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Archive for December 2008

Liberal Conspiracy on Christopher Booker’s scientific credentials

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From Liberal Conspiracy

Rejoice, people! Whatever you may’ve read, however many chilling predictions you may have heard, however frequently Al Gore might haunt your dreams, telling you that the world will end in a torrent of fire because YOU don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs, I can promise that all those fears are unfounded. For as people across the world glance at 2009 with such foreboding and dread, Christopher Booker has made the jolly discovery that instead of getting much, much worse, climate change doesn’t actually exist all!

Now, I understand that there’s a great deal of misinformation out there in BlogLand, and since I’m not a scientist (well, neither is he, but he sure seems to know a lot more than ‘real scientists’), I have to make sure that all my sources are of the highest calibre. So I did whatever any forensic time-deprived blogger would do, and checked him out on Wikipedia. Without further ado, and just to show how seriously you should take his scientific acumen, here are some of Booker’s greatest hits…

Author Seth Kalichman offers hefty reward to anyone who can prove the existence of David Crowe

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From Denying Aids

Blind romantics still believe that Rethinking AIDS Society President David Crowe actually exists.

But if David Crowe has never been met in person, does he really exist?

Never met in person?

You bet!

I know there are pictures of David Crowe, but are they really him? Do they meet my standards of real photo identification?

Or is that just an actor playing David Crowe in the AIDS denialist videos we see?

David Crowe has a website, but that could be anyone.


David Crowe writes articles for online health food magazines, but there is a conspiracy among naturalists, the vitamin industry, and the herbal medicine cartel that keeps the David Crowe myth going.

Go ahead, prove me wrong.

I am offering a free copy of my book Denying AIDS to anyone who can PROVE that David Crowe exists.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 31, 2008 at 1:09 am

Church-aided rebel group rampages through Congo, killing hundreds

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The BBC reports that more than 400 people have been killed in the last few days, after Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army stepped up its war on civilians in the North-Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The article cites the Catholic aid NGO Caritas as its source for the casualty figures – but fails to mention that the same organisation was earlier this year implicated in supplying food and medicine to the LRA, amid the misguided hope that this would help persuade them to sign a peace deal. In fact, this material support gave the group a vital lifeline, allowing it to sustain its fighters while it reorganised and rearmed under the cover of the ongoing peace negotiations.

As long ago as October 2007, the International Criminal Court had warned that the LRA was selling surplus food aid in order to buy weapons. But the Catholic Church appears to have taken no notice, with Caritas continuing to supply aid until at least April 2008 – six months after the ICC had publicly raised its concerns.

An “unmitigated tragedy”: Los Angeles Times reports the death of leading HIV-positive AIDS-denialist Christine Maggiore

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From the Los Angeles Times

Until the end, Christine Maggiore remained defiant.

On national television and in a blistering book, she denounced research showing that HIV causes AIDS. She refused to take medications to treat her own virus. She gave birth to two children and breast-fed them, denying any risk to their health. And when her 3-year-old child, Eliza Jane, died of what the coroner determined to be AIDS-related pneumonia, she protested the findings and sued the county.

On Saturday, Maggiore died at her Van Nuys home, leaving a husband, a son and many unanswered questions. She was 52…

Jay Gordon, a pediatrician whom the family consulted when Eliza Jane was sick, said Monday that Maggiore’s death was an “unmitigated tragedy.”

“In the event that she died of AIDS-related complications, there are medications to prevent this,” said Gordon, who disagrees with Maggiore’s views and believes HIV causes AIDS. “There are medications that enable people who are HIV-positive to lead healthy, normal, long lives.”

Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Maggiore plunged into AIDS volunteer work — at AIDS Project Los Angeles, L.A. Shanti and Women at Risk. Her background commanded attention. A well-spoken, middle-class woman, she was soon being asked to speak about the risks of HIV at local schools and health fairs. “At the time,” Maggiore told The Times in 2005, “I felt like I was doing a good thing.”

All that changed in 1994, she said, when she spoke to UC Berkeley biology professor Peter Duesberg, whose well-publicized views on AIDS — including assertions that its symptoms can be caused by recreational drug use and malnutrition — place him well outside the scientific mainstream.

