Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Three South Africans Making a Difference

Three important South African men are in the news today, on three different stories. One has importance to Alaskans in a fairly direct way. The other two are involved in attempting to resolve details of longstanding disputes.

I. Greenpeace International executive director, Kumi Naidoo, got himself arrested, jailed and deported from Greenland, for delivering a petition:

Earlier this month, 20 Greenpeace activists were arrested for trying to prevent Scotland's Cairn Energy from its outrageous plan to drill for oil in the Arctic. Sickened by the risks the oil industry is ready to take with our planet, and greatly inspired by the dedication of my colleagues, late last week Greenpeace campaigner Ulvar Arnkvaern and I decided to become prisoners number 21 and 22.

For the act of boarding Cairn's oil rig (or hanging off it in a pod for 4 days as was the case for 2 of our activists) some of my colleagues were held for nearly 2 weeks in Nuuk's (Greenland's capital) Institution Prison, before being deported. Their brave actions caused the oil company to delay its dangerous plans by 5 days.

In addition to demanding an end to dangerous deep water oil drilling in the pristine Arctic, my colleagues also arrived with the very reasonable request that Cairn make its spill response plan public.

A spill response plan is the document that an oil company must draw up explaining how it would clean up a spill. These plans are nearly always made public, but Cairn insists upon keeping this one secret claiming the Greenland authorities won't allow its publication. Yet publishing spill plans is standard industry practice and legal experts have made it clear to Greenpeace that Cairn could easily publish if they wanted to.

We believe that Cairn is refusing to share its spill plan for the simple reason that cleaning-up an oil spill in the Arctic is impossible. Cairn needn't take our word for it -- recently released confidential UK Foreign Office documents, obtained under Freedom of Information, show that the British government also believes that an Arctic oil spill would be extremely tough to clean up. As stated in an email exchange between British government officials and UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne: "It is difficult to get assistance in case of pollution problems in such areas, and near impossible to make good damage caused." Another document reports: "The Arctic ecosystem is particularly vulnerable, and emergency responses would be slower and harder than in the Gulf of Mexico due to the area's remoteness and the difficulty of operating in sub-zero temperatures."

By last week more than 50,000 people had written to Cairn Energy's bosses asking them to make their spill plan public (I am told that an estimated 25,000 more have gone to the site www.greenpeace.org and signed since my arrest). I decided to carry this list of names with me as we set out for the oil rig last Friday:

It is important for Alaskans to realize that oil spills where Cairn is working would be easier to clean up than they would be in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.*

II. Former South African President Thabo Mkebi is viewed with mixed feelings for a number or reasons. Among them: his refusal when president to take a harder line on Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe, and his damaging contrarian views on HIV. But his post-presidency role as negotiator and peacemaker has been fairly successful. Currently, he appears to be negotiating a succcessful stand-down between Sudanese and South Sudanese military forces in the disputed region of Abyei:
Leaders from north and south Sudan signed an agreement on Monday to demilitarize the disputed central region of Abyei and allow an Ethiopian peacekeeping force to move in, said a former South African president who is helping lead peace talks.

Thabo Mbeki said Monday's agreement provides for the full demilitarization of Abyei, a fertile land near major oil fields that both north and south claim as their own. Troops from northern Sudan moved into the region last month, action that sent tens of thousands of people who are aligned with the south fleeing.

"The Sudan Armed Forces will pull out and will be deployed outside Abyei," said Mbeki, who helped lead the talks in neighboring Ethiopia.

The agreement comes three weeks before the south is set to secede from the north and create the world's newest country. Heavy violence has broken out along the north-south border in the run-up to the south's independence declaration.

An Ethiopian peacekeeping force that is ready to deploy will move in to Abyei as soon as possible, Mbeki said. The U.N. Security Council will decide at a meeting in New York what the mandate and size of the Ethiopian force will be.

Shortly after the agreement was reached, Mbeki told the U.N. Security Council by video conference that both parties want the U.N. to move quickly to see the agreement implemented. Mbeki said urgent action would allow the displaced people of Abyei to return after military forces leave, allowing the humanitarian situation to be addressed.
South Sudan is going to become an actual country on July 9th, so cooling this dispute is certainly timely.

III. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has long been the most active South African human rights advocate. When Tutu was making his courageous stands against South African apartheid in the mid-1970s, the country that is most critical of Tutu's current activities was fully cooperating with the racist government, even working on a plan to arm South Africa with at least eight nuclear warheads, even though South Africa was at the time under international arms embargoes. While Tutu was risking his life in defense of Black South Africans, Israel was helping strengthen the government that was keeping Tutu's people enslaved.

Now, Tutu wants to end the enslavement of the people of Gaza and the occupied West Bank. For that, he has been labelled an anti-Semite, and targeted for exclusion from American college campuses, among other indignities.

Archbishop Tutu was one of the first prominent advocates of boycotting aspects of the Israeli apartheid regime. Here's his latest contribution:

* A good article on an important aspect of the upcoming battle over Chukchi Sea drilling - the EPA and permitting processes - was just posted by Jeanne Devon at The Mudflats.

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