Accidents will happen. But it is unfortunate, to say the least, that among the first known civilian casualties of the aerial attacks on Afghanistan should have been four people working on UN projects from a UN compound. It is also extremely unsatisfactory that the choice of targets by the US military planners should have brought to a halt UN and aid agency distribution of desperately needed food and medical supplies for the Afghanistani people. Those who know about these things say that the high–level drops of food packages by US Air Force planes are of relatively little use and certainly no substitute for ground–level distribution by experts.

Another US mishap with the UN yesterday was the delivery of a letter to Secretary–General Kofi Annan informing him that America “might find that our self–defence requires further action with respect to other organisations and other states”. It does not require much diplomatic decoding to understand that this is a reference to Iraq.

The right–wing press in the United States at the moment is full of exhortations to George W Bush to finish the job left unfinished by George Bush ten years ago. It was therefore encouraging to learn that Jack Straw, Britain's Foreign Secretary, told EU foreign ministers yesterday that “the agreement at the moment is that the attacks are confined to Afghanistan.

This military coalition is about action in respect of military and terrorist targets in Afghanistan.” Hopefully this statement was made with the knowledge and approval of Tony Blair.

Ray Fleming

Keep the jury sistem

I is difficult for anything other than the ”war” to get much media attention at the moment but there are other things going on that deserve attention. At a different time Lord Justice Auld's massive report on the reform of Britain's criminal courts, which was delivered yesterday, would probably have received front–page attention if only because it adds his support to the government's wish to limit the use of the jury system. The report makes some 300 recommendations on the way the courts are run; most of them are uncontentious, for instance the creation of a new ”middle–tier” of courts in which magistrates would sit with a judge in cases where any sentence is likely to be less than two years.

However, Lord Auld's preference for removing a defendant's right to opt for jury trial in many types of cases will be widely criticised. Although there are often times when a jury's decision is difficult to understand, the fact remains that judgement by an accused's fellow citizens is probably the fairest form of justice that can be devised. Lord Auld is right, though, to insist that fewer people among the professions should be able to get exemption from jury service; at the moment two out of every three people called find it possible to be excused.

The governmnet failed to get parliamentary approval for changes in the jury system when it brought them forward last year. It should not try again, even with Lord Justice Auld's backing.