Intrigued, Maggiore began scouring the literature about the underlying science of HIV. She came to believe that flu shots, pregnancy and common viral infections could lead to a positive test result. She later detailed those claims in her book, “What if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?”

Maggiore started Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives, a nonprofit that challenges “common assumptions” about AIDS. She also had a regular podcast about the topic.

Her supporters expressed shock Monday over her death but were highly skeptical that it was caused by AIDS. And they said it would not stop them from questioning mainstream thinking…

Scienceblogs and Neurologica have more background on this tragic case.

See also: “Against the evidence”

Roger Darlington’s guide to critical thinking

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From Roger Darlington’s guide to critical thinking:

  • Remember that prominence does not equate to importance. A newspaper may have made its lead story the rumour of a break-up between Britney Spears and her latest boyfriend, but that does not necessarily make it the most important news item that day. Conversely, in 1914 that tiny story about the assassination of an obscure nobleman in some backwater called Sarajevo proved to have rather more repercussions that most readers first appreciated. Try an experiment: one day, buy five or six national newspapers, compare their coverage of the same stories on the same day, and note the different prominence – and the different slant – given to the same stories…
  • Be especially skeptical about surveys and polls. Who is funding the project; how the questions are chosen, worded and posed; how those questioned are selected and the context in which the questions are put to them; how the statistical analysis is carried out and the statistics are interpreted; how the findings are presented and reported (or misreported) – all these factors can have a massive influence…
  • Always look for evidence. The Scottish philosopher David Hulme noted that “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”. Many Americans believe that the attack on the World Trade Center was engineered by Saddam Hussein, while many Arabs believe that it was planned by the Israeli secret service. They can’t both be right, but they could both be wrong. What is the evidence? It has been widely reported that millions of Americans believe that they have been abducted by aliens and, in many cases, subjected to sexual experiments. They may be right, but again what is the evidence? Are there witnesses or photographs? Are there body marks on the ‘victims’ or do they have souvenirs from the spaceships? It is tempting to seize on evidence that confirms one’s original view or the prevailing orthodoxy and to dismiss evidence that challenges it, but one needs to be open-minded about all the evidence and equally rigorous about establishing its authenticity…
  • Remember Occam’s Razor [the maxim is named after William of Occam, the philosopher who was probably born at Ockham in Surrey]. When two or more explanations are possible on the basis of the same facts, always prefer the simplest possible explanation, unless there are very good reasons for favouring a more complex – and therefore more unlikely – one. For example, the pyramids in Egypt could have been designed and constructed by the Egyptians living at the time of the pharoahs or they could have been built according to plans brought to earth by aliens. Both explanations would explain the observable phenomena, but Occam’s Razor suggests that we should adopt the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions since there is simply no need to make extra assumptions unless there is good evidence to support them. Or, as the scientist Albert Einstein put it: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
  • Look for cause and effect. When I get up from bed, the sun comes up – but there is obviously no causality. When I go to bed, I feel refreshed – and there clearly is a relationship. Sometimes relationships are not obvious: in the movie “The Truman Show”, when the Jim Carey character gets up from bed, the ‘sun’ does come up in a causal manner because the Ed Harris character ensures that it does…
  • Be challenging of the seemingly seductive comment “It works”. There are two problems here: agreeing a definition of what ‘works’ means and establishing a cause and effect relationship between action and outcome. If I perform a traditional Indian rain dance in my back garden, it may rain in an hour, a day or a month. Over what period are we going to assume the dance may have an influence? Then, can we reasonably infer a causality here? It may be that my neighbour was performing a different, more effective rain dance in her garden; it may be that the rain clouds had been seeded by a specially charted aircraft to ensure good weather for a sports event tomorrow; it may be that I am in India in the monsoon season and it usually rains at this time of day at this time of year.

Roger Darlington reviews Don’t Get Fooled Again

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From Roger Darlington’s website.

