Friday, April 29, 2005

Holding Blair to account

Yesterday evening the most dramatic day of the UK election campaign so far culminated in Tony Blair's grilling by a live studio audience on BBC television. The two-year-long row over the Iraq war had erupted again when, in an effort to stem a flow of damaging leaks, the government was that morning forced to publish details of the pre-war legal advice given to the Prime Minister. This confirmed that the advice had been filled with question marks over the wars legality; question marks which became exclamation marks when the case was presented to parliament.

Throughout the debate Blair returned to a small series of bullet points, all of which can be refuted with the minimum of fuss. Let's go through them.

It was a difficult decision but it had to be made and he believes it was the right thing to do.

Irrelevant. Heads of governments make difficult decisions. Making those decisions and thinking that you're making them correctly hardly constitutes an achievement. Not only is this irrelevant, its so irrelevant that its almost akin to time-wasting. The more time spent mouthing these superfluous words, the less time spent answering the substantial points.

He was faced with a situation where France had stated that it would not sign any resolution authorising the use of force.

This is a deliberate misrepresentation. France had not rendered any talk of diplomatic progress obsolete by saying that it would never authorise the use of force under any circumstances, which is what Blair and Straw have spent the last two years pretending was the case. In an interview on 10 March 2003 French President Jacques Chirac said that war was unjustifiable at that moment in time; not never, come what may. This was hardly an unreasonable veto, especially since Chirac's view represented the majority of world opinion and the UN - whose authority Blair claimed he wanted to uphold - is a global, multilateral institution. In fact it was Blair and Bush who unreasonably vetoed the clear wishes of the international community by starting a war with Iraq.

We are better off with Saddam in prison than in power. The region, therefore the world, therefore Britain is safer.

Saddam was already substantively disarmed, as was well known at the time. He was not even a threat to his neighbours (as he was when the US and the UK were backing his murderous regime). By contrast, an aggressively militaristic global superpower which holds international law in contempt has now lowered the bar for waging war, provoking weapons proliferation on the part of its enemies and thus destabilising the region and the world. Blair's complicity in this has increased the risk of terrorist attack on this country.

Had he remained in power Saddam would have been strengthened and Iraqis would still have been dying. If you dispute the point, speak to Iraqis about it.

Children under the age of five were already dying at the rate of 4,000 every month under the US/UK sanctions regime before the war. Saddam was empowered internally by these very measures, which Blair had been complicit in from 1997 til 2003. Since the invasion child malnutrition has doubled and over 100,000 more people have died than would have had the war never taken place. As for speaking to Iraqis, poll after poll has shown Iraqi hostility to the occupying powers. Over 300,000 marched only two weeks ago, demanding the expulsion of British and American troops and condemning Bush and Blair as war criminals.

Iraq now has a democratic government.

Creating a democracy was never a matter of urgency for the United States. Former governor Paul Bremner had intended to drag out American rule indefinitely, but the Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brought mass demonstrations onto the streets in favour of elections, forcing the hand of the occupier. When they came turnout was high and voters jubilant in the largely peaceful Shia-dominated south, but almost nobody voted in the war ravaged, predominantly Sunni centre, leaving a government completely unrepresentative of Iraq’s cultural make-up. A serious election campaign was practically impossible, with candidates subject to death threats and unable to reveal their identity to voters as a result. Unlike in elections in East Timor and Palestine for example, international observation to guarantee a free and fair vote was nowhere to be seen. If any countries other than the US and the UK had presided over these elections they would have been held up to international ridicule.

Now, behind the newly elected government, lurks the might of the US military. It’s something of a stretch to describe a country with tens of thousands of foreign troops on its soil, bombing its towns and cities and killing its people, as free, sovereign and democratic

No audience member questioned Blair on the catastrophic state Iraq is now in. Oil, the principle reason Iraq was invaded, also went unmentioned. Once again the central issues relating to the invasion of Iraq stayed outside the public discussion. Blair’s critics may think they have him on the back foot, but in truth his greatest crimes remain completely unchallenged

Monday, April 25, 2005

The legality of the Iraq war: time to move on

Yesterday, two British newspapers and the Mail on Sunday led with the leaked details of a memo from the Attorney General to the Prime Minister, sent before the war on Iraq, which apparently argued that any invasion might be illegal. The is the latest episode in a long and torturous saga, set out in mindnumbing detail over acres of newsprint, covering the questions of whether Britain knew Iraq did not possess Weapons of Mass Destruction, whether the Prime Minister knew that a war might be illegal, etcetera, etcetera. One might be forgiven for thinking that these questions are particularly complicated. Happily they are not, and we can satisfy ourselves of the answers in pretty short order.

Fortunately for the unenlightened layperson, international law is crystal clear on where the use of armed force is legitimate. The UN Charter permits it in two instances: either in self-defence, or when authorised by the security council. The latter requires no discussion – at least not unless the other members of the council somehow authorised the war without realising it - so lets proceed straight to the former: self defence.

Did the US and the UK invade Iraq in self defence? The fact that the question is even asked, much less that the great and the good have agonised over it for more than two years, gives the measure of our political culture in stark and depressing terms. Consider the very idea that America, the greatest military power in all history, needed to defend itself from the tin-pot dictator of a crippled third world country. A country that did not control its own airspace, that had been bombarded at will by America for over a decade, whose infrastructure had been smashed, whose people were starving, was about to rise up and….and do what exactly? Send its armies to march on Washington? The notion was palpably absurd from the start. And whether or not the claims on Iraq’s WMD were true was an utter irrelevance. If Iraq had possessed WMD it would have joined a group of nations, like North Korea and Iran, which have a degree of military power and poor relations with the west, but know full well that to instigate a war with such an enemy is to commit instant suicide.

The Iraq war was illegal. Moreover, since it was patently not fought in self defence, it follows that the war was a crime of aggression. “Aggression”, according the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314, passed in the wake of Vietnam, “is the use of armed force…in any matter inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations”. After World War Two the court at Nuremberg described the war of aggression as “essentially an evil thing…to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”. Associate US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at the trial said that “no political or economic situation can justify” the crime of aggression, which was “the greatest menace of our times”.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office, viewed the coming invasion in precisely these terms when she resigned her post in March 2003. In her resignation memo, Wilmshurst was unequivocal: “an unlawful use of force on such a scale amounts to the crime of aggression”. Mindful of the wide and serious consequences that would follow, she went on to say that she could not, in good conscience, “agree with such action in circumstances which are so detrimental to the international order and the rule of law”. Wilmshurst’s stand was praiseworthy and her opinion an educated one; but her’s, as we have seen, was nevertheless a statement of the obvious.

Tony Blair sounds today like a man tired of the seemingly endless speculation regarding the war’s legality. I sympathise. There is no requirement for further disclosures, nor further judicial enquiries on the subject. Both our government and the American government are guilty of committing “the supreme international crime”; initiating a war of aggression. The electorate, on May 5, can now move to sentencing.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Blair pledges to heal Africa.....again

Today is World Poverty Day. The situation is desperate, and ought to be a source of cringing shame to every single person in the developed world. As the UK General Election draws near how should voters assess the government's stance on the crisis?

