that they would likely conquer and keep the oil and gas rich south-west of Iran. To everyone’s surprise, the new Iranian state was able to put up a stiff resistance despite the multinational effort to defeat it. In response, the Iraqi government developed and used chemical weapons despite the full knowledge of numerous large national powers.

The US helped Iraq to get its hands on the materials needed to launch a chemical weapons programme. Widely documented evidence is available in places such as CBS News, writing that the US “authorized providing Iraq with intelligence and logistical support, and okayed the sale of dual use items – those with military and civilian applications –that included chemicals and germs, even anthrax and bubonic plague.” David Newton, former US ambassador to Iraq has said that, “Fundamentally, the policy was justified. We were concerned that Iraq should not lose the war with Iran, because that would have threatened Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.” After international condemnation of the use of chemical weapons grew, especially since they were used against the Kurds, the US assistant secretary of state defended their international policies: “The U.S.-Iraqi relationship is … important to our long-term political and economic objectives.”

The UK government of the time supported the construction of a chemicals plant in Iraq (1985). The government financially backed a UK company to construct the plant despite the fact that officials knew that there was the “strong possibility” it would be used in the gassing of enemies. The UK business in question was owned by a German parent company. In 2013, it was estimated that some 100,000 survivors of chemical weapons were still living in Iran. This does not include the Iraqi Kurds who were similarly affected. The Guardian newspaper states that “Companies based in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, the US, India and Egypt were involved in selling and providing material for these chemical weapons to Iraq.”

This short historic reminder should alert us to that fact that no matter the current public cries made by the governments of the US, UK, and France against the use of chemical weapons, they are themselves very familiar with their deployment and development in the same general region that they have recently bombed under the pretence of defending the public good.

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