…a highly readable book which represents a refreshing gale of common sense and rationality. Wilson critiques a wide range of contemporary nonsense including:

  • Pseudo-news such as the testimony of a certain ‘Nurse Nayirah’ in 1990 that Iraqi troops occupying Kuwait had removed babies from incubators or the insistence of American and British politicians that Saddam’s Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction;
  • Pseudo-science such as the efforts to show that smoking does not cause cancer or that white asbestos poses no measurable risk to health or that Trofim Lysenko in the pre-war Soviet Union had revolutionary techniques to transform agriculture or that South African President Thambo Mbeki was right in insisting that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS;
  • Conspiracy theories such as the assertion by ex British agent David Shayler that the London bombings of July 2007 were not the act of terrorists;
  • Relativism which, in its most radical form, asserts that there are no objective facts, only competing strands of subjective opinion, and even in ‘milder’ forms like cultural relativism rejects logic and evidence as ‘western’ or ‘imperialist’ modes of thinking;
  • Religious fundamentalism which requires belivers to accept on faith the absolute truth of a prescribed list of written beliefs even when the relevant texts are obscure, contradictory or contrary to evidence;
  • The justifications given for torture by democratic states like the USA and for terrorism given by extremist groups who likewise believe that the ends justify the means.

Wilson helpfully identifies some of the many factors that permit and indeed encourage such acts of irrationality including wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonising perceived enemies, moral exclusion, and groupthink. In a spirited defence of rationality, he asserts: “The basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence, and ‘inductive reasoning’ are common to every human society and present in all belief systems”.

George Monbiot on another misuse of UK government’s “sweeping powers”

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From The Guardian

The villagers have marched, demonstrated, and sent in letters and petitions. Some people tried to stop the company from cutting down trees by standing in the way. Their campaign was entirely peaceful. But the power company discovered that it was legally empowered to shut the protests down.

Using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, it obtained an injunction against the villagers and anyone else who might protest. This forbids them from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations, or protesting or other activities” on land near the lake. If anyone breaks this injunction they could spend five years in prison.

The act, parliament was told, was meant to protect women from stalkers. But as soon as it came on to the statute books, it was used to stop peaceful protest. To obtain an injunction, a company needs to show only that someone feels “alarmed or distressed” by the protesters, a requirement so vague that it can mean almost anything. Was this an accident of sloppy drafting? No. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor who specialises in using this law against protesters, boasts that his company “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997″. In 2005 parliament was duped again, when a new clause, undebated in either chamber, was slipped into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. It peps up the 1997 act, which can now be used to ban protest of any kind.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who represented RWE npower, brags that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”. One advantage of this approach is that very low standards of proof are required: “hearsay evidence … is admissable in civil courts”. The injunctions he obtains criminalise all further activity, even though, as he admits, “any allegations made remain untested and unproven”.

Last week, stung by bad publicity, npower backed down. The villagers had just started to celebrate when they made a shocking discovery: they now feature on an official list of domestic extremists.

Kevin Connolly on the psychology of the Madoff fraud

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From the BBC

If something sounds too good to be true, I keep reading, that must be because it is too good to be true.

It is good advice as far as it goes and it raises the question of why so many wealthy, sophisticated savers were apparently conned into believing that Mr Madoff had come up with an investment strategy that allowed him to pay handsome returns even when the stock market was falling.

I asked a very senior regulator about this, a man who has been involved in formulating public policy for many years, and he said the answer was depressingly simple.

People are prone to believe what they want to believe, he said, and in rising markets a kind of irrational euphoria takes hold in which we are not inclined to ask difficult questions…

…I asked the regulator if the world would learn a lesson from the Madoff case and, depressingly, he was doubtful that it would.

These kind of schemes are only possible in a rising market and the next time the market is rising strongly – as it surely will one day – that old feeling of irrational euphoria will take over.

The reason we are easy to fool in the end, is because we are so good at fooling ourselves.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 21, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Sceptic of the week: Muntazer al-Zaidi

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From The Times:

“This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq,” he shouted before being overpowered by security guards and bundled out of the room.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2008 at 9:08 pm

The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the twin delusions of AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism, and examine some of the parallels between them.

