War and remembrance, then and now: What – and who – should we be remembering?

A year ago today marked 100 years since World War I came to and end, and all over the world, people gathered to remember.  The day before yesterday also marked an important anniversary: 40 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which (symbolically), marked the end of the Cold War – or, at least, the beginning of the end.

The Cold War was not a war as such, but

“a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states (the Eastern Bloc), and the United States with its allies (the Western Bloc) after World War II.” 

And while it was not a war as such, it did include some serious wars, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Anniversaries like these are always opportunities for people to look back, and to remember. The questions are “What (or who) exactly are we to remember – and why?” One obvious reason to remember is so that we can try to learn from the past. Learning from the past isn’t always that easy – two people can study an event that happened in the past and come to different conclusions as to what they ought to learn from it. Looking back at the Cold War is a case in point. Andrew Bacevich, formerly a colonel in the US Army, and now a professor at Boston University, reckons that America learned the wrong lessons from the Cold War, and Daniel Larison agrees:

One of the wrong lessons that U.S. policy-makers drew from the events of 1989-1991 was that the U.S. was chiefly responsible for ending and “winning” the Cold War, which inevitably overestimated our government’s capabilities and effectiveness in affecting the political fortunes of other parts of the world. The far more critical and important role of the peoples of central and eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself in overthrowing the system that had oppressed them was pushed into the background as much as possible. The U.S. took credit for their success and policy-makers frequently attributed the outcome to the policies of the late Cold War rather than to the deficiencies and failings of the other system. After waging stalemated and failed wars in the name of anticommunism, U.S. policy-makers wanted to be able to claim that they had “won” something, and so they declared victory for something that they hadn’t caused.

And, having misread history, the US government made serious errors in policy:

The U.S. not only congratulated itself for achieving something that was accomplished by others, but it also assumed that it could achieve similar results in other parts of the world. . . . That triumphalism sowed the seeds for many of the more significant post-Cold War failures that we have witnessed since then. 

And Larison concludes:

American policy-makers are not known for sober re-examination and acknowledgement of error, but these are exactly the things that are needed if we are to stop making the same blunders and learning the wrong lessons from the past.

But an even more basic mistake with regard to war is to forget what we are remembering. 

Four Days

If one looks up Remembrance Day on Wikipedia, a note under the title says

“Not to be confused with Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day.    This article is about the military memorial day on 11 November. “

The article then says

“Remembrance Day (sometimes known informally as Poppy Day owing to the tradition of the remembrance poppy) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth member states since the end of the First World War to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. Following a tradition inaugurated by King George V in 1919, the day is also marked by war remembrances in many non-Commonwealth countries. “

If one goes to the page on Armistice Day, the note says

“This article is about the memorial day to honour the war dead following the Armistice at the end of World War I. For memorials on 11 November after World War II, associated traditions in Commonwealth countries and more details of related memorials in other countries, see Remembrance Day.”

The article begins:

“Armistice Day is commemorated every year on 11 November to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France at 5:45 am, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I,”

Well, I was confused – and I suspect that I am not the only one. Apparently today is both Remembrance Day and Armistice Day. I honestly wonder how many people in the UK know that? I doubt that there are many.

To add to the confusion, in America, today is Veterans’ Day:

“Veterans Day (originally known as Armistice Day) is a federal holiday in the United States observed annually on November 11, for honoring military veterans, that is, persons who have served in the United States Armed Forces (and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable). It coincides with other holidays including Armistice Day and Remembrance Day which are celebrated in other countries that mark the anniversary of the end of World War I. Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. At the urging of major U.S. veteran organizations, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.”

And to complete it, yesterday was Remembrance Sunday.

“Remembrance Sunday is held in the United Kingdom as a day “to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts“”

That quote, by the way, comes from the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

What should we remember?

Which brings us to the question: what exactly are we supposed to be remembering at this time of year? And who is to tell us? The Department of Culture, Media, and Sport?

Well, if we go back to Wikipedia’s article about Remembrance Day, it says “Remembrance Day is observed on 11 November in most countries to recall the end of hostilities of First World War on that date in 1918. . . . The tradition of Remembrance Day evolved out of Armistice Day.”

In other words, Armistice Day was the original – and everything else is either a renaming or a spin off. The whole thing started with celebrating the coming of peace, and remembering the carnage, and ended up, thanks to politicians, being about remembering the service of members of the armed forces.

Hence Danny Sjursen (a retired U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in an article entitled “Why we must reclaim Armistice Day”  writes

The original spirit was ‘never again.’ Today, thanks to endless war, we celebrate veterans with a mere ‘thank you.’ 

and goes on to say

for all of World War I’s horror, futility, absurdity even, the veterans of the war collectively emerged from the sodden trenches imbued with a vocal philosophy of never again. Indeed, they celebrated the moment the guns finally fell silent, the 11th minute, or the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, 1918, as Armistice Day. It was, romantic as it now seems, widely believed that theirs would be the last war. In fact, millions of lucky survivors left the war deeply dedicated to ensuring that be the case. Much of the finest Western literature of the 20th century, unsurprisingly, generated from the pens of disgruntled, damaged veterans—Hemingway, Graves, Fitzgerald, Sassoon, and many more—forever changed by the experience of needless war.

If the original spirit was “never again” – that is certainly a worthy goal. And one of the reasons why World War I was the war that gave us Armistice Day (and Remembrance Day, Veterans’ Day, and Remembrance Sunday) – is because in some sense, that war was particularly horrific and costly. 

