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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."
 

ISC 14. One law for the rich...

Bill Lehm

How do you get arrested for advocating respect for the law? People are now in prison for committing this very crime. Why?

The acronym GATS stands for the General Agreement on Trade in Services. The General Agreement on Trade in Services was originally agreed at the WTO in 1994. The aim of this agreement is to remove any restrictions and internal government regulations in the area of service delivery that are considered to be 'barriers to trade'. 1

The phrase 'restrictions and internal government regulations' is a euphemism for the word 'laws.' Why didn't they use the word 'laws' in their document? Well, people become very emotional about laws and, more specifically, the law. Most people have the utmost respect for it and believe that it is one of the few barriers we have between civilisation and barbarism: unscrupulous people, people who are very sophisticated but not very civilised, should not be allowed to do exactly what they want to.

Those laws that address environmental issues, planning issues, trade union rights, safety, fundamental human rights and the public provision of public services will, without question, become 'barriers to trade.'

Public libraries and most academic libraries are public services. The World Trade Organisation considers that private businesses or corporations should provide all public services. We live in an information economy. This means that information has to be paid for and it could mean that you have to pay to borrow or pay a subscription or it could mean that, because people could borrow books rather than buy them, libraries could be declared illegal. This is not as far-fetched as it seems: libraries themselves would become 'barriers to trade '.

And the Internet? Remember that the most important word in all this is 'trade'. Anyone who provides information for free could be prevented from doing so because that would make it less likely that a company/corporation could successfully charge for providing the same information or, as they would put it, trading the information.

Even if this were not to happen do you believe that a corporation would allow access to all information, especially that which took a less than rosy view of its own operations. Imagine if those paradigmatic multinational corporations Nestle, Macdonald's or Exxon went into the library business.

The WTO is the main reason that Tony Blair persists with his policy of privatising every public service he can think of even though opinion polls say that only one person in ten in the UK is in favour of it. This is hardly democracy in action. But the UK is a fully signed up member of the WTO and we therefore have to do what they say. Do what who says? Sorry, we don't know their names. Who elected them? Sorry, they weren't elected? Can we appeal against their decisions? Sorry,...

In Seattle in November 1999 a demonstration developed over the period that the WTO were meeting there. It was one of the first big demonstrations against their activities in the 'developed' world although many demonstrations had taken place all over the undeveloped world for many years previously. Thousands upon thousands of people had demonstrated in places such as Latin America, Indonesia, Thailand, and India where as many as 250,000 people have demonstrated more than once against measures inflicted upon them by the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. Please do not refer to these countries as 'developing countries' - the interest they have to pay on their loans prevents them from developing. The term is an IMF euphemism used to deny the reality of their situations. Since Seattle there have been demonstrations in Quebec, Melbourne, Prague, Washington, Nice, Barcelona, Gothenberg, Salzburg and Genoa, as well as many other places where these organisations or those who influence them such as politicians, bankers and industrialists meet.

At the EU summit in Gothenberg on June 15th 2001 police officers fired 12 shots and injured three people including 19 year old Hannes Westberg who lost a kidney and his spleen as a result. In Genoa in July countless people were beaten in their sleep in the Diaz school which was supposed to be a safe haven. The walls literally ran with blood. And one person in Genoa, 20 year old Carlos Guiliani, was shot through the head and died. In Gothenberg on June 15th a bullet missed a demonstrator's head by centimetres: he was saved by a lamppost. Not one policeman in either city has since been charged with any offence. The implication is that police forces throughout the EU have carte blanche to shoot demonstrators knowing that they will not be called to account for doing so.

We have the Human Rights Act to protect us in the UK but we also have the Criminal Justice Bill, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Electronic Powers Act, and the updated Prevention of Terrorism Act which put together seem to make up as effective a tool to undermine the Human Rights Act as it possibly can be. It seems that there are so many Acts restricting your ability to act that you have fewer ways to act without breaking the law than you ever had before. Especially if you chose to show dissent to anything the lawmakers, restrictors or internal government regulators do. Unless, of course, you are a multinational corporation, or a member of the security forces, a judge or a Cabinet Minister (but not an ordinary Member of Parliament - they can be Whipped anytime). Oh, and there are also cameras everywhere watching almost everything you do.

And some tools can be used to restrict people, which have not been discussed by Parliament at all. Schengen is a small village in Luxembourg not much bigger than our Houses of Parliament. There, in June 1985, EU member states agreed to abolish controls at the borders between them by 1990 to allow for the free movement of their nationals. Part of what is known as the Schengen Acquis is the Schengen Information System, which was launched in March 1995. The Schengen Information System (SIS) is a computerised information exchange system based in Strasbourg, which is available to the police forces of all member states. This is basically a list of names of people considered to be potential troublemakers. You do not need to have a criminal conviction to be included on it, you do not even have to have been given a warning to be included; you simply have to be suspected of having the potential to cause trouble.

The information contained on the Schengen Information System does not have to be accurate. It may more honestly be referred to as the Schengen Suspicion System - the 'suss laws' reinvented and applied over a much wider area but in a way that you don't even know it's happening until the day you are prevented 'in the interests of public order and security' from entering a country where a protest is expected, or if you are suspected of some kind of criminal act in a country you have just returned from and find yourself being extradited. Impossible? You would be amazed: this is exactly what this 'information' (here a nod and a wink is in order) will be used for. But surely the Data Protection Act applies? Sorry...