AIDS denialists – who will often describe themselves as “AIDS dissidents” or “AIDS sceptics” – are those who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS. They may believe that HIV is harmless, or deny that there is evidence the virus even exists. In the early 1980s, soon after AIDS was discovered, the psychiatrist Casper Schmidt suggested that the disease was a “group fantasy”, the product of an ” epidemic of shame-induced depression” among gay men, caused by “a vast, society-wide conservative swing” culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan. “One can only hope”, Schmidt concluded, “that we wake up from the trance, and soon”. As with many of the most vocal “dissidents”, Schmidt’s denial seems to have motivated, in part, by a refusal to acknowledge his own illness. Tragically, Casper Schmidt died from AIDS in the mid-1990s – yet even now some die-hard denialists continue to cite his work in support of their claims.

Towards the end of the 80s, amid growing evidence that AIDS was killing thousands, the US virologist Peter Duesberg began challenging the scientific consensus that the disease was caused by a virus, HIV. Duesberg’s work with retroviruses – the class to which HIV belongs – had led him to conclude that all such viruses were essentially harmless. Rather than revise this view in the face of strong and growing epidemiological proof of a close correlation between the presence of AIDS and HIV infection, Duesberg chose instead to reject the new evidence and hang on to his old theory – a position he has stuck to ever since.

Duesberg’s arguably most poisonous claim is that AIDS can in fact be caused by the medications given to HIV sufferers to control the disease, such as the drug AZT. It was partly under Duesberg’s influence that the South African government of Thabo Mbeki chose to delay the public availability of anti-retroviral drugs – a decision which, according to a recent Harvard study – may have cost over 300,000 lives.

Holocaust negationists deny some or all of the established historical facts about Nazi atrocities during World War II. They may refuse to accept that the Holocaust happened at all, or they may – as David Irving has done – concede that atrocities took place but deny that the extermination of Jews and other minorities was a deliberate organisational policy, authorised at the highest level. They may, like Irving, significantly downplay the number of people who died at the hands of the Nazis. Or they may engage in “moral negationism”, acknowledging that Germany persecuted Jews but suggesting that the war-time abuses committed by Soviet or British forces could somehow cancel or diminish the moral gravity of Nazi crimes. Many of these kinds of arguments can be seen in the comment responses to the piece that I wrote about David Irving here.

David Irving has famously denied that he is a Holocaust denier – and went so far as to sue the writer Deborah Lipstadt for having described him in those terms. Some of this seems to come down to semantics. If we define a “Holocaust denier” as someone who is in denial about the established historical facts relating to the Holocaust, then even someone who acknowledges some level of atrocity – as David Irving does – would nonetheless fall into that category.

After a lengthy court battle in which Irving’s historical writings were examined in fine detail, the libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt famously failed, with the judge concluding that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

Irving has sought to portray himself as a fearless and impartial historical investigator, motivated solely by a desire to establish the truth, bravely challenging the orthodox account of the events of World War II. But the Lipstadt libel trial revealed quite the opposite. Driven by a preconceived attachment to an extreme ideological position, Irving had systematically abused the truth, deliberately misrepresenting his historical sources in order to make them support his political views.

Appearing as an expert witness, the historian Richard Evans, who had painstakingly reviewed Irving’s work, confessed to being shocked at the “sheer depth of duplicity” he had found. Irving had, Evans concluded, “fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he doesn’t deserve to be called a historian at all”, suggesting that Irving relied on his audience lacking “either the time or the expertise” to check up on his sources.

Another feature of Irving’s work is his tendency to seize on tenuous reinterpretations of the existing evidence and treat them as a knockdown refutation of the claim he is attacking. Irving has argued that forensic tests taken by an unqualified investigator on the walls of the Auschwitz gas chambers in the late 1980s proved that they could not have been used for mass-executions, later claiming that “more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz”.

Irving also applied a clear double-standard in his evaluation of the evidence. At the same time as he embraced tenuous forensic tests taken more than 40 years after the end of the World War II, he was dismissive of the detailed eyewitness testimonies of the thousands of Holocaust survivors still alive at the time.

We see a similar double-standard with many of those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS. A 3-month investigation by Science magazine found no evidence to back Duesberg’s claims. Mainstream AIDS researchers accused him of constructing his arguments through “selective reading of the scientific literature, dismissing evidence that contradicts his theses, requiring impossibly definitive proof, and dismissing outright studies marked by inconsequential weaknesses.”

