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Wednesday 20 February 2008
Letters: Beijing Olympics
Olympics firms have a right to profits, and a duty to human rights
Sir: Steven Spielberg's withdrawal from the Beijing Olympics has rightly turned the spotlight on companies hoping to profit from them. It is unrealistic to ask these companies to forego the commercial opportunities offered, but we are entitled to ask that their operations are explicitly underpinned by the principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which calls on all individuals and "organs of society" for support.
This is not to ask companies to criticise governments, but to support internationally agreed principles to which almost all governments, including China, pay at least lip service.
More than 100 major transnational companies cite the UDHR as a basis for their business principles, having learnt the damage to reputation in failing to do so. They should now be expected to respect the human rights of their labour force and the communities they affect and to speak out for human rights where they are violated.
Without such principles and a willingness to proclaim them, companies, such as Total oil in Burma, must be judged morally complicit with what goes on around them. Silence is not neutrality. But a simplistic call for boycott may well lead to the removal of what could be an example to others and of a pressure for reform which would otherwise not exist.
And if a company has appropriate principles, it is better for human rights, and ultimately for the company itself, for it to be thrown out of a country for proclaiming those principles rather than pulling out under public pressure to preserve its profits elsewhere.
It is now up to the human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) not simply to preach, but to engage directly with companies, many of whom remain ignorant of the UDHR and its relevance to themselves, to help them devise human rights policies which we should increasingly regard as a condition of their social licence to operate.
Sir Geoffrey Chandler
Founder-Chair, Amnesty International UK Business Group 1991-2001, Dorking, Surrey
Wonderful world of Northern Rock
Sir: Does the Government have any idea of what it is getting into with the Alice in Wonderland world that is Northern Rock? We have a mortgage with the bank that is fixed at 4.99 per cent until 2016. We can borrow back money we have already paid at the same interest rate.
Taking up an offer on the bank's website today, we can lend that same money back to Northern Rock at an interest rate of 6.35 per cent. Our savings would be guaranteed in full by the Government, and we could pocket the 1.36 percentage point profit at no risk.
Without spending a penny of our own money, we could join what must be a fast-growing line of depositors who could milk Northern Rock and the Government dry.
Sir: There is a venerable banking saying, "A bank's good name is its stock in trade". Northern Rock's name is now, as never before, of the highest standing, because it is another name for "The British Government Bank".
Anyone should be perfectly safe putting money into it until the Government gives notice that it is being privatised again. An investor's money in Northern Rock now is as good as in The Bank of England, but if and when the Government privatises it again who in their right mind would leave money there?
Once the name got the record it had, and which was well deserved, would anyone take a chance again when they can go to Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds or Nationwide (and probably get a better rate)? The new chairman has distinguished himself resurrecting Lloyds of London, hardly any qualification for dealing with the most difficult management job in history for a British bank. Running banks, real banks, and insurance organisations, particularly a unique one such as Lloyds, have little in common.
The present board will still be in charge; doing what? I cannot see how Northern Rock can take advantage of their superb financial strength by, say, offering better terms than other banks, so what can they actually do, without referring to the Government? In fact, what decisions of any significance can they take without referring at least indirectly to Gordon Brown? To some extent, his future is in the bank's hands.
No, for the first time in many decades the saying at the beginning will be tested and proved. I just cannot see how it can ever be denationalised, only eventually liquidated in exchange for government paper (bonds) because the minute it is denationalised without a continuing government guarantee (nationalisation in another name) there will be a run on it again.
Fellow, The Chartered Institute of Bankers, London SW16
Hope for a vaccine to treat HIV
Sir: Professor Baltimore ("Little hope in finding HIV vaccine, says Aids expert", 15 February) is right to highlight the distance we still remain from an HIV vaccine, but is wrong to suggest there is no hope, that nature cannot be overcome.
When HIV emerged, we were promised a vaccine in two or three years, so of course we are impatient. But science is not instant. It took 47 years to develop a vaccine for polio and 42 years to find one for chicken pox.
We have made progress on HIV. In just 25 years, what was once a death sentence can now be controlled and managed, and people with HIV in the UK are living long, healthy lives. Today, there are more than 30 vaccine candidates in trials, and microbicides offer new hope in the field of prevention.
This progress is heartening, but developing a vaccine is a long and expensive process which is under-funded and under-supported. Governments and pharmaceutical companies need to be more engaged with scientists, and prioritise HIV if we want results. The solution to HIV lies in a comprehensive package of prevention and treatment which includes a vaccine, all of which must have sustained commitment.
For the 2.5 million people who were diagnosed with HIV last year, we must not give up hope of a vaccine for it. In a time when a computer can fit inside an envelope, there is every reason to believe we can one day win the battle against this complex virus.
Chief Executive, National AIDS Trust, London ec1
The hot news about light-bulbs
Sir: Mark Downing (letters, 18 Feb) thinks Roger Dean should give up reading. Not if he reads physics books. The 100 watts from a bulb contributes to heating the room. Most of the time in the UK, when lights in houses are on, the heating is also on. Replace a 100W bulb with a 20W bulb and the other 80W will need to be provided by the heating system, to maintain the chosen temperature. Only in summer, when lights are not normally needed for long, will there be an overall saving in energy. Instead of worrying about "energy saving" bulbs inside, we should concentrate on greater efficiency in outside lighting. Better design of street lights, and fewer of them, might mean we can see the stars again.
