Sir Cyril Townsend Speaks at Al-Hewar Center
Former British Parliamentarian Provides A European View of Middle East

Former British Member of Parliament Sir Cyril Townsend came to Al-Hewar Center, a dialogue forum in metro Washington, D.C., on September 17 to provide "A European Look at the Palestinian Problem and Arab-Israeli Conflict." Sir Cyril served as a Conservative Member of the House of Commons for twenty-three years. He is currently the Director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), a Vice President of the United Nations Association, UK, and a Member of the Board of Directors of UNICEF (UK). He has also written a weekly column on international affairs in Al-Hayat newspaper for the past 10 years.

Sir Cyril was introduced by Dr. Clovis Maksoud who also moderated his discussion with the audience. Dr. Maksoud is Director of the Center for the Global South at American University and the former Ambassador of the Arab League to the United Nations and the United States. In his introduction, Dr. Maksoud described the effects of the 1967 war on the Arab world which experienced a feeling of isolation while the Arabs tried to reclaim their rights amidst sustained denial by world powers. But, he said, eventually they began to feel that there was some sympathy for them, for example when the CAABU was formed.

Sir Cyril started his discussion by talking about the Sudan, mentioning that he and most people in Europe felt that the United States chose, in the pharmaceutical plant, the wrong target in retaliation for the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

He said he is not optimistic about the future of the Sudan, a country the size of India and Pakistan combined, which has been wracked, almost since independence, by a civil war in which over one million people have died and over five million have been displaced, especially in the north, while in the south, hundreds of thousands are on the verge of starvation.

He compared the approaches of the United States and Britain to the Sudan, noting that Britain's priorities are to try to bring the north and the south back together and to deliver food to the desperate civilian population (although, he noted with regret, approximately 60 percent of the food has gone to combatants instead). The United States's approach, on the other hand, was to unilaterally impose sanctions against the country - an action shocked the diplomatic community.

Turning to Iraq, the former parliamentarian called the UNSCOM mission an "experiment" which is setting a precedent for the world body to take actions against other countries threatening their neighbors - especially with nuclear weapons. He made three main suggestions with respect to the situation in Iraq: first, he said, Britain and the United States should be looking for an exit strategy as UNSCOM has been considerably successful in removing the weapons and it will be impossible to maintain the present policy, including sanctions, much longer. Second, the United Nations should institute "a major initiative" to get the message across to the Iraqi people, over one million of whom have died as a direct result of the sanctions, that it is not they, but rather Saddam's strategic and chemical weapons, that are the targets of the sanctions and the UNSCOM mission. Third: Sir Cyril suggested that the UN should institute a policy of monitoring Iraq's future actions and bring its investigation of Iraq's past weapons systems to a conclusion. He warned that unless the policies on Iraq are reviewed and revised, the United Nations is going to forfeit much world support; achieve too little in terms of disarmament; and seriously damage the population of a country that is already broken.

With respect to Palestine, Sir Cyril intimated that Palestinian self-determination is the first and indispensable step in resolving the conflict in quoting John Adams: "The consent of the people is the only foundation for government." He said he recently attended a special service commemorating the 418 Palestinian villages obliterated by the Israelis in 1947-48, and that seeing the names of the villages and meeting some of the people who were forced to flee, put the entire conflict into perspective. The Israelis forced over 750,000 people from their homes, destroyed hundreds of villages, and even laid mines around the mosques and villages that killed those who tried to return to their homes. Many who fled still live in squalid refugee camps to this day.

He noted that the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are victims of a program of ethnic cleansing similar to that used against the Bosnians and what is happening now in Kosovo. The program is aimed at forcing them out of East Jerusalem, which they hope will become the capital of a new Palestinian state.

As for Europe, the former British parliamentarian stated that the European Union is not at a point where it can, nor does it wish to, take over the peace process from the United States. Nor do many Arab leaders want this either, he said, but, he emphasized, everyone does want the United States to live up to its responsibilities and be even-handed in this matter.

Citing the terrible problems in such places as Algeria and Iraq, Sir Cyril concluded that in the Middle East "the sky is dark, the hour is late and many families are facing calamitous circumstances." He iterated the hope that the United Kingdom would support the U.S. in rethinking its policies toward this part of the world so that they can "work with the grain of the region and encourage wider participation, programs of education and social development, and, above all, offer hope and a sense of vision to a people who are otherwise in danger of perishing."


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