Every day 30,000 children die as a result of extreme poverty; the equivalent of 10 9/11s. Malaria, a preventable and curable disease, kills a million African children each year; one every thirty seconds. Every 3.6 seconds another person dies of starvation; the majority are children under 5. Every year six million children die from malnutrition before their fifth birthday. Every day HIV/AIDS kills 6,000 people and another 8,200 people are infected.

This continues in the face of staggering inequalities, starkly set out by Charlotte Denny in a 2002 article for The Guardian:

For half the world's population the brutal reality is this: you'd be better off as a cow. The average European cow receives $2.20 (£1.40) a day from the taxpayer in subsidies and other aid. The richest 25 million Americans have an income equal to that of almost 2 billion people, while the assets of the world's three richest men is greater than the combined income of the world's least developed countries. At the UN millennium summit [in 2000], world leaders set themselves the task of halving global poverty. The cost is estimated at between $40bn and $60bn on top of current aid spending - about a sixth of what the west currently spends on subsidising its farmers”.

Britain’s political leaders marked today’s event with fresh pledges to tackle the crisis. Tory leader Michael Howard said ending world poverty was a "noble" ambition. Charles Kennedy called for the poorest nations' debts to be wiped out. Tony Blair said the scandal of Africa’s plight was that the richer nations could end the suffering, but had failed to do so. He said 2005 must represent “a new beginning” for the continent.

Blair has made strong statements of this kind before. In his landmark speech to the Labour party conference in the wake of 9/11, Blair said that “The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world. But we could heal it”. Liberal commentator Polly Toynbee was in raptures: “like the Winds of Change speech that told Britain empire was over, this will stand as a moment British politics became vigorously, unashamedly, social democratic. The day it became missionary and almost Swedish in pursuit of universal justice”.

Turning to the prospect of Blair’s divine interventions being frustrated by the shortcomings of others, Toynbee mused that “It will take time to see whether the old sell-arms-to-anyone French have been similarly moved and changed”. In the event, disappointment came rather closer to home. Barely three months had passed before the New Labour government decided to grant British Aerospace an export licence to provide Tanzania with a $40m military air traffic control system. Aid agencies were stunned. Kevin Watkins, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser, said the deal “exposes the huge gulf between prime ministerial rhetoric and foreign policy realities. The immediate losers will be ordinary Tanzanians. One in three Tanzanian children is malnourished; every day about 500 die. The problem is that public spending on health is $2 per person. For Tanzania, the cost of the system, which the International Civil Aviation Authority says is massively over-priced and inadequate, is about equivalent to one third of the national health budget”. Nevertheless, Blair gave his personal backing to the sale.

For Mark Curtis, Director of the World Development Movement and former Head of Policy at Christian Aid, the gulf between rhetoric and reality is apparent across the spectrum of UK policy toward the third world. The media lavish praise on New Labour for increases in aid and debt relief, but fail to mention “the awkward fact that poor countries only get such increases when they agree to pursue economic policies "advised" by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This invariably involves privatising companies and opening up their economies further to trade "liberalisation". The effect has regularly been to increase poverty and inequality, and to make the world safer for corporations. While Blair claims to be listening to Africa, his government has for the last decade been opposing at the World Trade Organisation African proposals to pursue alternative trade policies. Stopping selling arms to Africa might also just help the continent, but this - naturally - is completely off the radar screen”. British policy is led, not by a mission to heal the wounds of world poverty, but to serve the UK's economic interests abroad.

Cynicism should not be allowed to preclude even the smallest openings for political change on global poverty. The subject is far too serious for that. Voters and campaigners should therefore be mindful of such cynicism on the part of politicians, as manifested in the “huge gulf between prime ministerial rhetoric and foreign policy realities” described above by Oxfam’s senior policy adviser. Blair’s infamous 2001 speech also marked “a new beginning” – the beginning of a US/UK military crusade that would test his supporters’ loyalty to the limit. Now in 2005 he must appeal to his core constituency once again if he is to be elected to a third prime ministerial term. But if “the new beginning” he proclaims for the world’s poor is to be realised then we must look to ourselves, and not New Labour, to deliver it.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Elections for people who don't follow politics

Its not hard to see why so many people in Britain feel excluded from the build up to the election on May 5, and from politics in general. The profusion of fake tans, glossy sales brochures and meaningless flannel make a western election campaign feel like an interminable convention of used car salesmen. Anyone trying to follow the debate is presented with candidates, journalists and commentators who speak in their own unfathomable political language, using jargon so arcane and terminology so obscure they might as well be discussing microeconomics. Often, that's exactly what they're doing.

The way politicians deal with the issues doesn't help. Politicians avoid specifics with the same energy and determination that children avoid bathtime. Their speeches form rollcalls of vacuous platitudes that just about any sane person would agree with (pro-life, tough on crime, against the slaughter of the firstborn) and because so many of their policies are remarkably similar to those of their rivals, voters find themselves returning to the same familiar questions. Which of these identikit jokers should I vote for? And since all I'm presented with is a factory line of party androids, pre-programmed to spout the same inanities, buzzwords and slogans, is there any point in me bothering to vote at all?

There are a few websites that can help people who find themselves apparently without a ticket to this pantomime get a proper look at the issues and the options available. This page on the BBC News website lets you compare the parties policies at a glance, on a range of different issues. With a couple of clicks you can compare any three parties from a selection of 20. Its highly accessible, user friendly, and also links to the various manifestos if you want a bit more detail.

The Political Survey takes your views and uses opinion poll data to show you where you sit in comparison with the rest of the population and with the supporters of the various parties. It comes up with some interesting results and is well worth a look.
In the same vein there's Who Should You Vote For, which is less sophisticated but slightly quicker.

And quickest and least sophisticated of all is the Observer Blog Vote-o-Matic .

Finally, on the question of whether or not one should vote, I'll just briefly repeat what I've said in earlier posts. Whatever the shortcomings of our democracy we still enjoy a far greater degree of political freedom than most societies. Because that allows us some influence over how our country is run we all then share in the responsibility for what our government does. Everyone's responsible for the consequences of their actions or inaction, and that simple truism applies here no matter how poor our electoral system or how narrow our choices. So there's a moral obligation on us to vote; especially since the way the Government conducts itself is literally a matter of life or death. The Iraq war is only the most obvious, current example of this. If Britain was as affected by the actions of foreign countries as Iraq is, we'd certainly hope that people in those counties would do all they could to ensure that their governments acted responsibly.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Blessed are the poor in spirit

When Joseph Ratzinger, the man who will be Pope Benedict XVI, is described as conservative, we should remind ourselves of what he would be conservative in relation to. The Pope is the supreme leader of an ancient and powerful hierarchy dedicated to the strict enforcement of a two-millennia-old religious dogma. In this case conservative means conservative relative to what are in any case the most rigid and unyielding of standards. Given that the Pope is the spiritual leader of a sixth of humanity, its worth looking closely at what that means in practise.