Remembering the forgotten

But war goes on, and it continues to be incredibly costly. Last month, a UN Development Programme report came out that said “If fighting continues through 2022, Yemen will rank the poorest country in the world, with 79 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 65 percent classified as extremely poor.”

Yemen was poor before the 2015 war began, but the poverty has gotten much, much worse. For over a year now, the situation in Yemen has been recognised as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and it is entirely man made. Daniel Larison again:

“Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2015, a database project that tracks violence said Thursday.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED, said in a new report its death toll includes more than 12,000 civilians killed in attacks targeting civilians directly.

The report is counting only combat fatalities and civilian casualties, but the war has been much more destructive than this number alone would suggest. The estimated loss of life from starvation and disease caused by the war and coalition policies is more than 130,000, and that is likely to be on the low end. “

In 1914, Lawrence Binyon, in a poem entitled “For the Fallen”, wrote a line that is heard by millions every year at this time: “we will remember them.” By “them”, Binyon meant members of the British Armed forces killed in action in World War I.

But when the words are said today, they apply to many other people. What about including the people in Yemen who have died as a result of starvation and disease caused by war? Is there any chance that we will remember them? 

 

Postscript.   

I like what Danny Sjursen says about “never again”. 

But when he says “It was, romantic as it now seems, widely believed that theirs would be the last war. In fact, millions of lucky survivors left the war deeply dedicated to ensuring that be the case“, one does not quite know whether to be wistful about their idealism, or just to smile sadly at their lack of realism. 

And I go back to what Daniel Larison said about the hubris of US policy-makers, who “wanted to be able to claim that they had “won” something, and so they declared victory for something that they hadn’t caused.”    We – i.e. people – tend to think that we can achieve things that are simply beyond us. 

However, I do believe that there will be a time when wars will cease.  It won’t be human effort that will bring that about.  Almost 3000 years ago, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote:

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.   Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”

That tells me that the hopes and goals of those idealists who said “Never again” were sound.  But furthermore, I believe Isaiah is right.  I don’t know exactly how it is going to happen.    But Isaiah also say something about how it will happen, and about the person who is going to bring it about.

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan — The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.  You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.  For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.  Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.  

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”   

There are some things that we can’t achieve.   In the meantime, however, we can get on with doing as much as we humanly can to keep war (and the damage it causes) to a minimum – and to look to the government of the Prince of Peace (rather than the kind of governments this world has at the moment) as the answer to the problems that the world faces.

 

Are governments above the law?

The Bible tells us that before the Israelites entered the promised land, God gave them some instructions about how their kings should rule. There were not too many of them. After briefly stating that the king shall not acquire many horses for himself, or many wives, or excessive silver and gold, we come to the big one (Deuteronomy 17:18-20):

“And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”

In short, the king must know the law, and stick to it. It was not the duty of rulers to make laws, but to keep them – and also, presumably, to enforce them.   The law was central, and rulers were not above it.

Thus the Bible sets out what is known today as the rule of law, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as

“The authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.”

In theory, western countries hold to the principle of the rule of law. But in practice, it often is not so. I was struck by this when reading about a news story on the BBC website, entitled “NATO alliance experiencing brain death, says Macron” 

According to the BBC,

“President Emmanuel Macron of France has described NATO as “brain dead”, stressing what he sees as waning commitment to the transatlantic alliance by its main guarantor, the US. Interviewed by the Economist, he cited the US failure to consult NATO before pulling forces out of northern Syria. He also questioned whether NATO was still committed to collective defence.”

The article raises a few interesting points. It says

“Originally set up to promote “stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area”, NATO was faced with finding a new purpose after the demise of the Soviet Union. ”

Or, to put it another way, NATO had lost its purpose, but instead of just deciding to wind it up, the members set about finding something new for it to do.

So – what was America doing in Syria, and why should NATO have been consulted about the US pulling forces out? The article doesn’t explain what American forces were doing in Syria, though it does say that Kurdish forces were “helping the US fight the Islamic State (IS) group”,  and that Turkey (a NATO member) was pushing into Syria (in order to expel the Kurdish forces), and that Mr Macron at the time criticised NATO’s failure to respond to the Turkish offensive.

In other words, one NATO member was working with some forces that another NATO member was attacking. (The Turks were attacking the Kurdish forces because they considered the Kurds to be a threat.) The BBC also mentions that Article Five of NATO’s founding charter stipulates that an attack on one member will produce a collective response from the alliance.  This presumably means that if Kurdish forces attacked the Turks, the Turks could invoke Article Five, and other NATO countries would have to attack the Kurds. Which raises big questions about NATO.

But the important thing is what BBC does not point out. The elephant in the room is that America’s presence in Syria is illegal under international law, because they are not there at the invitation of the Syrian government. You can’t just move your armed forces into any country you want to carry out military operations.  The Syrian government was fighting ISIS, and had allies (principally Russia) assisting them in the task, and were doing a pretty good job.  They would rather get on the fight ISIS (which they have been doing) without the Americans there to get in the way. Indeed, as I have pointed out before, on one occasion, when the Syrian Army was fighting ISIS, America stepped in to do ISIS a favour by bombing Syrian Army positions. (America claimed afterwards that it was an accident, but that is somewhat questionable.)

So – Macron has criticised America for failing to consult NATO allies about moving troops. He has criticised America for failing to respond to the Turkish offensive. But he has said nothing about the much more basic problem that the very fact that American forces are in NW Syria is illegal. In other words, he isn’t that concerned about the rule of law. In fact, there are French & British forces with the Americans in NW Syria, so Macron is not just unconcerned about rule of law, but is also violating it. 

