Letters: Robin Cook and foreign policy

Robin Cook knew that foreign policy must include respect for law
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They were removed from their homeland in the 1970s when the USA wished for a military base to dominate the Indian Ocean, and they have lived in poverty and exile since then. When Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos community, asked the High Court to declare the expulsion illegal, it ruled that the population had been unlawfully removed and wrongly exiled for 30 years. Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, decided that enough was enough, restored the Islanders' right of return, set up feasibility studies to provide for their resettlement in the other islands of Chagos but not to Diego Garcia. He told me that in order to do so he had to persuade Madeleine Albright to accept the return of the population and to this end the High Court judgment was useful to him.

But while the United Nations Human Rights Committee has directed the UK to make the return of the population a reality, and to provide compensation for 30 years of suffering, the Blair government has made a dramatic U-turn. While Diego Garcia is used for bombing raids on Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islanders have been treated with contempt. Planned trips to the islands have been cancelled by the Government, compensation has been denied and the work of the feasibility study has been abruptly terminated. Most cruel of all, the Blair government has abolished the islanders' right of abode in their homeland, thus reversing the High Court decision in their favour.

Robin Cook realised that to command respect, foreign policy must be based upon a respect for law and legal institutions. As the Chagos Islanders return to court for justice, only time will tell whether Robin Cook presided over a brief "lucid interval" in foreign policy.



Sir: Gay men in Scotland owe an immense debt of gratitude to Robin Cook for his amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 which finally decriminalised sex between men in Scotland some 13 years after similar decriminalisation in England and Wales. Robin worked closely with the then Scottish Minorities Group at a time when social attitudes in Scotland were very different from those of today.



Sir: Your front page of 8 August informs us that Robin Cook "was one of the most principled and eloquent politicians of our time". There are degrees of principle? And there was I fondly believing that at least politicians should be people of absolute principle. Clearly I have been wrong all along, and it is a political quality measured on a sliding, indeed slippery, scale.



What next in US schools? Alchemy?

Sir: George Bush wants intelligent design, a.k.a. creationism, to be taught in American classrooms, side by side with evolution, so as to give students "both sides of the debate". Why stop there? Children could be taught medieval alchemy along with modern chemistry, flat-earthism together with cosmology and Aristotelian physics together with relativity.

Why is one particular laughable scientific fallacy being given such prominence and other equally deserving candidates being neglected?



Sir: Intelligent design is not science; it is a strategy used by creationists of the religious right to try and get their religious ideas into the classroom. If their ideas had any merit, they would have gained acceptance by the scientific establishment.

The aim of intelligent design is to spread confusion about evolution without being too overtly religious. This will not fool scientists: the danger is that members of the public may be tricked into thinking that there is a controversy where none exists.

The same strategy is used by the economic right to spread doubt about the causes of (or even the existence of) global warming.

The problem with intelligent design is that it is defeatist and intellectually bankrupt, its proponents say, "Here is a biological structure that we can't understand, so God did it." Scientists say, "Here is a biological structure that we can't understand; how can we find out about it?"



Sir: Could someone please ask George Bush (and now it seems, also the Pope) why, if everything was so intelligently designed, it was necessary to crash a Mars-sized planet into the earth in order to create the moon, which could then slow our rotation sufficiently to allow any life to develop?

And could they also ask why, as intelligent design initially led to the domination of the dinosaurs, it was then necessary to crash a New York-sized meteorite into Mexico in order to kill them off and allow tiny mammals to develop into men?

Does science not come into "intelligence", or was God just making it up as he went along?



Sir: Alan Howe (letter, 5 August) makes an erroneous judgment, common among proponents of both "intelligent design" and creationist theories: he implies that the fact that Darwin's theories are "under attack" within the scientific community is somehow anti-evolution.

Scientific rigour demands the continual questioning and "attack" of all current theories - it is the basis of scientific method that no idea is allowed to stand without question, and that new data demands new applications of logic. In other realms, such as religion and politics, questioning might constitute an attack, but in science it is without stigma.



Sir: It's surely no coincidence that the majority of exponents of "intelligent design" are men. Any woman will tell you that the female reproductive system, with its monthly difficulties and risky, painful childbirth, has been anything but intelligently designed. Or maybe it just proves that God is male?



Meter your water and pay less

Sir: David MacDonald, writing about water shortages (letter, 2 August), lumped together hosepipe bans and water meters, as if somehow they were fellow evils. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

A hosepipe ban is a last-ditch measure, taken when a water company and its customers have got into a hole. It is a blunt instrument that penalises legitimate as well as profligate use of hosepipes, while having no effect on wasteful water use by any other means, or at any other time of year. In contrast, a water meter is a simple, practical device that enables customers to pay for the water they use, just as they do for gas, electricity, petrol and food. I find it odd that this simple concept should cause difficulty.