From 1981, Cardinal Ratzinger ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; formerly known as the Inquisition. Gaining the nickname “God's Rottweiler”, his injunctions included pronouncements that homosexuality is evil, that other religions and versions of Christianity are defective, and that women should not be allowed to sing in choirs or serve at the altar. He also barred Catholic priests from counselling pregnant teenagers on their options.

Under Ratzinger’s enforcement of doctrine the Vatican continued to forbid the use of condoms, even for health, and went so far as to claim they do not prevent the spread of Aids. This in spite of the fact that between 1981 and the end of 2003 Aids killed 20 million people, and that during 2004 around five million adults and children became infected with HIV.

Ratzinger’s doctrines leave little room for attempts to improve the lot of humanity, at least not in this world. As he once lamented, “Greenpeace and Amnesty International seem to have taken over mankind's concerns, which formerly would have radiated from the impulses of Raphael, Michelangelo or Bach”. In Ratzinger’s moral calculus, efforts to alleviate the suffering of the most unfortunate among us rank some way below contemplation of divinity and adherence to papal dogma. This is most clearly demonstrated by his ruthless crusade against Liberation Theology in Latin America.

In the 1980’s Ratzinger sought to ostracize the mass movement of “Liberation Theology” which was calling for major social reforms in favour of the poor. The movement’s leading figures were condemned and­ ordered­ to remain silent. Even before Ratzinger’s appointment in 1981 the suppression was underway. When Archbishop Oscar Romero denounced the gut-wrenchingly brutal dictatorship of El Salvador, he was reprimanded for not being sufficiently balanced in his criticisms of the regime, which the then Pope referred to as the legitimate government. Continuation under Ratzinger was seamless. In 1984, Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff was reprimanded for his efforts to speak out against the military dictatorship in his country, banned from preaching and from celebrating the sacraments. Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, the archbishop of São Paulo who had supported Boff, had his diocese drastically reduced in size and conservative bishops were brought in by the Pope.

For Ratzinger, the attempts of liberation theology to alleviate poverty in this life served as a distraction from the higher goal of seeking spiritual redemption beyond the material world. From the opulent comfort of the Vatican, Ratzinger opined that “It is the poor, the object of God's special love, who understand best ….that the most radical liberation, which is liberation from sin and death, is the liberation accomplished by the death and resurrection of Christ". Therefore, to listen to the poor meant accepting traditional piety. Instead of "serving as the voice for the voiceless," the liberationists were seeking to misdirect popular piety toward an earthly plan of liberation. According to Ratzinger, this would lead to another form of slavery, and was a "criminal" act.

In other words, liberationists were enslaving the poor to their material needs; the need to escape from desperate poverty, malnourishment, rampaging infant mortality, illiteracy and so forth. Were it not for these irresponsible dissident priests, filling their heads with ideas, the poor would revel in their earthly piety and concentrate on seeking salvation in the next life. Driven by this repulsive moral-absenteeism, Ratzinger moved to eradicate liberation theology more or less single-handedly, and by silencing its advocates, actively worked to destroy the hopes of the world's poor. In this life, that is.

Was this what the Archbishop of Canterbury was referring to when he described Ratzinger as “a theologian of great stature who has written some profound reflections on the nature of God and the Church”?

Ratzinger’s rise to the Papacy is ominous indeed. But, when comparing him to his predecessor one should reflect that all of the abovementioned exploits occurred under the gaze of Pope John Paul II. When considering alternative paths the church might have taken one should reflect that, to a greater or lesser extent, religious dogma will always attempt to subordinate rationality. Those who believe that a reasoned enquiry into the workings of the world around us offers humanity’s best hope of happiness and fulfilment should reflect on Ratzinger’s warped and scornful view of that secular humanism: "Relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching,' looks like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires". We can be sure that Pope Benedict XVI will spend his reign working tirelessly to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from their own corrupting desires.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Gorgeous George

Suppose I'm talking about international terrorism, and I say that we ought to stop it in Washington, which is a major center of it. People back off, "What do you mean, Washington's a major center of it?" Then you have to explain. You have to give some background. [The media] don't want people who have to give background, because that would allow critical thought. What you want is completely conformist ideas. You want just repetition of the propaganda line, the party line. For that you need "concision". I could do it too. I could say what I think in three sentences, too. But it would just sound as if it was off the wall, because there's no basis laid for it. If you come from the American Enterprise Institute and you say it in three sentences, yes, people hear it every day, so what's the big deal? Yeah, sure, Qaddafi's the biggest monster in the world, and the Russians are conquering the world, and this and that, Noriega's the worst gangster since so-and-so. For that kind of thing you don't need any background. You just rehash the thoughts that everybody's always expressed. That's a structural technique that's very valuable. In fact, if [the media] were smarter, they would allow more dissidents on, because they would just make fools of themselves. Either you would sell out and repeat what everybody else is saying because it's the only way to sound sane, or else you would say what you think, in which case you'd sound like a madman, even if what you think is absolutely true and easily supportable. The reason is that the whole system so completely excludes it. It'll sound crazy, rightly, from their point of view. And since you have to have concision, you don't have time to explain it. That's a marvelous structural technique of propaganda. – Noam Chomsky

Residing as they do outside of the privately-owned mainstream of media debate, progressives are presented with a range of serious challenges in respect of communicating their opinions to the rest of the public. Privately-owned media act as a distorting filter, excluding vast swathes of rational thought from publicly expressible opinion wherever those rational thoughts contradict private interests. Within this framework, easily defensible statements will be held up to ridicule and rebuke because they are made only on grounds of rationality, and not within the assumptions preordained by the natural bias of private interest, to which rationality must be subordinate.

In the past its been necessary to defend progressive figures such as Ken Livingstone, Noam Chomsky and others when rationally supportable statements they make have fallen foul of these obstacles. That defence, in turn, has been hindered by the same obstacles. But it was right to defend those people in those cases, no matter the difficulties. Free and open discussion of the facts is the oxygen of progressive politics. Progressives should not fear such a discussion, and when others do they should draw the appropriate conclusions. Equally – both in terms of the principle of defending the truth and the practical consideration of credibility - progressives should be rigorous in satisfying themselves of the moral case before mounting such defences.

In London, the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow is being contested by anti-war candidate George Galloway, representing the progressive party Respect. He challenges the Blairite loyalist Oona King in what is usually a safe Labour seat and, despite the fact that Respect is not one of the UK's three main parties, his challenge is the one that concerns the incumbent.

Galloway is one of the anti-war movement’s leading figures and ought to be one of its greatest strengths. He is one of the best public speakers of his generation. He is a political veteran; knowledgeable, battle-hardened and experienced. Respect’s manifesto is decidedly lacking in material that any progressive can readily disagree with, and appears to offer a fresh start to those who reject the Thatcherite consensus.