One big problem faced by both AIDS denialists and Holocaust denialists is the difficulty of explaining why their arguments are almost universally rejected. Here again, the rhetoric is often striking similar. Hardcore AIDS denialists insist that the disease is a “hoax”, a “myth”, and a “deceptive and deadly scam” perpetrated by the “medical industrial complex”, and offer us “Ten reasons HIV is not the cause of AIDS”. Hardcore negationists, meanwhile, talk dismissively about the “Holohoax”, which they describe as a “myth”, perpetrated by “Zionists” with an “agenda of world domination”, and offer us “Ten reasons why the Holocaust is a fraud”.

UN report sheds light on the credulity of international donors as regional governments finally lose patience with Uganda’s LRA rebels

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From The Times

An intelligence document compiled by the United Nations mission to Congo, known as Monuc, spells out the scale of the threat. It says that the LRA cynically used the peace talks to organise itself into a regional fighting force. The 670-strong band of fighters now has more than 150 satellite telephones, many bought with cash meant to aid communications during the talks. “Simply put, Kony now has the ability to divide his forces into very simple groups and to reassemble them at will,” the report says. “When put together with his proven mastery of bush warfare, this gives him new potency within his area of operations.”

They were given tonnes of food by a charity, Caritas Uganda, to discourage the looting of villages, and fistfuls of dollars by southern Sudan’s new leaders, whom they once fought.

General Kony is stronger than ever, the report concludes: “Recent abduction patterns suggest that he is now in the process of perfecting the new skill of recruiting and controlling an international force of his own.”

See also:  Catholic aid charity Caritas accused of materially supporting LRA terror group

NO2ID – Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

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NO2ID’s hard-hitting video on the dangers of data abuse

Many summers ago I had a temp job as a clerk at a private bank where a number of big-name celebrities held an account. The amiable chap I was working for was just a couple of years older than me, and seemed pretty comfortable in his job, though it was obvious that he found the work inordinately dull. One of the ways he liked to liven things up was to look through the personal details of the bank’s famous clients, and on occasions make prank calls to the private numbers that he’d dug out of the files.

As he was a music fan, millionaire ageing rock stars came in for particular attention. Within days of my starting he’d (amiably) shown me around Paul McCartney’s bank account and told me with pride of his habit of calling up the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, whispering “Robert Plant, ha ha ha!” and then hanging up.

A few years later, soon after the death of my sister, we got a knock on the door from the Daily Mail. We had long been ex-directory, and were being meticulously careful about our contact with the media, but the Mail had managed to track us down nonetheless. For years I was mystified about how they might have done it, and it was only when I read Nick Davies’s “Flat Earth News” that I found a plausible answer. Tabloid newspapers had long been in the habit of paying private investigators to track down people they wanted to contact, and it was an open secret that the PIs were bribing civil servants at the DVLA to hand out people’s personal details. Anyone who earned a legally-registered car could be found by the Sun or the Mail at a few hours’ notice. Maybe that was how they found us.

I was reminded of all of this yesterday when I had a fascinating chat with Phil Booth, the national co-ordinator of the NO2ID campaign. The standard reply to anyone who objects to compulsory ID cards, and the attendant mega-database that the government plans to introduce, is that only those with something to hide will have something to fear from it. But this relies on the assumption that every official with access to the database can be trusted to behave with absolute integrity at all times. No-one will ever be tempted to look up the details of their favourite (or least favourite) celebrity and make prank calls to them. No-one will ever take a bribe from a tabloid journalist, or an identity-fraudster, or a deranged ex-husband looking to settle a grudge.

According to NO2ID, the government databases that currently exist are already being used in unauthorised ways on a massive scale. A monthly audit of just one local authority database reportedly found thousands of instances of data being used in ways beyond that originally intended and authorised. Many of the infringements were no doubt minor, but the sheer volume clearly highlights the huge gap between the intended purpose of a government “power” and the practical reality of its use.