The UK Select Committee on the European Union in the House of Lords had grave reservations about the lack of Data Protection provision in the Schengen Aquis. That doesn't matter: 'In the UK the ratification process will, as usual, be a mere formality with the Convention simply being "laid before the House" (under the "Ponsonby rules")'. 2 The Ponsonby Rules are those antiquated parliamentary procedures which include the Royal Prerogative that prevent the UK from ever becoming an elective dictatorship by ensuring that we always have an elected monarchy in place, instead of in parallel to the hereditary one.

Don't worry, we have the courts. But a mention in the Schengen Information System will almost certainly merit a mention in the courts and recourse to law will only be in national courts, not at the European Court of Justice. As a matter of fact most of the member governments made Herculean efforts to ensure that recourse to law could not be in the European Court of Justice. And, of course, there is no such thing as an international criminal court.

At the EU Summit meeting held in Gothenberg in June where George Bush was a guest, three people were shot at demonstrations and over 50 arrests were made. Some were subsequently released but others went on trial. Most were charged with "violent riot," an offence, which, at the time, invited a prison sentence of two or three months, based on precedent. Paul Robinson, an English Library Attendant who works at University College London, was among them.

On the 15th, Paul was arrested at a street party which the organisers had agreed with the police would end at 10 p.m. The police attacked the crowd at 9 p.m. The time on Paul's arrest record, 9.40 p.m., is when the documentation was being filled in at the Police Headquarters quite a distance from the scene of the party. Video evidence presented to the court showed him rolling a stone about two metres parallel to the police lines into a gutter where it came to a stop without coming near anyone let alone hurting anyone. He was separate from the main body of the crowd and among a crowd of journalists and photographers. He had actually tried to leave the scene but was prevented from doing so by the pressure of people. He admitted in court that what he did was stupid but the evidence shows that he was not aiming the stone at anyone or trying to hurt anyone. The gesture was not even one of sympathy with the crowd, it was merely one of frustration.

At the court, the prosecutor held one stone in each hand. In the hand nearest to the bench was a large stone which, he pointed out, was similar in size to those thrown at the street party, in the hand furthest from the bench was a much smaller stone which, he said, was about the size of the one Paul rolled into the gutter. However, during his 40 minute summing up, he kept raising the larger stone, drawing the bench's attention to it and away from the smaller one. The prosecutor also mentioned the fact that Paul had been tried in December 2000 for a similar offence in London. What he did not mention was that the demonstration he was arrested at in November 1999 was called by the Railway unions at Euston Station in London to protest against the declining safety standards on the railways in Britain and that he was found not guilty on all charges. The Schengen Information System. The bench in Gothenberg consisted of a judge and four politicians all of whom lived locally. So did the Prosecutor. So did the officer in charge of policing the event. The trial had nothing to do with justice - it was an opportunity for revenge. It was a show trial. The following week it was announced that Paul had been sentenced to one year in prison.

At his second trial (not strictly an appeal - all those charged under Swedish Law are entitled to two trials as a matter of course) the police witness who was also a witness at 23 other trials kept referring to Paul as a terrorist. Paul objected to this, especially in relation to what had happened the day before when the World Trade Centre had been bombed. The judge allowed the witness to continue in the same vein. The original sentence was subsequently confirmed. Almost all Swedish people I have spoken to would prefer their legal system to include juries on the British model. Successive British Home Secretaries have done their utmost to limit juries in British courts.

Since September 11th the Council of the European Union has put forward a definition of "terrorism" in which a "terrorist offence" would include actions "with the aim of seriously ... affecting or destroying the political, economic or social structures of a country or of an international organisation" "Such a broad definition would clearly embrace protests such as those in Gothenberg and Genoa." 3 The UK and Ireland don't even want the word 'seriously' included. What affects the political structures of countries? Opposition parties, news media, pressure groups, elections, and any kind of dissent. The crippled, corrupt system of government we have in the western world which, for the convenience of certain interested parties, is labelled "democracy" can finally be laid to rest.

On October 10th, 'A group of prominent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in industrialized countries sent a sharply worded letter to the World Trade Organization (WTO) charging that it "is facing a fundamental crisis of legitimacy" which requires comprehensive institutional reforms ... Trade ministers often represent or listen to only certain business interests, which results in policies that "are unbalanced or otherwise lack legitimacy." 4

On October 15th, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said: "It is the first job of government and the essence of our democracy that we safeguard rights and freedoms, the most basic of which is to live safely and in peace." 5 In the comedy science fiction film Mars Attacks the Martians always say "We are your friends" as they laughingly kill the helpless Earthlings. I had no idea when I first saw it that I was watching the most politically astute film of the millennium so far. If the law cannot protect and defend ordinary people from the excesses of criminals, the security forces, prosecutors, politicians or corporations, how can ordinary people possibly have any respect for the law? Indeed, they would probably have exactly the same level of respect for their country's laws as that outlined in the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

Notes

1. http://www.wdm.org.uk/campa ign/GATS.htm

2. http://www.poptel.org.uk/cgi-bin/dbs2/statewatch?query=schengen&mode=records&row_id=18288

3. http://www.s tatewatch.org/news/2001/oct/08counterr.htm

4. Gustavo Capdevila: http://www.wtowatch. org/news/index.cfm?ID=2901

5. http://www.statewatc h.org/news/2001/oct/09ukterr1.htm

Bill Lehm is a UNISON representative for library staff, at University College London Branch, UNISON

 

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