Galloway is the sort of figure that is bound to fall foul of the media framework described above. Sure enough, few articles about him rise above a petty level of scorn and condescension. He was hauled over the coals by the media, and expelled from the Labour Party for pointing out that since the Iraq invasion was illegal, Iraqi troops attempting to repel the invasion were the only side fighting legally, and that British troops could legitimately refuse to obey their orders. This bald statement of fact had serious moral implications for the UK Government’s stance. Rather than consider those implications, much less be shamed by them, Galloway’s enemies accused him of treason. His conclusion was rational, but not acceptable to private interest. In his career, Galloway has come out on top of several legal battles against his more cynical detractors, among them the Daily Telegraph, The Christian Science Monitor, and his current electoral rival Oona King.

However, some of Galloway’s controversial statements have been genuinely problematic. In a piece for Sunday’s Observer – a piece that was decidedly dodgy in a number of respects – Nick Cohen reminded us of Galloway’s most controversial hour. In a meeting with Saddam in January 1994 Galloway had said to the dictator “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”.

There can hardly be any question that, standing alone, these words sound appalling. Since that meeting Galloway has said of the statement, “Yes, I regret that very much”. He says he should have used the “old-fashioned Scottish word ‘yoos’, rather than ‘you ’,” to show his tribute was to the people of Iraq, and not to their oppressor.

Galloway’s supporters point out that at the time he was involved in a dialogue with Saddam intended to mitigate the effects of sanctions on the Iraqi population and to decrease the chances of further armed conflict with the west [click on ‘comments’ here]. These are goals it would be hard not to support, and if swallowing one’s pride and allowing the preening butcher some flattery would help in that respect…..well, greater crimes have been committed. But, whatever gains Galloway made must be balanced against the damage the controversy did to the reputation of the movement that was building pressure on the UK Government’s Iraq policy, and with which Galloway is associated. Was the flattery unavoidable? Was it necessary to present an open goal to anyone looking to paint opposition to the UK’s Iraq policy as support for the dictator? There are plenty of icons on the anti-war left - Pilger, Chomsky etc. – whose dedication is unquestioned and who never saluted the courage, strength and indefatigability of a mass murderer. At the least it raises a question mark over Galloway’s political judgement.

Another of Galloway’s more problematic statements is reported to have come in an interview with the Independent on Sunday. [I can find many copies of the quote, but not the original. If Galloway didn’t say this I’m of course happy to withdraw the following section].

""He’s a hero. Fidel Castro is a hero."
He's a dict. . .
"I don't believe that Fidel Castro is a dictator."
I honestly can't think of anything to say to this.
"Fidel Castro is a great revolutionary leader. But for 40 years or more of siege, undoubtedly Cuba would have developed, democratically speaking, differently. But when the enemy is at the gates, spending billions to destroy the revolution, you have to accept that there will be restrictions on political freedoms in a place like Cuba."
You've met El Presidente, I take it.
"Yes. Magnificent. He’s the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met."

There’s no doubt of the social benefits the Cuban people enjoy, as compared to many of their regional neighbours, and this achieved under siege from the greatest power in history. As Seamus Milne noted in July 2003, “Cuba has achieved first world health and education standards in a third world country, its infant mortality and literacy rates now rivalling or outstripping those of the US, its class sizes a third smaller than in Britain - while next door, in the US-backed "democracy" of Haiti, half the population is unable to read and infant mortality is over 10 times higher…it has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 third world countries and given a free university education to 1,000 third world students a year”. Had Cuba not repelled the sinister advances of its American suitor the island’s people might well have suffered the gruesome fate of others in the region; countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama where US-backed state terror of various descriptions inflicted bloodbaths reminiscent of the conquistadors’ worst excesses.

But Castro’s regime is still responsible for some pretty nasty human rights abuses, which are in no way excused by the far worse crimes of his enemies. Amnesty International reported last month that people “imprisoned for peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions… [were] handcuffed and kept in tiny "punishment cells" infested with rats and cockroaches. …Prison guards reportedly stamped on the neck of Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, causing him to pass out during a beating last November while he was handcuffed. Another man, Luis Enrique Ferrer Garcia, was reportedly stripped and beaten by guards. …[The men] were arrested for “offences” such as publishing critical articles or communicating with human rights groups”.

As Galloway points out, Cuba is a nation under siege. When Britain curtailed its civil liberties during World War II there was a decent justification for that in the circumstances. But is it strictly necessary, in the interests of defending one’s country, to stamp on the neck of someone for “peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions”? And can the man ultimately responsible for such abuses seriously be described in such unambiguous terms as “a hero. the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met”?

An extremely strong case can be made for saying that Cuba is much better off (comparatively) under Castro than as a US client state, and this is demonstrated by Milne’s article. Contrast this with Galloway’s choice of terminology. The word “hero” is an unambiguous one, the term “most magnificent” a superlative. An absolute. If Galloway’s defence of Cuba is, like Milne’s, the result of a balanced cost/benefit analysis, then its seriously undermined by his use of language. Beyond the distorting prism of the mass media lies a public that Galloway must communicate with. Its had to see how unnecessary soundbites like this can help.

Similarly, this exchange came in a 2002 interview with the Guardian: “"I am on the anti-imperialist left." The Stalinist left? "I wouldn't define it that way because of the pejoratives loaded around it; that would be making a rod for your own back. If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life. If there was a Soviet Union today, we would not be having this conversation about plunging into a new war in the Middle East, and the US would not be rampaging around the globe."

For progressives there is a rather simpler answer to the question “Are you on the Stalinist left?”. The answer would be “No, don’t be ridiculous. Stalin was a mass murderer”. Noam Chomsky demonstrated how to approach such questions when he said “If the left is understood to include 'Bolshevism,' then I would flatly dissociate myself from the left. Lenin was one of the greatest enemies of socialism, in my opinion, for reasons I've discussed”.

The second half of the quote suggests that Galloway might have been better off saying that “On balance, despite the hideous crimes it committed, one could argue that the Soviet Union at least restricted the designs of US imperialism, and was of course instrumental in defeating Nazism”. The rationale and the balance of the various factors involved would have been apparent, even if one disagreed profoundly with the conclusion. The second half of the quote sounds like this is what he might be trying to say, but if it is, he’s doing it badly. The statement “I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life” is pretty unequivocal. It’s a quote that’s just aching to be taken out of context. In fact its very hard to avoid at least the suspicion that it wasn’t taken out of context at all. If it wasn’t, then its odious in the extreme. No one should have the slightest trouble in recognising the evils of American imperialism without supporting the blood-soaked dungeon that was the Soviet Union because it acted as a counterweight.

Nor does this tally with his saying that “The difference between me and Mr Bush and Mr Blair is that I am against all dictatorships all of the time, not just some dictators some of the time”.