It’s this gap between intention and reality that the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mantra fails to address. As I argue in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, one deeply engrained feature of the human psyche seems to be a tendency to over-estimate – sometimes catastrophically – our capacity to control what goes on in the world – and to under-estimate the potential for unintended consequences.

We assume that making something illegal – be it the use of drugs or the abuse of our personal data – is the same thing as stopping it from happening. We assume that giving the authorities unfettered power to detain, torture or even kill those suspected of engaging in some social evil – be it drugs, crime or terrorism – will a) make the problem better rather than worse b) only affect those who’ve been up to no good. Time and again we remain blind to the gap between intention and reality until thousands of innocent people have already been subjected to horrific abuses.

The phrase “nothing to hide” works so well as propaganda because – like many good propagandistic phrases – it means two entirely separate things. “Nothing to hide” is generally taken to be synonymous both with “doing nothing wrong”, and with “no secrets from anyone”. Yet there are plenty of people who have done nothing wrong but might nonetheless have very strong reasons for wanting to keep some things secret from somebody. As NO2ID points out, these include:

those fleeing domestic abuse; victims of “honour” crimes; witnesses in criminal cases; those at risk of kidnapping; undercover investigators; refugees from oppressive regimes overseas; those pursued by the press; those who may be terrorist targets.

A series of embarrassing data breaches have shown how hard the government finds it to keep our personal details secure even now. The more information is stored centrally, and the more people can access it, the more opportunity for abuse and incompetence there will be – with potentially very serious consequences for those who, quite legitimately, do have something to hide.

And neither are we bound to accept that there is anything intrinsically wrong, in and of itself, with wanting to keep things about ourselves secret. The assumption often underlying discussions about the government’s uber-database plan seems to be that the onus is on opponents to explain why we shouldn’t be required to surrender all of our personal information to the authorities, rather than on the government to explain why this move is actually necessary.

At the heart of all this is a fundamental question of principle over who “owns” our personal data, and who is best placed to keep it secure. After half an hour speaking to Phil Booth, I’m more convinced than ever that, both on the principles and the practicalities, this government is fighting a losing battle.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 13, 2008 at 11:45 am

Zimbabwe government embraces cholera-denial

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I highlight the damage done in South Africa when President Thabo Mbeki, unwilling to face up to the reality of the health disaster facing his country, chose instead to embrace the insidious cult of AIDS denial.

Now in a crude echo of Mbeki’s position on AIDS, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has claimed – in the face of near-universal incredulity – that his government has eradicated his country’s cholera epidemic, and that the disease is therefore no longer a problem.

True to form, the Zimbabwe authorities also allege that the original cholera outbreak was the result of a genocidal “biological warfare” conspiracy by the British government.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 13, 2008 at 12:00 am

AC Grayling on the human rights “sceptics”

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From The Guardian

Critics of the UDHR and of the idea of human rights in general are of many kinds, but the three chief camps consist of the complacent, the inconvenienced and the disappointed. The former are those who, born, bred and fattened in peaceful and reasonably sane parts of the world, have the luxury of caviling and complaining at will, sometimes arguing that there is no such thing as a right, that talk of human rights is variously Eurocentric colonialist arrogance, or hot air, or pious claptrap, or all three. A few days in a windowless cellar with periodic episodes of water-boarding and electric cattle-prodding would change these minds faster than most.

The inconvenienced range from those who think one man is worth two or more women and therefore do not like talk of equality and rights, to those who (like Jack Straw and his new friends at the Daily Mail, from which his predecessor David Blunkett seemed to get most of his policy ideas in the days that followed Labour’s first flush of reform – led by Jack Straw’s Human Rights Act: what irony) have punitive and coercive instincts, and wish not only to lock people up or deport them, but make them suffer extra penalties while doing so, out of revenge and hostility.

The disappointed are those who point to the continuing mayhem, genocides, wars, use of torture and long detention without trial – by would-be respectable western governments too – and say that fine talk about human rights has made not a jot of difference, and indeed has often served as a fig-leaf for abuses.

