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'Western technological advantage is beginning to decline'

February 27, 2006 09:37 IST

He is a member of the House of Commons, the British parliament, representing the left wing of the ruling Labour Party. At the International Conference for Peace and Justice in South Asia in Mumbai, Jeremy Corbyn was keen to listen, articulate his opinions and curious about alternative voices.

Corbyn, the MP for Islington North, has been a voice against the war in Iraq and is organising a massive anti-war protest to be held in London next month. He is an advocate of disarmament and supports liberation struggles in various countries, especially Palestine.

Chinmayee Manjunath spoke to Corbyn about the Iraq war, the recent Palestinian election and globalisation in the Third World.

You are one of the founder members of the Stop the War Coalition and have been very critical of the United Kingdom's involvement in Iraq. The Iraqi occupation is well into its fourth year and we continue to hear about atrocities, like the one at Abu Ghraib prison. Doesn't it seem like public opinion has completely been sidestepped?

It may seem so but I think these large numbers of protestors are very important. As is the percentage of public opinion, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, that is against the war. Very few people want to be associated with what is happening in Iraq, the majority are shocked. And therefore, US President George W Bush and Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair are isolated.

But this hasn't stopped them, has it?

No, it has not. But I do believe, quite honestly, that they are working out an exit strategy. They are very worried about the high numbers of casualties among the troops. They are also very worried about the continued reports of abuse of Iraqi civilians. For example, the recent bombing of a Shia shrine has led to such terrible unrest. It's such a volatile situation right now.

You've been visiting India on and off. Would you think it a bit disturbing that the world's largest democracy has really not had too much of a vocal stand on what is happening in Iraq?

One could say that but I would think this is also because India is in no way directly involved with the conflict. The US might be putting enormous pressure on the Indian government in this regard. President Bush is due to visit soon. But I think that with this emerging Iran angle, we are going to hear something from India.

What is your opinion on the Iran nuclear issue? Doesn't it seem a bit like déjà vu, considering that Iraq was occupied on fairly similar grounds? How do you see its implications?

Absolutely. One could say that the Iran issue is unfolding as a rather sophisticated rerun of what happened in Iraq. The alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programme was an absurd reason to start the war and was rapidly proved to be utter nonsense.

In Iran, what is happening seems to be a more careful build-up. One must remember that Iran has only withdrawn from the voluntary protocol, not the entire Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unlike Israel, for instance, which is a nuclear state but has not signed the NPT at all.

I fear that if the West goes overboard in condemning Iran and applying sanctions, it might actually lead to more long-term proliferation internationally. I do hope there will be some serious negotiations in the near future, especially with Russia, and a more rational approach is taken.

What does impress me is the unity displayed by the Iranian Opposition parties in this regard. All of them, and the regime, are against occupation. But I must add that criticism of the Iranian regime is warranted, especially with its dismal record of human rights.

In the same region, there is Palestine. You hold the honorary chair of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. What are your views on the recent Hamas win and how do you see it playing out?

I am not at all surprised at Hamas' win. I was an observer for the Palestinian presidential election and I saw that Hamas was for Mahmoud Abbas. They may not have endorsed him but they are not against him.

To me, Hamas represents the non-corrupt force in Palestinian politics.

People may have appreciated and respected the late Yasser Arafat but they were not happy with the inefficiency and corruption that surrounded him. Hamas has, internationally, been underestimated. It runs a very impressive welfare system. Of course, I am as much against suicide bombing as I am against Israeli bombardment.

But you see, one has to visit that region to know what it really feels like to see such stark differences. When you have never been there, you will never understand. Just to drive from Israel to Gaza, for example, you cross from air-conditioned comfort, modern amenities and organised society to dust roads and donkeys.

Gaza is like an open prison. Nearly 70 percent of people there have severe mental stress because of the constant bombardment.

