Letters: Hope for peace, be ready for war

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As matters unfold in North Africa and the Middle East it is incumbent upon all those of a liberal disposition to hope for the best in respect of the emergence of genuine progressive democracies out of the growing chaos. But we must also prepare for the worst – a phalanx of snarling theocracies from Algeria to Iran.

In particular the Government must now re-open the Strategic Defence Review with a view to getting all our surviving light aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare vessels back to sea with a full complement of Harriers and helicopters. We need carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Gulf, not rusting hulks at the breaker's yard and redundant service personnel adding to the dole queue.

Nor should we forget that the events of the last few days have been genuine combined operations using all three services – and they all need much larger numbers of top-notch people and first-class equipment to do what we might next ask of them. This time it was an evacuation; next time we may need a full-scale base with strike aircraft and tanks "somewhere in the desert".

Of course, with luck, none of this will be necessary – but if we prepare properly for war, we might more readily achieve peace.

R S Foster


Though the main media focus is understandably on Libya, we shouldn't forget that in Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" first took hold, things are far from calm ("Resignation and desperate deals in troubled nations", 28 February).

The resignation of the Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, comes amid new deaths of protesters at the hands of the police and a creeping sense that things are not changing, or not changing quickly enough.

We still lack the details of a "fact-finding commission" set up by Mr Ghannouchi to inquire into allegations of excessive use of force, unlawful killings and torture by the security forces and others during the unrest in Tunisia. Amnesty has just published a detailed report on such cases, yet the caretaker authorities have yet to move forward on bringing people to account for their crimes.

A few weeks ago Tunisians risked their lives in taking to the streets peacefully to demand their human rights and dignity. Their sacrifices must not be in vain, and Amnesty will continue to support new demands for justice and accountability if protesters' calls remain unanswered.

Beverley Foulkes-Jones

Tunisia Country Coordinator

Amnesty International UK

Croydon, Surrey

Revolution in Tunisia, followed by Egypt then Libya, with demonstrations in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Oman. Everyone is revising their opinions and recognising that Arabs do want freedom and democracy.

There is however an "elephant in the room": Saudi Arabia, a country to which the West has sold goodness knows how many weapons, but an autocratic country that has made a deal over the holy sites with a Sunni sect whose violent footprint can be seen all over the world, particularly where Islam meets Christianity in Africa.

The next few months are going to be very tricky. Western politicians all now state excitedly that democracy is breaking out, so why do we not recognise democracy in Palestine?

Peter Downey


It is clear that Hillary Clinton, in addressing the UN in Geneva, was in fact talking to the uneducated masses back home in the USA. Only they would be able to stifle a titter of derision hearing her unctuous hypocrisy as she entreated her colleagues to apply the rules on human rights equally to every country.

Only they might have overlooked the fact that less than a week ago the US alone frustrated the vote in the UN against settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a vote that might – without the need for a bloody revolution – have helped to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.

Elizabeth Morley


Now that all the British oil workers in Libya have been rescued by the British military, can we expect that the British oil companies, to discharge their duties of care to their employees, will recompense the military for the costs involved?

Peter Tallentire

Crosby, Merseyside

Russia's struggle against heroin

Shaun Walker's article on the struggle with heroin addiction in Russia ("Kidnappings, incarceration and the world's worst heroin habit", 21 February) fails to mention the root cause of the problem: rocketing drug production in Afghanistan.

Methadone substitution is a controversial therapy that divides expert opinion and reformed users alike. Suffice to say the government considers addiction a disease, not a crime, and our approach to treatment reflects that. But the real focus should be on the source of this scourge. UN data show that in 2009 opium production in Afghanistan was 40 times higher than in 2001. And Russia is not the only country suffering: every year 100,000 people across the world die from Afghan heroin.

Russia has provided a comprehensive plan for the international community to eliminate drug production in Afghanistan. It's time that other countries took heed: the battle against drugs cannot be fought on only one front.

Viktor Ivanov

Director, Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics,


Naming the parts of grass

As the editor of Grasses, Sedges and Rushes (Blandford Press, 1979) I really must protest at Dr Caroline Dowson's dismissal of the technical nature of the descriptions in the book. Perhaps she would have preferred, "The sticky-up thingies that sprout where the leaf meets the stem on the upper flat bits are quite long, the bunch of flowery gizmos at the top [but just look at how Wikipedia defines panicle!] is dense, the husky thingamajigs that surround the seed are bent along the middle and have pointy doo-dahs at the end . . ."

The book, after all, was a field guide, and as such needed precise descriptions as an aid to identification. It was never intended as a piece of light reading. The technical terms were adequately defined and illustrated. I don't know what the discipline of Dr Dowson's doctorate was, but I am quite sure that it would have had its own specialised nomenclature.

Dougal Dixon

Wareham, Dorset

Why hospitals need chaplains

The National Secular Society seems to be on a campaign to rid hospitals of chaplains (" 'Cut the costs' of NHS chaplains", 28 February). Chaplains in hospitals are fulfilling a role that no one else does, and they have already been hit badly by cuts.