Of these three camps the third has by far the most cogent point. But what one should draw from it is not defeatism, but renewed determination to make the idea of human rights work. In any case we are, from the long view of history, in the very earliest days of trying to construct a world order, a global sentiment, in which concern for human rights is widespread and operative. Enforcement is the key issue, and here we are in even earlier days: the International Criminal Court, for example, is an infant that does not yet walk. To give up on the idea of human rights now, so soon into the project of trying to remedy the world by its light, would be wrong… The campaign for human rights is the best hope for humankind, and it would be dereliction not to work to make that hope bear fruit.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 10, 2008 at 8:52 pm

David Irving – Free speech defender?

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See also: The parallels between AIDS denial and Holocaust negationism

It’s becoming something of a modern media tradition that whenever freedom of expression is discussed on TV, the pseudo-historian David Irving needs to be wheeled out to talk about the trials he has faced over his denial of the holocaust. Irving was famously jailed in Austria for a while after falling foul of the country’s laws that make denying the holocaust a criminal offence. Irving had given an inflammatory speech in Austria in 1989 which resulted in the case being initiated, and was arrested and put on trial when he returned in 2005.

I don’t doubt that there are some interesting (well, mildly interesting) questions around the wisdom and morality of locking people up for telling lies about the holocaust. The writer Deborah Lipstadt has argued that such measures are heavy-handed and counter-productive. Far more effective, she argues, to confront and expose a racist liar rather than giving him a chance to make a play for the moral highground by claiming martyrdom.

Lipstadt is in a good position to make this call. In 2000, Lipstadt’s legal team trounced David Irving in court, after he had sued her libel for describing him as a falsifier of history, a liar, an anti-semite and a holocaust denier. Armed with some of the most draconian and plaintiff-friendly libel laws in the western world, Irving had sought to impose a heavy penalty on Lipstadt for her criticisms of him. The move had backfired disatrously. Lipstadt had definitively proven her criticisms of Irving to be true, and helped in the process to destroy  what was left of his reputation as a historian.

Irving, it seems, is a supporter of free speech only when it suits him. He has sought actively  to use Britain’s libel laws to suppress legitimate criticism of his work, and arguably has rather more in common with the litigious fraudster Robert Maxwell than with the likes of Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi…

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at David Irving’s pseudo-history as a classic example of “bogus scepticism”.

Titanic Express case to feature in Channel Four short tomorrow evening

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At 7.55pm on Monday evening I’ll be on Channel Four,  in the first of a series of short films for the week of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I’ll be talking about the massacre that formed the subject of my first book, Titanic Express - in relation to article eight of the UDHR, the right to justice. The film was made by Native Voice films, in collaboration with Amnesty International, and will be showing on Channel Four’s “3 minute wonder” slot. To give some sense of the detail that can go into a TV production, this 3 minute short took the best part of two days to film, with many hours more for editing. It was a fascinating process to be involved with, and from the edits I’ve seen so far I think they’ve done an excellent job.

There’s more background here about the Titanic Express ongoing campaign, and more here on the history of the case.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 7, 2008 at 6:35 pm

Geoffrey Robertson QC on the dodgy legal grounds for Damian Green’s arrest

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From The Times

Maurice Frankel (letter, Dec 4) identifies the most serious aspect of police proceedings against Damian Green, namely their decision to search and arrest on charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting in relation to alleged “misconduct in public office” of his source in the Home Office. Were this charge to stick, it would mean that any “public watchdog” — editor, journalist or MP — who enthusiastically receives a leak from a civil servant, would be liable (incredibly) to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, without any public interest defence.

Charging these common law offences in respect to leaks of merely “confidential” information would be a clear breach of the Home Secretary’s assurance to Parliament, given during the passage of the 1989 Official Secrets Act. To charge them in a case where (so Sir Paul Stephenson has hinted) leaked information has “potential” security implications, would circumvent section 5 of that Act, which applies to recipients of such information but protects them by requiring the prosecution to prove that any disclosure of the information would be damaging to the interests of the United Kingdom. No such defence is available to the common law charges. The offence of “misconduct in public office” was invented by Lord Mansfield in 1783 to convict a deceitful army accountant. It has been superseded by more modern statutory offences of bribery, corruption and theft. The common law has no clear definition of “misconduct” and the crime is now mainly used against police who recklessly fail in their duty. It has never been used against a “watchdog” until R v Kearney and Murrer. The latter was a local newspaper journalist charged by Thames Valley Police with “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office” — the very charge copied by the Met for use against Mr Green. On November 25 her trial collapsed because the judge held that the prosecution had breached the Article 10 free-speech guarantee in the Human Rights Act.