Sir: Having just replaced an 11W compact fluorescent lamp with a 15W version in my lounge, I have some sympathy with the plight of Mr Dean. Some of the cheaper 11W low-energy lamps are equivalent only to a 50W tungsten bulb.
It may be better to replace a 60W tungsten bulb with a 15W low-energy lamp, especially if the 60W bulb was only just bright enough in the first place. Similarly, a 24W rather than a 20W compact fluorescent may be a better replacement for a 100W tungsten bulb. Finally, Mr Dean could always try a 30W low-energy lamp.
Dr Lawrence Clark
Choice places for MPs to find facts
Sir: I am not opposed in principle to the idea of select committees of the House of Commons going on fact-finding trips ("Revealed: the £1.2m spent by select committees on travels around the globe", 13 February), but the destinations do raise several questions.
Why were most of the visits made to places where HMG has a wide diplomatic coverage and where our embassies – and the sophisticated network provided by the press and the internet – might be expected to supply the information required?
Why was there only one visit to Africa where the Foreign Affairs Committee may have been able togather information on such seemingly intractable problems such as Darfur and Zimbabwe? Might it be that a week in Boston or Sydney holds out more charms than one spent in Khartoum or in refugee camps on the South African border?
Biofuel productionis not justified
Sir: As a scientist, I thought the letter from Anthony Gibson (l5 February) was disingenuous, but not surprising, coming from the NFU. I do take exception to "UK biofuels really do help the planet".
Using agricultural land for biofuel production is not justified. As more crops are cultivated for biofuel, there is clear evidence that livestock feed is becoming more expensive (making meat more expensive) and fewer crops are being cultivated for human consumption (forcing up food costs).
But the most convincing argument against biofuels is that they are not an alternative to fossil fuels, because fossil fuel (diesel) is being consumed to cultivate, fertilise, harvest, transport and process plants for the production of ethanol. And ethanol is less efficient (mpg) than petrol.
If an energy input/output analysis was conducted, I predict that there will be a net energy loss producing ethanol using mechanised agriculture. We could achieve more for the environment and reduce our carbon footprint, by walking, biking, using public transport when possible, driving low-carbon cars and, most importantly, driving less.
Professor Elliot Shubert
Sir: Anthony Gibson is probably theoretically right when he says biofuels produced in the UK are more sustainable. What he fails to mention is that this country can never produce the amount of biomass to meet our needs.
Cover every back-garden (those that are left), every railway embankment, every window-box with biofuel material and you will not even begin to scratch the surface. It's a no-brainer.
Remember too that the law of unexpected consequences kicks in. Every ton of wheat or barley sold to the biofuels industry is a ton of wheat or barley unavailable for human or animal consumption. Up goes the price of food, drinks all round for the farmers and the biofuel manufacturers. Heads they win, tails we lose.
It's not about saving the planet, it's about profits and, of course, subsidies from a government desperate to be seen to be doing something, anything, even if it's the wrong thing.
Good for Kosovo, good for Berwick
Sir: The British Government will recognise the newly declared state of Kosovo because, in the words of that country's Prime Minister, "This declaration reflects the will of the people" (Quote of the Day, 18 February).
How, then, can the people of Berwick-upon-Tweed be refused their declared and democratically approved wish to leave England and become Scottish ?
Sir: Frances Baker (letters, 18 February) is making an invalid comparison of CRT and plasma TV energy consumption because she is not comparing like with like. Plasma screens use more energy but they are much bigger. Taking examples from the Philips range and showing power as watts per square inch of screen, typical values are 0.17 for a 28ins CRT and 0.18 for a 42ins plasma. LCD screens use even less energy.
Sir: Your correspondents (letters, 18 and 19 February), and Mark Steel have not thought the stocking/bank robbers thing through. If the Government set up a quango to stipulate that robbers must wear stockings on their heads they would be making a mistake: most women now wear tights. Nothing would look sillier than a person bursting into a bank, mumbling something about a stick-up through a pair of tights with the second leg dangling over their shoulder. As a long-time, and may I say successful, bank robber, I have always preferred a balaclava. You can see better, and even have a snack.
St Albans, Hertfordshire
Sir: Reports that schools may award success in a foreign language by written work (Comment, 19 February) without examining the ability to speak it is most heartening, especially if it extends to sport. One may now expect to be selected for the 1st XI by submitting a paper on the rules of football without the misery of being required to run around for an hour or so in short trousers.
What's all this, then?
Sir: On my way to work last week, I was handed a leaflet promoting Boris Johnson's mayoral campaign. Among the other promises in his anti-crime platform he says he will make police more accountable and increase the accessibility of information. He also says he's going to drive out the "culture of form-filling". Surely these two goals are mutually incompatible?
Sir: After several negative newspaper articles recently about rats and various ways of exterminating them, I would like to redress the balance a little. Over the past 16 years, we have been proud owners of 19 pet rats altogether, and they are the loveliest, friendliest, most loyal, amusing, charismatic, intelligent animals you could ever wish to meet. Perhaps with the Year of the Rat starting, we could see a positive story about what many people would describe as furry friends.
Key to the future
Sir: If computers do "match human brains by 2030" (report, 15 February), no doubt by 2031 they'll be claiming incapacity benefits.
Wakefield, West Yorkshire
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