A professional man rings to ask the chaplains to visit his elderly mother who is frightened; a man asks the staff to get a chaplain because he is frightened of dying during an operation; a mother has a child who is predicted to die from meningitis and the parents ask for the baby to be baptised; a man is suicidal after being in Afghanistan; a woman is raped by her partner and wants to talk to someone. Who else is the listening ear at these important moments in a busy hospital?

We have a multi-faith society with multi-faith chaplains. Does the secular society want to get rid of prison chaplains, armed forces chaplains, ambulance chaplains and all the other chaplains? Or is it just vulnerable, ill or dying people who are to be denied this service?

Pat Nimmo

Market Harborough, Leicestershire

The National Secular Society may be right about the cost of NHS chaplains but it is absolutely wrong in asserting that they have no clinical value.

They have experience and skills far beyond their religion in helping those approaching death, and their families. Their skills combine empathy and practicality and they fill a gap created by the loss of experience of dying patients compared with GPs at the start of the National Health Service.

Professor A R Michell

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

Cameron's human rights

I hope David Cameron advised the colonels in Cairo to adopt an Egyptian Bill of Rights in their new democratic constitution and avoid those pesky universal human rights values set out in the European Convention and other troublesome international treaties.

And certainly to keep the judges – so notoriously lacking in common sense – out of this area. He wouldn't want future leaders there to suffer the nausea he experienced when he had to contemplate giving a few prisoners the right to vote, or his despair at being asked to allow some sex offenders to apply for a review of their lifelong punishment by registration.

Professor James S Read

Banstead, Surrey

High-speed rail mystery

I was reading the HS2 consultation summary, launched on Monday, and noticed that details of the second phase of the project, building the high-speed line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, will only be announced at the end of the consultation period. This seems a very underhand way to bypass potential objection from everyone affected by the future build of the project as the HS2 line ploughs its way to Scotland.

The full facts must be mentioned now. The line from London to Birmingham will be committed all the way to Scotland (otherwise why start?) and two thirds of the people who live along the line will not have any details on which to base their support or opposition to the proposal during the main consultation period.

Jonathan Allen

Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

American census

A good illustration of what will happen to our medical services when they are compulsorily put out to private tender is provided by the example of the contract to conduct this year's census.

The contract was awarded to the American arm firm Lockheed Martin for their bid of £213m of British taxpayers' money, much of which will go to boost the American economy. Let's hope they at least use British spelling on their forms.

Tony Cheney


Sure-fire hit

I have just completed the synopsis of my forthcoming blockbuster book and film. Handsome, sexy young vampire with a stammer enrols at wizards' academy and meets a gay cowboy who has the ability to steal people's dreams.

Simon G Gosden

Rayleigh, Essex

Perspectives on banks

A chance to revive mutual ownership

One of the most significant lessons from the impact of the global financial crisis on Britain's financial services has surely been the need to maintain and develop a strong mutual sector. Many of the banks that got into difficulty had been building societies but had been demutualised.

Financial mutuals, building societies, friendly societies and credit unions were not responsible for the global financial crisis. They do not have a culture of large dividends or excessive bonuses, and research across Europe has shown that a strong mutual sector helps to prevent excessive profits at banks.

The Government should now set out clearly, three years after Northern Rock was nationalised, its position on the issue. The Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008 allows state-owned banks to be converted into mutuals. That could be by sale, merger with an existing mutual or the creation of a new entity. The next step should therefore be a full feasibility study examining in detail the financial, governance and leadership issues of remutualisation.

The Government should also step up efforts to prevent new rules on how much capital banks need putting the remaining building and friendly societies into difficulty. The new capital rules being negotiated now across Europe risk preventing British building societies from competing fairly with private shareholder owned banks, while the Financial Services Authority's new rules for friendly societies could lead to their demutualisation over a number of years unless sensible changes are made.

Gareth Thomas MP

(Lab, Harrow west) Chair, the Co-operative Party, House of Commons

The people's bank

There is little danger that the soon-to-be-created Big Society Bank will have much of an impact on the banking world or the society is purports to serve.

In 1968 a genuine People's Bank was founded by the Labour government of the time. It was called, initially, the Giro Bank and worked through the General Post Office. Other British banks were forced to review their arcane and elitist policies when the Giro Bank became hugely popular through its innovative structure and services.

Indeed, so popular did it become that, following its smearing as "a bank for the poor" the Conservative government of the time killed it off in 1990.

Bill Mason

Beckenham, Kent

Losses and bonuses

You report (25 February) that the chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland is feeling "beleaguered". What does he and his board expect, given their decision on bonuses ? If I have not misunderstood the position the key facts are as follows.

RBS is in debt to the taxpayer, having required public money to rescue it from the consequences of the previous chief executive's folly. The current chief executive has made some 21,000 employees redundant – a further burden on the public purse. RBS has made a loss; there is no profit from which to pay bonuses .

Is it not a scandal that a company in debt, with no profit to deploy, which makes staff redundant, can pay its bosses and a select few substantial bonuses? The irresponsibility and immorality are breathtaking.

G W Davies