Two days later the Met Police arrested the MP (and obtained entrance to Parliament) on a charge they must therefore have known was legally questionable. The CPS did know, because on that very day a decision was taken not to appeal the Murrer decision. So why didn’t the Met police take advice from the DPP, who heads the CPS, before their rash decision to enter Parliament and arrest an MP on a charge that is probably incompatible with the Article 10 right to receive and impart information? Their blunders demonstrate the necessity of police to obtain authoritative legal advice from the DPP at the beginning, and not at the end, of controversial operations. The police are only entitled to operational independence if those operations are conducted according to law.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 5, 2008 at 8:58 pm

AIDS denial on the retreat…

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When I was writing “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, Thabo Mbeki was still President of South Africa, with the extraordinary Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as his minister of health. AIDS denial was still exerting its malign influence after reaching a high point in 2000, when Mbeki had – to the delight of AIDS denialists the world over – invited a number of self-described “dissidents” to join his advisory panel on HIV and AIDS.

Abrupt change came only this September, with Mbeki’s ignominious exit from office, and the replacement of many of his closest allies. South Africa’s new health minister Barbara Hogan has stated unequivocally that HIV is the cause of AIDS, and ordered decisive action to tackle the disease.

In October, to the further consternation of the small but vocal group who continue to deny that HIV exists, the virologist Luc Montagnier was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of the virus during the early 1980s.

Workers in South Africa yesterday observed a minute’s silence on World AIDS Day, in memory of the hundreds of thousands who have died from the disease.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 2, 2008 at 2:10 pm

UN mediators fooled again by LRA leader Joseph Kony

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From the Institute of War and Peace Reporting

After announcing that he would sign a peace deal with the Ugandan government on Saturday, November 29, Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony again drew a crowd to the jungle camp of Nabanga on the border between South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

As Kony has done in the past, he balked, leaving a host of his Acholi tribal and cultural leaders waiting and wanting, along with the United Nations special envoy Joachim Chissano, the talk’s chief mediatory, South Sudan vice- president Riek Machar and a flock of international observers.

While the signing of the agreement would certainly have been a milestone in the history of Uganda, it remains a meaningless document despite the vast amount of time and money spent by international community on the talks, including the provision of food and other supplies to the rebels, over the past couple of years…

Kony has been able to manipulate the international community with his repeated peace overtures. He has devised the perfect ploy: talk peace, and do the opposite.

What’s clear is that Kony will be around for a long time, doing what he wants, when he wants, in part due to the painful indulgence of the international community.

Sadly, the innocent and the defenceless suffer. Maybe now, finally, the international community will wake up.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 1, 2008 at 11:59 pm

The Sun comes out for democracy

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For years, The Sun newspaper and its erstwhile political spokesman Trevor Kavanagh have firmly supported UK government demands for ever more “sweeping new powers” to bug, monitor and jail us without charge and with minimal oversight. Two days ago, the newspaper was still demanding – albeit with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance – that the police be allowed to “detain suspects for as long as they need”.

But the arrest of Sally Murrer, combined with the government’s suicide attack against the last remnants of its reputation seems to have brought about a change of heart.

“We are a police state here and now”, declares Trevor Kavanagh in today’s Sun.

I used to think ID cards were a good thing. What law-abiding citizen could object to these new weapons against terrorists, rapists and murderers? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Not any more… If Damian Green can be banged up for nine hours for telling the truth, what hope for you and me? …

The Government’s kneejerk abuse of anti-terror laws as a political weapon is increasingly sinister. It uses them on any pretext – even freezing the economy of friendly Iceland recently when its banks went bust… Soon, unelected snoopers will be able to pry into our mobile calls, text messages and emails. These are the alarming consequences of an authoritarian regime that sees the state as paramount and the people as pygmies.