In Bethnal Green and Bow, George Galloway stands on a platform of democracy, social justice and human rights. The values that underpin the Respect manifesto give much reason to conclude that he does not support the horrors of the Soviet Union, the human rights abuses committed by Castro’s regime, or genuinely salute the courage, strength and indefatigability of the mass murderer Saddam. One might consider the numerous statements he has made condemning Saddam and the many other statements he has made in defence of these decent values and principles. One might consider the policies Respect proposes which give expression to those values. One might make a list of Galloway quotations in this vein that far outnumber the ones discussed at length here, and one might look at that balance sheet to give us the true measure of the man. But having done this one might still have to conclude that his taste for rhetorical bombast makes him – and therefore his views and his party - more vulnerable than need be the case. One might still have to conclude that he advances into the minefield of mainstream opinion with a bulldozer, rather than with sure and deliberate steps. One might have to wonder to what extent the benefits of having his eloquent voice in parliament might be offset by some future clumsy and ill-judged statement that causes the considerable moral capital of Respect’s platform to depreciate unnecessarily as a result.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

It's not racist to endanger ethnic minorities if it helps advance your career

To say that there has always been a whiff of closet racism about the Conservative Party would be to show an excessive level of generosity to that great British institution. In fact the closet door remains permanently ajar, and is occasionally flung wide open.

In 1964 Labour's shadow foreign secretary was trounced by a Tory candidate whose campaign featured the slogan: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour". In 1968 shadow cabinet member Enoch Powell did his bit for race relations by claiming that immigrants would seek to "overawe and dominate", resulting in a nation awash with "rivers of blood". In 1978, after a riot in Woverhampton, Margaret Thatcher remarked that "People are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture." Under her premiership Tory minister Alan Clark suggested that immigrants ought to be sent back to "Bongo-Bongo Land". In 1990 Norman Tebbit demanded that commonwealth immigrants, with the savage history of Empire still fresh in their minds, prove their loyalty through a "cricket test" by supporting the England team instead of those from their ancestral homes. In 2001 Tory leader William Hague, along with his sidekick and famed moral crusader Anne Widdecombe, embarked on a ruthless drive to exploit public fears on immigration that had been whipped up by an hysterical and mendacious tabloid press. In 2002 Tory rural affairs spokeswoman Ann Winterton was sacked for telling a particularly sordid racist joke at a public engagement. Unrepentant, the MP repeated the offence in 2004.

Now in 2005, Michael Howard feels the dead hand of Conservative history upon his shoulder.

At the weekend Howard delivered an ominous warning of "literally millions of people in poorer countries" wishing to settle in Britain whose arrival would jeopardise "the future of good community relations". Howard invoked an image of dark, grasping hordes beating down our doors. As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown notes in The Independent, it is not white immigrants that Howard concerns himself with. "Conservatives and New Labour have no problems with [antipodean] migrants, nor with white Zimbabweans, South Africans and Americans who have taken up opportunities here and made good. These people are not the enemy within unlike black Africans, Arabs, Gypsies and South Asians. It is all about race."

Howard repeatedly asserts that its not racist to talk about immigration; as though he had any interest in an honest discussion. A better indication of Howard's intentions is given by his choice of campaign director. Lynton Crosby made his name during Australia's 2001 general elections, and an ugly row about a refugee ship, the Tampa. Crosby exploited false allegations that asylum seekers had tried to blackmail their way into the country by throwing children overboard. "It was a squalid lie" said Dr Paul Reynolds of the University of Queensland, the state where Crosby cut his teeth in Australia's centre-right Liberal party. "Lynton Crosby did not initiate the row. But he went along for the ride and milked it. He was compliant."

Such tactics have entirely predictable consequences for the future of good community relations.

Last weekend The United Nations refugee agency accused Howard of encouraging hatred of foreigners by dragging asylum-seekers into party politics. "UNHCR is terribly worried as among some quarters the crisis rhetoric and lumping of asylum with immigration issues continues, often fuelled by thinly disguised xenophobia and political opportunism". Then, earlier this week, following reports around the country of racist violence, including attacks on traveller sites, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality warned politicians to "take a step back" and realise what their words "may do to people on the ground". He said there were signs of pre-election debates causing racial hostility. The commission had received reports of racist violence, intimidation and "mob rule": "We know what's happening in schools. We know what's happening in factories and so on". Those comments were backed up by Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, who said "Research shows that every time something hardline is said in the press by politicians about immigration, there is a direct link to racist attacks." But none of these warnings have deterred Howard from taking his brave stand against the forces of political correctness.

As Hunter S Thompson said of George W. Bush; four years of Michael Howard would be like four years of syphilis. Many will lament the expected return of a New Labour government in May. But we can at least allow ourselves the small comfort one should derive from witnessing a fresh knife-twist in the heart of the Tory party. Having flatlined at around 30% in the polls for over a decade, one can only hope that 2005 will mark another small step towards the painful, and richly deserved death of the patient. For the warm welcome it has offered to refugees and ethnic minorities throughout its dismal history, the Conservative Party deserves nothing less.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Poor Are Revolting

The Observer reports that UK "cabinet minister Peter Hain launched a fierce attack on self-indulgent 'dinner party critics' among the liberal middle classes who are tempted to use the ballot box to punish Blair. He said that by doing so, they would only hurt the poorest, who were dependent on a Labour victory."

The leader had 'got the message' about their displeasure, Hain said, arguing that those who still disagreed over Iraq or civil liberties should reopen the arguments after the election

'There's now a kind of dinner party critics who quaff shiraz or chardonnay and just sneeringly say, "You are no different from the Tories",' he said. 'Most of the people in this category are pretty comfortably off: it's not going to be the end of the world if they get a Tory government. In a working-class constituency like mine, this is a lifeline. It's not a luxury.'

Hain appears to see the issue of Iraq as something we should put to one side in order to concentrate on poverty and deprivation. The proposition is made problematic in part by his own actions in a previous role as Foreign Office Minister. There he helped maintain a sanctions regime upon Iraq which killed over a million civilians. In his report for the Guardian, published in March 2000, John Pilger detailed the scale of the devastation.

"According to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, the death rate of children under five is more than 4,000 a month - that is 4,000 more than would have died before sanctions. That is half a million children dead in eight years. If this statistic is difficult to grasp, consider, on the day you read this, up to 200 Iraqi children may die needlessly. "Even if not all the suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors," says Unicef, "the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivation in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war."

Anupama Rao Singh, Unicef's senior representative in Iraq, told me [that]. "In 10 years, child mortality has gone from one of the lowest in the world, to the highest."

Denis Halliday resigned as co-ordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq in 1998, after 34 years with the UN. His was the first public expression of an unprecedented rebellion within the UN bureaucracy. "We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that."

"I had been instructed," he said, "to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults. We all know that Saddam Hussein is not paying the price for economic sanctions; on the contrary, he has been strengthened by them. It is the little people who are losing their children or their parents for lack of untreated water. History will slaughter those responsible."

Then on February 13 this year [2000], Hans von Sponeck, who had succeeded him as humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, resigned. "How long," he asked, "should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?" Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, resigned, saying privately she, too, could not tolerate what was being done to the Iraqi people.