So far, this has not been a big problem for the French and British governments.  But the fact that the Britain and France remain involved with the US in NW Syria when Donald Trump is talking about seizing Syria’s oil means that Britain and France could find themselves complicit in his oil grab.   As explained by Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria:

“Legally this matters because if Trump puts into practice his promise to seize Syrian oil production, that will constitute, according to authoritative legal experts, a violation of international law against ‘pillaging’ enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention and thus constitute a war crime. Any party complicit in pillaging, and that would surely include other parties in the Joint Task Force, even if only headquarters staff and not boots on the ground, could also be culpable. The British government might find itself challenged in a UK court even if no international court could be found willing to act. “

Our values

The BBC article about Macron mentions “the liberal democratic values that lie at NATO’s core. ” I don’t have a problem with liberal democratic values, but whatever these values are, they don’t seem to include respect for the rule of law. And, to be honest, it seems to me that the rule of law – that governments are as subject to laws as anyone else – is about the most important and most basic political value that there is.

If you want to understand the Kurds, look at Catalonia

Catalonia is in the news again.  This time, Scotland is involved.   Clara Ponsati,  a 62 year old lady who is a professor at the University of St Andrews is wanted by the Spanish authories, and a European arrest warrant has been issued against her because of her role in the 2017 independence referendum in Catalonia.

Over the past few weeks, Catalonia has been in the news a lot – and so have the Syrian Kurds. Strangely enough, they go together. Perhaps people don’t often think of Barcelona as having significance for the Middle East, but in this case, it does.

In fact, curiously enough, the Catalan referendum of two years ago (1st October 2017) almost coincided with a referendum that took place in Kurdistan (25th September 2017). In that case, it was Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Catalan referendum asked “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?   The Iraqi Kurdish referendum asked “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state? ” Both referendums got had large majorities in favour of independence – but neither went well. Neither the Spanish nor the Iraqi governments approved, and both clamped down pretty hard as a result.

Well, the Kurds and Catalonia are both back in the news. In the case of Catalonia, it really started with the news is that “Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between nine and 13 years in prison. “

However, it isn’t the Iraqi Kurds that are in the news this time, it is the Syrian Kurds. Turkey, which considers elements of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a terrorist organisation, invaded Syria in order to push the SDF forces away from the border area. After Turkey announced that it would be invading, American President Donald Trump announced that the American military, who have been embedded with and working with the SDF forces for the past few years, would get out of the way, and not stop the Turks. There was much concern in America, with claims that Donald Trump was betraying America’s loyal allies, the Kurds, and allowing them to be slaughtered. In the event, that didn’t quite happen. An agreement was quickly hammered out between Turkey, Russia, Syria and the SDF.

The situation on the ground, however, remains messy.

The fact of the matter is, what was happening in Spain sheds a lot of light on what is happening in Syria. To say that the Spanish government didn’t like the fact that the Catalan authorities held an independence referendum is putting it mildly. They viewed the holding of the referendum as a dangerous crime, as is evidenced by a Tweet from ‘Catalans For Yes‘:

catalans for yes_crop

The Catalans didn’t take up arms, they didn’t use violence, but they were, in the eyes of the Spanish government, criminals who had done something seriously wrong.

The SDF in Syria, by contrast, took up arms (and used violence) to break free of Syrian government control. What the ordinary Kurds thought of all this is not recorded – but Kurds, like people elsewhere, don’t all agree about politics. The SDF don’t actually have any electoral mandate. 

The truth about “the Kurds”

And the truth about the SDF is rather messy. The SDF is, in fact, not a purely Kurdish group, but an alliance which is dominated by the Kurdish separatist group, the YPG. The YPG is closely related to a Kurdish group in Turkey, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party); both were  founded by Abdullah Öcalan, and look to him for leadership, and both have very similar flags.

Turkey regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation, and hence considers the YPG to be a terrorist organisation, and takes the view that an area on their border controlled by the SDF – in reality, the YPG – is a serious threat.

The USA also regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation, but was quite happy, for political reasons, to work with and arm the YPG. (For more on the intellectual and legal gymnastics involved in the USA arming a group that it effectively considered a terrorist group, see Scott Ritter’s recent article “Our Kurdish Hero…the Terrorist?” )

Ritter explains that the SDF commander that Donald Trump wants to invite to Washington, and who is feted as a hero by Trump, Congress, and the American media, was involved in PKK attacks in Turkey in the 1990s that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers and civilians. But today, there are plenty of Americans who, in all seriousness, refer to the SDF “loyal allies”. In fact, they were not really allies at all – but proxies or mercenaries.   (Turkey, on the other hand, being a member of NATO, really is an ally of America.)

So why was America working with the SDF?

Barak Obama explained in a highly revealing 2012 interviewin which the interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg, said to Obama: “But it would seem to me that one way to weaken and further isolate Iran is to remove or help remove Iran’s only Arab ally. ”

Obama replied “Absolutely”, adding

And it is our estimation that [President Bashar al-Assad’s] days are numbered. It’s a matter not of if, but when. Now, can we accelerate that? We’re working with the world community to try to do that.

When Goldberg asked: Is there anything you could do to move it faster? Obama replied:

“Well, nothing that I can tell you, because your classified clearance isn’t good enough.”

And so the CIA launched Operation Timber Sycamore  co-operating with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to support various militias (notably the Free Syrian Army), which in turn worked closely with Jihadists, and in practice were dominated by al-Nusra, which was basically al-Qaeda in Syria.  The chaos in Syria and Iraq led to the rise of ISIS, at which point the American military got involved, and worked with the YPG / SDF  against ISIS. 