I was there recently and I asked a bunch of teenagers in Rafah what their ambitions are. I expected answers like becoming a doctor or a writer or a model or whatever. And then this 13-year-old girl tells me she wants to go to Gaza City. That is 20 minutes away from we were standing and this bright little girl has never been there because no one can move in the constant conflict. It brought tears to my eyes.

What are your expectations now?

I foresee that Hamas might enter into a coalition with the Fatah party, which would be heartening. And I do hope that a lot of serious, compelling negotiations will force Israel to define its borders, which it has never done. Every country in the world has clearly drawn out borders but not Israel, which expands and meanders as it pleases.

How can one expect Palestine to negotiate anything with a country that refuses to draw its borders?

You mentioned President Bush's forthcoming visit to India, which is a fairly significant one, especially since both nations are discussing an important nuclear deal. What is your opinion on this?

I think the United States is making a huge effort to gain a political foothold in South Asia -– Pakistan, of course, but also India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In today's world, the West can increasingly exercise control by withholding or sharing technological expertise. This nuclear deal is one such instance. But, at the same time, the Western technological advantage is beginning to decline.

When you look at countries like China or India, the economies have grown from being agricultural to being franchise-driven to now having sophisticated research and development facilities. Things are now changing rapidly and the US is trying to get in before there is no way to.

The long-term problem that the US faces is that it is guided by some fairly absurd policies. It is running rapidly short of natural resources and it relies heavily nowadays on manufactured imports. This means that debt is growing and if payments internationally transfer to the euro, the dollar's power declines. This is a very worrying prospect.

You've said in the past that what worries you about globalisation is that a few large corporations can exercise immense power over entire economies. Do you think that people, especially in Third World countries, are aware enough of the long-term effects of globalisation?

No, people are not aware enough. I think it needs to be made clear that no one is against globalisation per se and for isolation. What one is against is the sort of enormous control that bodies like the World Trade Organisation have.

In Western European countries, health and welfare are well looked after but the governments want to reduce taxation. Therefore, they would have to open their markets up to privatisation, which they are not very keen about. And they need to find avenues for themselves. So this leads to something like what happened in the Hong Kong round of the WTO, where Non-Agricultural Market Access was fairly forced upon Third World countries.

If people in those countries want to set up manufacturing units, they are going to face great difficulties because Western companies will now just move entirely into their markets. I would look at Latin America as being very aware of the effects of such globalisation. Possibly because they went through debt crises in the 1980s and fought for economic independence from the United States.

The headlines are always dedicated to Cuba and Venezuela but other nations are as aware. In Asia, they are the least aware. I have a feeling that this is because the young, urban educated populations in these nations think they are getting enormous opportunities from globalisation. How these opportunities may backfire is something I fear they overlook.

Do you think the media -- internationally and regionally -- is doing enough to highlight these aspects?

The media is, unfortunately, utterly obsessed with personalities and escapism. We don't need to educate people about private lives of celebrities. We need to educate them about power structures and their impacts. Something like the coverage of the WTO, for instance, was woeful.

Everyone looked only at the major Western powers and what they got out of it. What about NAMA its implications for the poorer countries? I don't follow Indian media much but I do know, from personal experience, that there are people who are very interested in such information. I got thousands and thousands of letters in Britain protesting against the WTO. And such voices need space in media.

You are here for the International Conference for Peace and Justice in South Asia. What do you see as the importance of such fora? The discussions held are rarely heard outside of the venues and most people are completely unaware of such platforms and what is discussed in them.

Of course, it would be wonderful if the media quoted every last word spoken here because there is such vibrant discussion, sharing of experience and ideas. But I am not entirely disappointed. At the end of three days, there will be a lot of well-informed people leaving here, who will be better equipped to communicate and would have become more committed.

Every movement starts off small and so has this one. There are a lot of significant people here from all over South Asia and a few oddities like myself, from the West, And it's been a great, educative experience -– I'm very grateful for it.

Photograph: Courtesy Jeremy Corbyn's web site