If wasteful water users realise they could pay less by wasting less, they might indeed do so, which is surely a good thing, especially since small savings over a whole year are likely to have a greater impact on total consumption than a short-lived hosepipe ban. Meanwhile, responsible users will only pay for what they use, and not for what other people use.



Sir: While superficially attractive, moving water long distances (Letters, 2 August) has drawbacks.

Unlike gas and electricity, water is heavy, so transporting it requires a lot of energy. We have an extensive canal system, but using it for such a purpose requires reinforcement and extra infrastructure costing billions of pounds. Mixing water of different compositions can have a serious ecological impact.

Finally, the idea rests on the false assumption that the north and the west of the UK have surplus water. In fact the last formal drought was in Dundee. The ecosystems in wetter areas are adapted to their local hydrology; removing their water in bulk could be damaging.

Water companies do move water around to meet demand, but seek local solutions wherever possible.



London's imperilled playing fields

Sir: Despite London's successful Olympic bid, the capital's youngsters play less sport than those in other parts of the country. Therefore, news that successive governments have failed to stop the sell-off of playing fields ("Olympics were not won on playing fields of Britain", 2 August) is of particular concern to all of us living in London.

Already, only half of the capital's children live within a five minute walk of open green space and almost one in six have to trek for more than 11 minutes just to reach somewhere to kick a ball about properly. If we are to prevent London from becoming a couch-potato city then every Londoner - young and old - must have a decent and free local sports site within their neighbourhood.

To make a real difference, we must not only protect our open playing fields, we must also look for imaginative ways of providing for sport in all parts of London. The Westway's nine-mile stretch of flyover, which hides the UK's largest climbing facilities, 12 tennis courts, six football pitches, basketball courts and dance studios, is a good example of creative thinking.



Ban would negate human rights

Sir: With Tony Blair outlining his plan to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, the non-violent Islamic political group, is it safe to say that the values of freedom of speech and expression can now be confined to the dustbin of history?

If this ban goes ahead, it would show Muslims that speaking against massacres committed in the Muslim world, holding dictators to account, and expressing a political opinion not in line with the Government's will not be tolerated. It is accepted that some Muslims and non-Muslims may not agree with some of the methods used by Hizb ut-Tahrir, but there is a consensus that banning it would be against the human rights that Britain is meant to safeguard.

If Blair bans such groups Britain will have no right to accuse others countries of human rights abuses.



Sir: Reading Siddique Malik's letter ("Un-Islamic terrorism", 4 August) generated a sense of déjà vu. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Roman Catholics were also regarded as a fifth column in Britain because they shared a common religion with its enemies, first Spain and then France.

While currently most terrorists may be Muslims, this does not mean most Muslims are terrorists, any more than most Catholics were traitors in earlier times.



A lasting fear of mathematics

Sir: Your assertion that Sudoku requires no mathematics is irritating, ridiculous and dangerous, because it reinforces the public misperception that arithmetic and mathematics are the same thing.

Very large numbers of people are so frightened of numbers that they fear they will be required to do something with them which they don't know how to do. Hence there is seen to be a need for a dumbing-down reassurance. In Sudoko, any symbols would do. Numerals are convenient because they are familiar and have names. I am sure small children would be brilliant at a Sudoku that uses pictures instead of numerals.

The real damage is in perpetuating the myth which blinds people to a world of fascinating, beautiful, entertaining and useful mathematics. By perpetuating the myth, you are helping to ensure that the number of people who become good mathematics teachers remains dangerously low and that the vicious circle of ignorance is maintained.



Foreign finches

Sir: It is bad enough having to share a foreign policy with the United States, so cannot we at least keep our own goldfinches? Your photograph in The Independent Magazine (6 August) shows an example of the American Carduelis tristis and not our native Carduelis carduelis.



House price 'doom'

Sir: Why should those predicting a house price crash be labelled "doom mongers" ("House prices slow but industry picks up speed", 6 August)? Every market has two sides, and for a generation of young people priced out of buying their own home by this asset bubble, a return of house prices to sensible levels would bring not "doom" but great relief.



Without a people

Sir: Leo Schulz (letter, 28 July) should read what Chaim Weizman, later to become the first president of Israel, stated in 1914: "There is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and on the other hand there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, but to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?" In 1922, the League of Nations approved the British mandate on Palestine, without consulting the "non-existent" Palestinians.



Prevent the carnage

Sir: Following the carnage on London's bus and tube networks there has been an unprecedented police campaign to round up potential bombers to make the system safe for passengers. Can a similar exercise, using overt and covert means, be directed at speeding motorists to reduce the vast carnage on our roads, making them safer for others, particularly cyclists and pedestrians?



Price of 'stolen' oil

Sir: Charles Glass reminds us of Ayman al-Zawahiri's demand that we stop stealing his oil (Opinion, 6 August). At $60 a barrel, who's stealing?