Needless to say the militias supported by the CIA and Turkey  didn’t exactly get along with the YPG / SDF, and often were in conflict with them.  Eventually, in 2017, Operation Timber Sycamore came to an end, and America worked exclusively with the SDF – i.e. “the Kurds”.

Taking the oil

Following America’s decision not to stand in the way of Turkey’s invasion, America has shown no interest in getting out of Syria, and America’s position, which was always untenable, has now become totally bizarre, with Trump talking about taking Syria’s oil. Retired US General Barry McCaffrey tweeted:

“Trump comment US intends to keep the oil in Syria. Guard with US armored forces. Bring in US oil companies to modernize the field. WHAT ARE WE BECOMING…. PIRATES?   If ISIS is defeated we lack Congressional authority to stay. The oil belongs to Syria. “

Indeed.   This is piracy, it is theft, it is contrary to international law, and it is proclaimed and done blatantly and openly.

This is not just illegal, it is plain stupid. In the words of Daniel Larison:

“The president thinks that seizing Syrian oil is worth boasting about, but in reality it is one of the most absurd and indefensible reasons for deploying troops abroad. In addition to damaging the country’s international standing with allied and friendly governments with this open thievery, Trump’s “take the oil” fixation is a propaganda coup for hostile governments and groups.”

In other words, America’s behaviour in Syria has been appalling over recent years – including supporting Jihadists and seizing oil (not to mention maintaining an illegal base at al-Tanf for the past 3 years). (Turkey’s behaviour has been at least as bad.)

So, when you consider America’s terrible behaviour in Syria over the past few years, the fact that the Kurdish-led SDF were willing to act as America’s proxies doesn’t say much for them.

Spain and Syria

The way Spain has reacted to the Catalonian referendum is a reminder that sovereign states don’t like it when separatists try to secede and become independent – even when those separatists go about it peacefully and democratically. Spain considers itself to be a unity.

No country has condemned Spain’s actions, and we can be pretty sure that no country will. When the EU Parliament was asked to debate the situation in Catalonia, they refused.   Which is hardly surprising. The vast majority of countries would respond in pretty much the same way that Spain did to the threatened break-up of their country.

And yet Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, America – and no doubt a few other countries – have all gone into Syria, and felt absolutely free to tear it apart.  The map of Syria is multi-coloured, thanks to all the countries that have felt free to pile in – without the permission of the Syrian government.  And the cost to the people of Syria has been terrible.

Saudi oil refinery bombing: the real truth that nobody wants to talk about

Saudi Arabia is very much in the news these days.   This morning the top World News story on the BBC is “Saudi crown prince warns of ‘Iran threat’ to global oil“.    The story, however, also speaks about how Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is willing to “take some responsibility for” the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi just under a year ago – while still denying that he actually ordered it.  Few will believe him.  Tonight BBC’s Panorama programme will be look back at the murder, and especially the secret tapes that have come to light that point to official Saudi involvment in it.  One of the most interesting aspects of the Khashoggi murder is the fact that after it occurred, the establishment media in the west, and politicians in the west, started to say to actually look at and criticise Saudi Arabia’s shocking war on Yemen, which seemed to disproportionately aim at causing civilian casualties – as this blog has been pointing out for a few years.  (And it’s  not just the Iran threat, the Khashoggi murder, and the ongoing bombing campaign – there’s plenty more.)  

While it may not be obvious what the murder of Khashoggi has to do with the war against Yemen, there is a very close connection between the Saudi Crown Prince’s warnings about Iran and the war in Yemen.

This is because two weeks ago, on Saturday 14th September, there was an attack on the Saudi oil and gas processing stations in Abqaiq and Khurais.  The attack had a brief, but serious impact on Saudi oil production. At the time, the BBC reportedThe Houthis say they did it; the United States insists that it was Iran; the Iranians deny any involvement. ” 

Whodunit?

Two weeks later, we are not much the wiser. One of the great mysteries is that despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has the third largest military budget in the world, they were not able to shoot down or even detect the incoming missiles. We still have no conclusive evidence of where the missiles were launched from – and despite claims that they might have come from Iraq or Iran, it still looks most likely that they actually came from Yemen.

Col Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview last weekend said:

I’ve had a conversation over the last 48 hours with lots of retired CIA, DIA and other intelligence officials as well as experts in the region and the consensus amongst us is no evidence has been seen at this point to dispute the Houthi claim that they carried out the attacks.

After all, as the BBC reports

Houthi rebels have repeatedly launched rockets, missiles and drones at populated areas in Saudi Arabia. They are in conflict with a Saudi-led coalition which backs a president who the rebels had forced to flee when the Yemeni conflict escalated in March 2015.

The war has killed nearly 10,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of starvation, the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster.

The war in Yemen

The BBC is wrong on one detail here. The UN figure of 10,000 is regularly quoted, but is years out of date. The UN simply gave up on trying to to count, because it was so difficult to get detailed information out of Yemen.

Patrick Cockburn reported a year ago that

One reason Saudi Arabia and its allies are able to avoid a public outcry over their intervention in the war in Yemen, is that the number of people killed in the fighting has been vastly understated. The figure is regularly reported as 10,000 dead in three-and-a-half years, a mysteriously low figure given the ferocity of the conflict. ” 

Today, it generally reckoned that the total is closer to 100,000

Why the BBC keeps quoting the debunked 10,000 figure, without any qualification, tells us a lot about the BBC.