Hain defended his involvement, saying that he was "convinced Britain's policy is right. Saddam Hussein's regime is a danger to its neighbours and to its people. That danger must be contained. Sanctions were imposed to force Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction". But as Pilger had noted in his report "Scott Ritter, a chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq for five years, told me: "By 1998, the chemical weapons infrastructure had been completely dismantled or destroyed. The biological weapons programme was gone. The nuclear weapons programme was completely eliminated. The long range ballistic missile programme was completely eliminated. If I had to quantify Iraq's threat, I would say [it is] zero."

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 infant mortality has increased yet again, and acute malnourishment among children under five has nearly doubled. The south is littered with large amounts of the depleted uranium, used in US and UK ammunitions and known to cause respitory problems, kidney problems and cancer. Iraq holds the world's second largest oil reserves yet its economy is a train-wreck, with unemployment sent soaring up to 67% as a result of US "shock-therapy".

So it was not without some provocation that an estimated 300,000 Iraqis demonstrated against the occupation of their country at the weekend. The peaceful demonstration was called by hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who draws his support largely from the urban slums of Baghdad and the south. The New York Times reported that the Association of Muslim Scholars, a leading group of Sunni clerics, had said its followers also took part in the demonstration. Mimicking the famous images of US soldiers and Iraqis pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein as Baghdad fell, protesters toppled effigies of President George Bush, Tony Blair and Saddam.

Apparently critics of the UK government's record on Iraq are not restricted to the sneering, dinner party set of Peter Hain's imagination. To many of those critics, both in Iraq and elsewhere, that record is more than a mere abstraction that diverts us from the real issues. In a "working-class constituency" like Sadr City in Baghdad, and for millions of Iraqis, New Labour has been neither a lifeline nor a luxury. It has been one of the parties responsible for "a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide" according to a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. Despite this Peter Hain remained "convinced [that] Britain's policy is right", publicly defended that policy and facilitated its implementation. Voters, especially those in his constituency, should certainly consider the fate of the poorest when they make their choice on May 5.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Re: All the news that's fit to report

Dear Diarist,

Thank you for your email enclosing an article referring to the Media Lens website. We are disappointed by the criticism that BBC News is trying to suppress information in our coverage of Iraq since - as our responses to Media Lens make clear - we are doing what we can to find independent verification of the claims reported by Media Lens. However, it would not be responsible journalism for the BBC to report such claims without having found hard evidence that they are correct.

The reason that we have not responded further to Media Lens is that, having given a great deal of time and consideration to the points raised, we can only repeat what has already been said. However, I hope that the extent and detail of the email exchange with Media Lens shows how seriously we take our obligations to be both impartial and accountable.

We are sending this reply to all who have written in response to Media Lens as I think it is the most efficient use of licence payers' money to try to address your concerns in this way.

Yours sincerely
Helen Boaden
Director, BBC News
Dear Helen,

Many thanks for your email. I should say that I am a strong supporter of the BBC. No democracy could possibly function without at least one not-for-profit broadcaster tasked with disseminating information purely to serve the public interest. If the corporation did not exist it would certainly have to be invented.

You say "I hope that the extent and detail of the email exchange with Media Lens shows how seriously we take our obligations to be both impartial and accountable." My original email made clear that I do not believe this was demonstrated by your correspondence with Medialens. You have sent me your standard reply to emails relating to the Medialens article. At least partly as a result of this I'm afraid that the concerns I've raised have not been addressed.

You say that it would not be responsible journalism to report the claims in question "without having found hard evidence that they are correct". Let me repeat what I said in my original email. Neither I nor Medialens assert that the allegations are beyond all doubt. We say that they are substantial, of the utmost seriousness, come from a wide variety of independent sources and therefore ought to be discussed. I do not say you should report that "the US Military has committed war crimes in Fallujah" but that "it is being alleged that the US Military has committed war crimes in Fallujah".

You say that "it would not be responsible journalism to report such claims". Other reputable news organisations do not take this view. In November last year, for example, Associated Press reported the experiences of its photographer, Bilal Hussein, a resident of Fallujah.

""I saw people lying dead in the streets, wounded were bleeding and there was no one to come out and help them. There was no medicine, water, no electricity nor food for days. US soldiers began to open fire on the I decided that it was very dangerous to stay". Hussein planned to escape across the Euphrates river. "I decided to swim...but I changed my mind after seeing US helicopters firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river". He watched horrified as a family of five was shot dead as they tried to cross."

Associated Press plainly did not feel prevented by standards of journalism from reporting this eyewitness account of escaping civilians being shot dead by US helicopters.

Last December, US journal The Nation carried an article by Miles Schuman on "reports that US armed forces killed scores of patients in an attack on a Falluja health center and have deprived civilians of medical care, food and water".

"Although the US military has dismissed accounts of the health center bombing as "unsubstantiated," in fact they are credible and come from multiple sources. Dr. Sami al-Jumaili described how US warplanes bombed the Central Health Centre in which he was working at 5:30 am on November 9. The clinic had been treating many of the city's sick and wounded after US forces took over the main hospital at the start of the invasion. According to Dr. al-Jumaili, US warplanes dropped three bombs on the clinic, where approximately sixty patients--many of whom had serious injuries from US aerial bombings and attacks--were being treated."

"Dr. al-Jumaili reports that thirty-five patients were killed in the airstrike, including two girls and three boys under the age of 10"

"Although the deaths of these individual health workers could not be independently confirmed, Dr. al-Jumaili's account is echoed by Fadhil Badrani, an Iraqi reporter for Reuters and the BBC. Reached by phone in Falluja, Badrani estimated that forty patients and fifteen health workers had been killed in the bombing. Dr. Eiman al-Ani of Falluja General Hospital, who said he reached the site shortly after the attack, said that the entire health center had collapsed on the patients.

You say "we are doing what we can to find independent verification of the claims reported by Media Lens". But your own reporter, Fadhil Badrani, has provided information on possible war crimes to The Nation, which clearly did not see the publication of his reports as irresponsible journalism. The BBC published many of Fadhil Badrani's reports from Fallujah on its website, but without the crucial point that war crimes appear to have been committed. The Nation article continues,

"US and allied Iraqi military forces stormed the Falluja General Hospital, which is on the perimeter of the city, at the beginning of the assault, claiming it was under insurgent control and was a center of propaganda about civilian casualties during last April's attack on the city. The soldiers encountered no resistance. Dr. Rafe Chiad, the hospital's director, reached by phone, stated emphatically that it is a neutral institution, providing humanitarian aid. According to Dr. Chiad, the US military has prevented hospital physicians, including a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, internists and general practitioners, from entering Falluja. US authorities have denied all requests to send doctors, ambulances, medical equipment and supplies from the hospital into the city to tend to the wounded, he said. Now the city's only health facility is a small Iraqi military clinic, which is inaccessible to most of the city's remaining population because of its distance from many neighborhoods and the dangers posed by US snipers and crossfire.

Jim Welsh, health and human rights coordinator for Amnesty International in London, notes that under the Geneva Conventions, "medical personnel cannot be forced to refrain from providing healthcare which they believe is their ethical responsibility." The 173-bed Falluja General Hospital remains empty, according to Dr. Chiad.