But the BBC does at least point out that it is the world’s worse man-made humanitarian disaster. In fact, the UN tells us that it isn’t just the “world’s worse man-made humanitarian disaster”. It’s the world’s worse humanitarian disaster. It is, however, entirely man-made.

The facts of the war in Yemen are pretty unpleasant, and are rarely repeated in the mainstream media because they are so embarrassing.

A little history

Yemen has had an ongoing civil war for a few years now. The latest phase began when a revolution in September 2014 saw the Houthi forces taking the capital, Sana’a. In January 2015, they stormed the presidential palace, leading to the resignation of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis installed a Revolutionary Committee as the interim authority. However, the Houthi-led interim authority was rejected by other internal opposition groups and was not recognized internationally.

However, the US had been actively involved in the war in Yemen – launching attacks on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for man years.  Since the Houthis were also enemies of AQAP, America established ties with them to that they could co-operate. In January 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported:

White House and State Department officials confirmed to The Wall Street Journal the contacts with the Houthis, but stressed they were focused on promoting political stability in Yemen and safeguarding the security of Americans.

The Obama administration increasingly has sought to describe the Houthis as a potential partner of Washington’s ever since the militia gained control of San’a in January.

U.S. officials said they also are seeking to harness the Houthis’ concurrent war on AQAP to weaken the terrorist organization’s grip on havens in Yemen’s west and south. . . .

Houthi commanders, in recent interviews conducted in Yemen, asserted that the U.S. began sharing intelligence on AQAP positions in November, using intermediaries, as the conflict in the country intensified. They specifically cited a Houthi campaign against AQAP positions in western Al Baitha province as one such operation.

A similar report appeared in Al Monitor

Hence, in a recent article in The American Conservative,  Mark Perry wrote

“Key senior officers of the U.S. Special Operations Command viewed the Houthis as a robust counter to al-Qaeda’s strength in Yemen and even argued that America take steps to support them. The Houthis were only nominally Iran’s surrogates,” a military officer told me at the time, “but they were also our quiet partners against al-Qaeda.”

However, things were to change sharply in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia (assisted by a group of other Arab countries) launched operation Decisive Storm.

“The Saudi-led intervention began well enough, with a relentless air campaign and naval blockade that initially eroded Houthi strength. And despite its skepticism, the U.S. military turned on a dime, providing the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence and logistical support and advising senior officers of the United Arab Emirates, which commanded most of the anti-Houthi ground forces. But over the course of the next three years, the intervention bogged down. The blockade triggered a famine that affected millions of Yemenis, the UAE’s mercenary force proved no match for the better-led Houthis, rebel militias began to lob scud missiles into Saudi Arabia’s oil fields, Riyadh’s allies began to peel away from the coalition (the UAE exited Yemen last July), the UAE-led mercenary army suffered a series of devastating defeats along the Saudi border, and, most crucially, the Houthis strengthened their ties with Tehran—all of which Pentagon officials had predicted back in 2015.”

Those Saudi bombings

And of course, there was the Saudi bombing, which has repeatedly hit civilian targets such as weddings, funerals, markets, and schools.

In June this year,

The Armed Conflict Location Eventa & Data (ACLED) Project released its latest findings on fatalities caused by the war on Yemen, and now that they have completed their assessment of all data from the first year of the war they conclude that more than 90,000 have been killed over the course of the last four years.”

Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition accounted for 67% of the civilian casualties.

But bombing was not the only cause of death.  Again, Daniel Larison in The American Conservative:

The ongoing conflict has further reduced the pace of development. The impacts of conflict in Yemen are devastating—with nearly a quarter of a million people killed directly by fighting and indirectly through lack of access to food, health services, and infrastructure. Of the dead, 60 per cent are children under the age of five. The long-term impacts of conflict are vast and place it among the most destructive conflicts since the end of the Cold War

The Houthis hit back; the world responds

Not surprisingly, the Houthis have hit back – and launched several attacks against Saudi Arabia. None were particulary effective – until the one this month.

But strangely, most of the reporting in the west over the past fortnight has said very little about Yemen, and a lot about Iran – and how Iran is to blame:

Hence the BBC reported this week that

“British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued their statement on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

“It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation. We support ongoing investigations to establish further details,” they said.”

In other words, there is no evidence that Iran was involved in any way, but they think it was.

And these statements that blame Iran all use vague phrases “Iran bears responsibility” or “Iran is complicit in the attack” or “Iran is behind the attack”. The fact of the matter is that the Houthis are not Iranian proxies, and there is very little evidence that Iran provided much in the way of arms supplies to them.

Saudi Arabia has been enforcing a complete land and sea blockade of Yemen for over 4 years, so Iran hasn’t had any way of getting weapons in.

As Yemen expert, Michael Horton said in April 2015

‘These constant reports that the Houthis are working for the Iranians are
nonsense, . . . . The Houthis don’t need Iranian weapons. They have plenty
of their own. And they don’t require military training. They’ve been
fighting Al-Qaeda since at least 2012, and they’ve been winning. Why are we fighting a movement that’s fighting Al-Qaeda?’”

The elephant in the room

The long and the short of it all is that Iran may or may not have been in some way involved / complicit in / behind   the attack on the Saudi oil installations. We just don’t know. But even if they were involved, it seems that their involvement was fairly minor.

However, there is a huge elephant in the room. An elephant that the mainstream media in the west has been remarkably silent about.