These reports demand an immediate international response, an end to assaults on Falluja's civilian population and the free passage of medical aid, food and water. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has vowed to investigate "violations of the rules of war designed to protect civilians and combatants" in Falluja and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The San Francisco-based Association of Humanitarian Lawyers has petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States to investigate the deaths. The bombing of hospitalized patients, forced starvation and dehydration, denial of medicines and health services to the sick and wounded must be recognized for what they are: war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Please let me know what prevents BBC News from carrying reports such as these, and with the prominence they deserve. Please let me know what prevented the BBC from reporting last November that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had issued a statement to the press which read,

"The High Commissioner is deeply concerned about the situation of civilians caught up in the ongoing fighting in Falluja. There have been a number of reports during the current confrontation alleging violations of the rules of war designed to protect civilians and combatants. The High Commissioner is particularly worried over poor access by civilians still in the city to the delivery of humanitarian aid and about the lack of information regarding the number of civilians casualties.

The High Commissioner considers that all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law must be investigated and those responsible for breaches -- including deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, the killing of injured persons and the use of human shields -- must be brought to justice, be they members of the Multinational Force or insurgents".

If the allegations are true then war crimes are being committed with decisive military and diplomatic support from the British government. We all share responsibility for what our government does. The only way we can exercise effective democratic control over our government is if we have all the relevant information at our disposal. The job of BBC News, as a publicly funded, public-interest broadcaster, is to ensure that we have that information in front of us.

May I finish by saying that as a supporter of the BBC I should like nothing more than for you to prove me wrong on every one of these points.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Voting for Democracy

Britain's Prime Minister announced this morning that an election for members of the UK parliament's House of Commons will be held on 5 May 2005. With that announcement came the election campaign’s first reminders of the deep inadequacies of British democracy.

In Britain the precise timing of a general election is in the gift of the Prime Minister, who is constrained only by the limit on the maximum length of a Parliament. Within that limit he is free to choose the day on which he thinks he is most likely to win; an advantage one could not begin to describe as democratic.

In order to call an election the Prime Minister must ask permission from the Queen to dissolve Parliament. In this situation the role of the Queen herself is of course purely ceremonial. But here we are reminded of the royal prerogative to dominate the political scene that is largely invested in the Prime Minister of the day. This aspect of Britain's top-heavy and unresponsive system of government results from the fact that Britain merely adapted its former monarchical regime to incorporate some democratic systems, instead of replacing it with an inherently egalitarian constitution.

In a healthy democratic system power is spread widely and thinly. An over-powerful Prime Minister is one example of how that principle is undermined in Britain; but there are others.

Unlike in a grown-up democracy, the UK voting system does not throw together a varied range of politicians representing the myriad of political views that make up a diverse civil society; representatives who must then work together through dialogue and compromise, much as we all do in our day to day lives. Instead Britain's voters elect parliaments that are dominated by one political grouping. Under our system a party must win the most votes in a regional constituency to have a representative in parliament. The result is that parties with a degree of support across the country but no actual majority in any one place (e.g. the Greens) have no representation whatsoever in government. The system under-represents the small parties and over-represents the large ones, creating parliaments that in no way reflect a balance of the public’s views. The dominating party might have the support of less than two fifths of the population, and many of them may only have supported it for what they perceived as pragmatic reasons. The leader of this over-represented political grouping is then made Prime Minister and given quasi-monarchical powers of patronage to form a government which can barely be held to account by an under-represented opposition.

However, it is the location of power in our economy which places the really decisive limits on our democratic rights. Whilst democracies distribute social power - in the form of the vote - on the basis of human equality, markets distribute social power - in the form of control over resources - according to ability to pay. The government must answer to the electorate every four years or so, but it must answer to those who own the economy every day of the week. Every day those wealthy enough to own newspapers can put pressure on our government of the kind the average voter alone could never muster. Every day private employers can threaten to take their business to a country where they can employ people more cheaply and with less strings attached. Every day owners of capital can threaten to withdraw their resources from the national economy unless these, and other favourable investment conditions, are created or enhanced. These pressures and threats - sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, never democratic - govern capitalist democracies with much greater effectiveness than mere votes.

Under these circumstances elections become little more than vacuous, personality-centred pantomimes, organised by the PR industry, where voters are invited to select a group of managers to run the country primarily on behalf of big business. These gaudy extravaganzas, with their bunting, balloons and glossy brochures, are presented to us as the triumphant realisation of every ideal of liberty and equality that we aspire to.

But none of this provides any of us with an excuse for not voting. Whatever the inadequacies of our democracy we still enjoy a far greater degree of political freedom than most societies. Because that allows us some influence over how our country is run we all then share in the responsibility for what our government does. After all, everyone is responsible for the consequences of their actions or inaction, and that simple truism applies here no matter how poor our electoral system or how narrow our choices. There is therefore a moral obligation upon us to vote; especially since the way Britain conducts itself is literally a matter of life or death, the Iraq war being only the most obvious, current example of this. The differences between the parties may be small but where a powerful country like Britain is concerned, small differences translate into large outcomes.

Of course voting is just one way we can influence how Britain is governed. There are four to five years between general elections and plenty we can do in between times in terms of organisation and action. But since the election plainly has at least some effect on how our country is run the question is how to make best use of it. There are a plethora of websites and organisations offering answers to that question.

Tactical Voter concentrates on keeping the Conservative Party out of power so that a dialogue between progressive parties can reform British politics in its absence. Their aim of "decapitating" the Conservative Party leadership presents a particularly appetising prospect.

With the UK giving virtually unqualified backing to the hard-line administration in Washington Vote4Peace aims to help elect as many MPs who are prepared to oppose future military aggression as possible.

Also from a progressive, anti-war standpoint there's Strategic Voter and So Now Who Do We Vote For?.

There are also attempts being made to decapitate New Labour. Reg Keys, father of a British soldier who died in Iraq, is standing against Tony Blair in Sedgefield. Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan who came under pressure from the British government after criticising the human rights record of our allies there, is standing against Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Blackburn. Defeat, or even a decent scare for the incumbent in either constituency would send a very clear anti-war message to the political classes.

All these options are worth a look and all broadly take the same view; that while one election won't redeem British politics this is still a small opportunity both to punish its very worst excesses and to push it in a progressive direction. By “a progressive direction” I mean away from a society dominated by small concentrations of power and toward a system which truly gives life to those principles of liberty and equality that are so debased by this forthcoming charade. The election may well be a caricature of democracy. But so long as it provides the merest of opportunities to advance our wider efforts towards the real thing, and to mitigate the worst excesses of the current system, then its an opportunity that we should take as best we can.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

All the news that’s fit to report

Medialens has published some extraordinary correspondence between itself and the BBC regarding allegations of war crimes committed by US troops in their recent assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. (I’m going to quote at some length but the article’s worth reading in full). Medialens does not assert that the allegations are beyond doubt (and nor does this blog), but it does say that they are substantial, extremely serious and should certainly be discussed. At least as far as a discussion is concerned, the BBC does not appear to be in complete agreement.