There is absolutely no question that the US and the UK have been massively involved in the slaughter of Yemeni civilians by Saudi Arabia. It’s right there in Wikipedia:

“The United States provided intelligence and logistical support, including aerial refueling and search-and-rescue for downed coalition pilots. It also accelerated the sale of weapons to coalition states. The US and Britain have deployed their military personnel in the command and control centre responsible for Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, having access to lists of targets.”

There is no secret about any of this.  Some of it even makes The Daily Mail, which earlier this year had an article entitled “Our secret dirty war: Five British Special Forces troops are wounded in Yemen while ‘advising’ Saudi Arabia on their deadly campaign that has brought death and famine to millions“.

In short, Iran may or may not have behind the attack on the Saudi oil installation, an attack that killed precisely nobody, and western politicians speak of it as a terrible crime. And yet the American and British governments are fully complicit in an ongoing campaign that has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen, and it is no big deal.

And what is more horrifying, almost nobody in public life in the UK and US is pointing this out. The media? Silent. Even opposition politicians are saying nothing. Instead, in America they keep going after Trump for things that, in the end of the day are pretty minor.  And in the UK, all they seem concerned about is Boris Johnson proroguing Parliament, and using words like “surrender” and “humbug“. 

In other words, giving MPs a few extra days away from Westminster is a far, far more serious crime than the mass slaughter of civilians in far off lands.

And that tells you all you need to know about the values of politicians (and the mainstream media) in Britain and America in the year 2019.  Indeed, we could probably say it tells you all you need to know about contemporary American and British values. 

The Iranian tanker affair: Why is nobody concerned about the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the British government?

I have written twice before (here and here) on the fascinating story of the Grace 1 – an oil tanker going about its ordinary business, that was seized near Gibraltar by Royal Marines, on the instructions of the British government. The UK authorities claimed that the ship, which was bound for Syria, was in violation of EU sanctions on Syria.

The British government’s story was nonsense: Iran, not being part of the EU is not bound by EU sanctions on Syria. As pointed out by Gareth Porter, “The EU Council regulation in question specifies in Article 35 that the sanctions were to apply only within the territory of EU member states, to a national or business entity or onboard an aircraft or vessel “under the jurisdiction of a member state.””

In fact, the real reason the UK seized the ship probably has nothing to do with EU sanctions on Syria – but rather was acting at the request of the Trump administration in Washington which has an ongoing quarrel with Iran.

Anyway, on August 15th the Gibraltar Supreme Court gave permission for the Grace 1, (now renamed the Adrian Darya 1), to go free, after the Iranian authorities gave assurances that it would not deliver the oil to Syria.

The oil delivery

The latest is that, having made its way to the Eastern Mediterranean, it has now delivered its cargo. Apparently, the oil has ended up in Syria – though Iran has neither denied nor confirmed that. It merely said that the oil had been sold at sea to a private buyer, and it was up to the buyer where the oil went.

As reported by Reuters,

Iran’s envoy to London said on Wednesday the oil cargo of tanker Adrian Darya 1 was sold at sea to a private company, denying Tehran had broken assurances it had given over the vessel, but he insisted EU’s Syria sanctions did not apply to Tehran.

At (the) meeting with the British Foreign Secretary, it was emphasized that British authorities’ action against the tanker carrying Iranian oil was in violation of international law,” ambassador Hamid Baeidinejad said on Twitter after being summoned in London.

EU sanctions cannot be extended to third countries. Despite numerous threats by America, the tanker sold its oil at sea to a private company and has not violated any obligation,” Baeidinejad added.

The private company … (which is ) the owner of the oil sets the sale destination of the oil,” Baeidinejad told the state news agency IRNA.”

In other words, the oil went to Syria, and the Iranians felt no obligation to do what the UK government wanted after the UK government had shown complete unwillingness to abide by international law.

Bribery and blackmail

That was all fairly predictable. What was not expected was a startling story that the Financial Times broke last week:

“Four days before the US imposed sanctions on an Iranian tanker suspected of shipping oil to Syria, the vessel’s Indian captain received an unusual email from the top Iran official at the Department of State.

“This is Brian Hook . . . I work for secretary of state Mike Pompeo and serve as the US Representative for Iran,” Mr Hook wrote to Akhilesh Kumar on August 26, according to several emails seen by the Financial Times. “I am writing with good news.”

The “good news” was that the Trump administration was offering Mr Kumar several million dollars to pilot the ship — until recently known as the Grace 1 — to a country that would impound the vessel on behalf of the US. To make sure Mr Kumar did not mistake the email for a scam, it included an official state department phone number.”

“The remarkable outreach by such a high-ranking official was not an isolated case. Mr Hook, who heads the state department’s Iran Action Group, has emailed or texted roughly a dozen captains in recent months in an effort to scare mariners into understanding that helping Iran evade sanctions comes at a heavy price.

“Iran knows that the success of our pressure campaign depends on vigorous enforcement of oil sanctions,” Mr Hook told the FT. “We have collapsed Iran’s oil exports in a short period of time. We are working very closely with the maritime community to disrupt and deter illicit oil exports.”

The offer to Mr Kumar marks a new front in the US “maximum pressure” campaign designed to starve Iran of cash and persuade Tehran to come to the table to negotiate a broader deal than the nuclear accord that Iran signed with the Obama administration and world powers in 2015. . .

“With this money you can have any life you wish and be well-off in old age,” Mr Hook wrote in a second email to Mr Kumar that also included a warning.“If you choose not to take this easy path, life will be much harder for you.”


In response to the FT story, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, tweeted: “Having failed at piracy, the US resorts to outright blackmail — deliver us Iran’s oil and receive several million dollars or be sanctioned yourself.”