Let’s look at what’s alleged to have taken place.

the journalist Dahr Jamail recently interviewed an Iraqi doctor from Fallujah who describes atrocities committed by US forces during their assault on that city last November. The doctor, now a refugee in Jordan and speaking on condition of anonymity, insists his testimony is backed up by video and photographic evidence.

According to the doctor, during the second week of their attack US forces "announced that all the families [had] to leave their homes and meet at an intersection in the street while carrying a white flag. They gave them 72 hours to leave and after that they would be considered an enemy. We documented this story with video - a family of 12, including a relative and his oldest child who was 7 years old. They heard this instruction, so they left with all their food and money they could carry, and white flags. When they reached the intersection where the families were accumulating, they heard someone shouting 'Now!' in English, and shooting started everywhere."

A surviving eyewitness told the doctor everyone in the family was carrying white flags, as instructed. Nevertheless, the witness watched as his mother was shot in the head and his father was shot through the heart by snipers. His two aunts were also shot, and his brother was shot in the neck. The survivor stated that when he raised himself from the ground to shout for help, he too was shot in the side. The doctor continued: "After some hours he raised his arm for help and they shot his arm. So after a while he raised his hand and they shot his hand."

A six year-old boy was standing over the bodies of his parents, crying, and he too was shot.

"Anyone who raised up was shot," the doctor said, adding that he had photographs of the dead and also of survivors' gunshot wounds.

Elsewhere al-Jazeera reported that:

"Dr. Khalid ash-Shaykhli, an official at Iraq's health ministry, said that the U.S. military used internationally banned weapons during its deadly offensive in the city of Fallujah."

The official reported evidence that US forces had "used... substances, including mustard gas, nerve gas, and other burning chemicals in their attacks in the war-torn city."

Fallujah residents described how they had seen "melted" bodies in the city, indicative of usage of napalm, a lethal cocktail of polystyrene and jet fuel that incinerates the human body

Medialens also cited testimony gathered by documentary film-maker Mark Manning.

Manning was able to secretly conduct 25 hours of videotaped interviews with dozens of Iraqi eyewitnesses - men, women and children who had experienced the assault on Fallujah first-hand. In an interview with a local newspaper in the United States, Manning recounted how he:

"... was told grisly accounts of Iraqi mothers killed in front of their sons, brothers in front of sisters, all at the hands of American soldiers. He also heard allegations of wholesale rape of civilians, by both American and Iraqi troops. Manning said he heard numerous reports of the second siege of Falluja that described American forces deploying - in violation of international treaties - napalm, chemical weapons, phosphorous bombs, and 'bunker-busting' shells laced with depleted uranium. Use of any of these against civilians is a violation of international law."

Given the seriousness of the allegations being made against Britain’s closest ally from a variety of independent sources one would presume that reporting the accusations would fall within the BBC’s public service remit. Media Lens contacted the BBC and asked whether these specific allegations of US atrocities were being investigated. The corporation’s response was that "The conduct of coalition forces has been examined at length by BBC programmes, and if justified, that will continue to be the case." But when asked precisely which BBC programmes had addressed the conduct of "coalition" forces in Fallujah, including the above evidence of war crimes, Medialens was ignored.

Meidalens pressed the BBC news to explain why it had paid little attention to the repeated allegations of atrocities, or to the evidence of the use of banned weapons in Fallujah. This time the BBC responded at length, saying that it was aware of the claims and was continually investigating the events in Fallujah, hampered though it was by its movements being restricted for security reasons, and also mentioning a lack of independent verification. In addition, it said that a BBC correspondent had been embedded with the US Marines and “over many weeks of total access to the military operation, at all levels, we did not see banned weapons being used, deployed, or even discussed. We cannot therefore report their use.

Medialens asked the BBC to justify the claim that it had "total access to the military operation, at all levels". The response was that “total access meant that [the correspondent] was never stopped from going into any meeting he asked to go into. He was embedded at battalion level but, for instance, he did show up several times (and film) at the colonel's morning meeting with senior staff, where orders were given out. Most importantly, [the correspondent] also attended the eve of battle briefing for the battalion, at which there were slides and folders with "Top Secret" stamped all over them. [The BBC also] had meetings with the relevant specialists at Human Rights Watch, who have been very tough on the US military as regards abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul asked them specifically about banned weapons in Fallujah. They said they had heard the claims, had made some investigations, and had found no evidence that such weapons had been used.

Medialens responded by pointing out that the BBC “never being stopped” from going into any meeting it asked to go into is not quite the same thing as having “total access to the military operation, at all levels". It asked for evidence to support the assertion that the BBC had attended the only eve of battle briefing for the battalion.

Medialens also asked how comprehensive Human Rights Watch’s investigations into the alleged use of banned weapons had been. After all “US marines have, in fact, already admitted that they have used an upgraded version of napalm. (Andrew Buncombe, 'US admits it used napalm bombs in Iraq', The Independent on Sunday, 10 August, 2003). The upgraded weapon, which uses kerosene rather than petrol, was deployed when dozens of napalm bombs were dropped near bridges over the Saddam Canal and the Tigris river, south of Baghdad. As Andrew Buncombe reported in the Independent on Sunday:

"We napalmed both those bridge approaches," said Colonel James Alles, commander of Marine Air Group 11. "Unfortunately there were people there... you could see them in the cockpit video. They were Iraqi soldiers. It's no great way to die. The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect."

The BBC’s response was brief. “Thank you for your further email. However, I do not believe that further dialogue on this matter will serve a useful purpose.

And no matter how many double-takes you do, the words stay the same. “I do not believe that further dialogue on this matter will serve a useful purpose.

Just to clear up any lingering confusion, the “useful purpose” that further dialogue on this matter would serve - the “useful purpose” that apparently eludes the BBC, is this:

There are substantive reports now emerging from a variety of independent sources that Britain’s closest ally is committing horrifically brutal war crimes against civilians in Iraq. If the allegations are true, these crimes are being committed with decisive military and diplomatic support from our government. Britain is a relatively free and democratic country, which means that all of its citizens share some responsibility for what its government does. The only way we can exercise effective democratic control over our government is if we have all the relevant information at our disposal. The job of BBC News, as a publicly funded, public-interest broadcaster, is to ensure that we have that information in front of us. It is therefore vital that both BBC executives and those of us who rely on them satisfy ourselves that this most valuable of institutions is, in this most serious of cases, doing its job properly.
As an aside, it’s also worth mentioning the problems posed to major print and broadcast media by the internet; problems which are well documented. Information is now more freely and widely available than ever before. Any failure by the traditional media to report all the relevant information on matters of importance is therefore far less likely to go unnoticed. And when those failures are noticed appropriate conclusions will be drawn and credibility is bound to suffer as a result. For those reasons it is also important from the BBC’s own point of view that it concludes its correspondence with Medialens on these specific allegations in a satisfactory matter.