And the comments of Daniel Larison at The American Conservative, were equally scathing:

The administration’s Iran obsession has reached a point where they are now trying to bribe people to act as pirates on their behalf. When the U.S. was blocked by a court in Gibraltar from taking the ship, they sought to buy the loyalty of the captain in order to steal it. Failing that, they resorted to their favorite tool of sanctions to punish the captain and his crew for ignoring their illegitimate demand. . .

Many people have already mocked Hook’s message for its resemblance to a Nigerian prince e-mail scam, and I might add that he comes across here sounding like a B-movie gangster. Hook’s contact was not an isolated incident, but part of a series of e-mails and texts that he has sent to various ships’ captains in a vain effort to intimidate them into falling in line with the administration’s economic war. This is what comes of a foreign policy of “maximum pressure” and swagger: tawdry bribes, heavy-handed threats, and complete failure.

As amusing as it is to point out the administration’s incompetence, we need to remember that the economic war that the administration is waging is illegitimate and it is doing great harm to the Iranian people. The economic war may be run by clowns, including Brian Hook, but it is causing severe damage to innocent people all over Iran.

Which raises the question, how many people in the US – or the UK – are concerned about innocent people in Iran?

Honesty or hypocrisy

And for that matter, how many people in the UK are actually concerned about honesty? I ask, because, for me, the most interesting thing about all this is the statement put out by the UK Foreign Office concerning the Adrian Darya’s oil delivery:

An angry statement from the Foreign Office said it was “now clear that Iran has breached these assurances and that the oil has been transferred to Syria and Assad’s murderous regime”.

It said the Iranian ambassador had been summoned to explain the “unacceptable violation of international norms”, and that the UK would be raising the issue at the United Nations later this month.

Mr Raab added: “This sale of oil to Assad’s brutal regime is part of a pattern of behaviour by the government of Iran designed to disrupt regional security.

“This includes illegally supplying weapons to Houthi insurgents in Yemen, support for Hezbollah terrorists and most recently its attempts to hijack commercial ships passing through the Gulf.”

This statement is breathtaking in its dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Let’s break it down

1) “Iran has breached these assurances

As I have already pointed out, Iran was dealing with a gang of pirates who had little regard for honesty or international law, and clearly felt no obligation to be strictly honest with them

2) “the Iranian ambassador had been summoned to explain the “unacceptable violation of international norms

I suspect that the Iranian ambassador responded that he was unimpressed with the UK’s “unacceptable violation of international norms”

3) “the UK would be raising the issue at the United Nations later this month.”

I suspect that everyone at the UN will remember how just a few months ago, its “general assembly has overwhelmingly backed a motion condemning Britain’s occupation of the remote Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.” and how “The 116-6 vote left the UK diplomatically isolated

4) “the oil has been transferred to Syria and Assad’s murderous regime . . . sale of oil to Assad’s brutal regime

Assad’s regime is, indeed brutal, but then so are the vast majority of regimes in the Middle East, including that of the UK’s close allies, the Saudi Arabians. It is also worth pointing out that the Assad regime allows full religious liberty, unlike the Saudi government who don’t allow Christian churches to operate at all, and whose brutality extends to crucifying convicted prisoners convicted in highly questionable trials

And, furthermore, the Assad regime in Syria was fighting a civil war against extremely brutal Islamic militants backed by our good friends, the Saudi government.

5) “a pattern of behaviour by the government of Iran designed to disrupt regional security

I don’t know what Raab means by “regional security”, but when it comes to the disrupting the region of the Middle East, the UK’s involvement in a completely unprovoked invasion of Iraq that probably lead to the death of over a million people, not to mention its involvement in the Libya fiasco. is pretty appalling. Compared to the UK, Iran looks like a paragon of virtue.

6) “This includes illegally supplying weapons to Houthi insurgents in Yemen

Apart from the fact that there is no evidence of Iran supplying any significant number of arms to the Houthi forces in Yemen, Dominic Raab’s statement utterly ignores the reality of what is happening on the ground in Yemen. Yemen has been in a state of civil war for several years, and in 2015, Saudi Arabia decided to launch an invasion. Their attack has consisted of indiscriminate bombing, often of civilian targets, and imposing a blockade designed to starve the civilian population into submission. It has resulted in a completely man-made cholera epidemic which has killed thousands of children. And all the while, guess who has been supplying weapons to the Saudi armed forces in order to support their war crimes? Yes, you’ve guessed it. The UK government has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Saudi government.

And what about Brexit?

Meanwhile, in the UK, you will listen in vain for any criticism of Dominic Raab’s outrageously dishonest comments on this affair. The silence is deafening. All they can talk about is Brexit and proroguing parliament and the Prime Minister possibly lying to the Queen.

But I think there is a connection. Rob Slane wrote a thoughtful piece last week, entitled “Brexit — As Explained to the Bemused and Befuddled“. In it, he writes “Even though there are no doubt a few honourable individual exceptions, I am left utterly appalled by all parties in Parliament, with each one exhibiting their own particular flavour of cynicism and duplicitousness.

I think he is entirely correct. But this isn’t just about Brexit. It is about the whole political establishment. The Grace 1 affair, and the astonishing remarks of the Foreign Secretary, and the absence of any criticism, are simply part of the same picture.

I, too, am left utterly appalled by all parties in Parliament. And they all do exhibit cynicism and duplicitousness.

The rule of law: Boris’s Brexit coup and the Iranian tanker

In case you didn’t know it, we had a coup in the UK last week. The newspaper headlines proclaim it.  We had: “Britain will pay a big price for Boris Johnson’s Brexit coup ”  We had “‘Stop the coup’: Protests across UK over Johnson’s suspension of parliament ”  And, of course, we had “‘A very British coup’: How Europe reacted to Boris Johnson suspending parliament in Brexit push.”

It wasn’t just the newspapers. Craig Murray’s headline was “The Queen’s Active Role in the Right Wing Coup.”  He wrote:  The very appointment of Boris Johnson by Elizabeth Saxe Coburg Gotha was a constitutional outrage. ” His explanation is that

Johnson has been able to take over without facing the electorate because of the polite constitutional fiction that it is the same Conservative government continuing and nothing has changed. Yet he justifies the prorogation of parliament by the argument that it is a new government and a new Queen’s Speech is thus needed. Johnson is of course famously in favour of having cake and eating it, but the chutzpah of this is breathtaking.

George Galloway, however, is not convinced. 

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College London (described by Wikipedia as “one of Britain’s foremost constitutional experts “) also seems sceptical: “It is time perhaps to tone down the rhetoric and consider the facts.”

That sounds like good advice to me. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what comes out of next week’s hearing. Perhaps Murray will turn out to be correct.

The place of law

However, the important thing is the question of the place of law. The immediate question, of course, is about whether the government is acting in accordance with the UK constitution, or ignoring it. But the more fundamental question is: Is the government above the law, or under it? We like to think that governments are under the law – but the reality of the world we live in, and the temptations of holding power, mean that governments often simply ignore politically inconvenient laws.

The Iranian tanker

Which brings me back to the case of Iran. Last month, I wrote about the British seizure of the Iranian oil tanker, Grace 1, on the 4th if July off Gibraltar, by 30 Royal Marines. Since then, there has been a lot of water under the bridge. 15 days later, on the 19th of July, Iran seized a British tanker, the Stena Impero, in the Strait of Hormuz. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called it an act of “state piracy”, which at the very least, was a bit rich.

Blogger Rob Slane, wrote an entertaining satirical piece entitled “Researchers Find That Nicking Ships May Have Consequences“, beginning with the words

“A new study from the University of the Blindingly Obvious has found that if one country nicks another country’s ship, the country whose ship has been nicked may be likely to respond by nicking a ship belonging to the country that nicked theirs. According to the authors of the report, the reason for this may be down to something called “the way the world works,” or what is often known as tit-for-tat. “

A more sobering investigation came from Gareth Porter in a piece entitled “Did John Bolton Light the Fuse of the UK-Iranian Tanker Crisis?” Porter wrote:

“The rationale for detaining the Iranian vessel and its crew was that it was delivering oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions. This was never questioned by Western news media. But a closer look reveals that the UK had no legal right to enforce those sanctions against that ship, and that it was a blatant violation of the clearly defined global rules that govern the passage of merchant ships through international straits.

The evidence also reveals that Bolton was actively involved in targeting the Grace 1 from the time it began its journey in May as part of the broader Trump administration campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran.

Contrary to the official rationale, the detention of the Iranian tanker was not consistent with the 2012 EU regulation on sanctions against the Assad government in Syria. The EU Council regulation in question specifies in Article 35 that the sanctions were to apply only within the territory of EU member states, to a national or business entity or onboard an aircraft or vessel “under the jurisdiction of a member state.””

In other words, the UK was ignoring / breaking the rules of the sea in order to do a favour to the US administration, while pretending that this had nothing to do with Trump’s quarrel with Iran. It looks like the British government is trying to stay on good terms with the White House while not being too close to it.

Dominic Raab and the rule of law

Hence on the 15th of August, the British let the Grace 1 go (on the condition that it doesn’t go to Syria) and shortly afterwards rejected an American request to seize it again. However, the new British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has spoken of building strong ties with America:

“I also want to build a stronger alliance to uphold international rule of law and tackle the issues that threaten our security whether that’s Iran’s menacing behaviour or Russia’s destabilising actions in Europe, or the threat from terrorism and climate change.”

I have several problems with that sentence. For a start, I haven’t a clue what he means by “Russia’s destabilising actions in Europe”.  Nothing Russia has done in Europe in recent years compares with the way that the US and the UK have destabilised Iraq and Libya, not to mention Syria and Yemen in recent years.   But for the moment, the really laughable things are the references to upholding “international rule of law” and “Iran’s menacing behaviour”.

If we were to go through all the relevant facts about Iran, this post would be seriously long, so let’s just concentrate on a few. The UK seized an Iranian tanker that was just going about its business taking oil to Syria. As Gareth Porter pointed out, the UK’s action was in violation of the international rules, and its justification for its action was nonsense. (Craig Murray has also made that point pretty well – and forcefully.) The British government was doing this at the behest of the US government.

America and Iran

America had recently pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a treaty agreed by the U.S, UK, Germany, France, China, Russia, and Iran.  This treaty relaxed the crippling economic sanctions that had been imposed in Iran in exchange for Iran making certain limitations in its nuclear programme – which was about nuclear power, not nuclear weapons, but which some were concerned could become a nuclear weapons programme.  Iran had kept to the terms of the treaty, but America pulled out – in other words, broke their word – and imposed sanctions on Iran which were more crippling than the ones that had been broken before. This has caused massive hardship and suffering to people in Iran, particularly sick and poor people.  (Though whether the intention is to cause suffering to sick and poor people, or just to destabilise yet another Middle Eastern country, I don’t know.)   Iran hoped that the other countries in the JPCOA would stand up for them, but the EU countries, despite making noises about trying to help, did little. And then, as if that wasn’t enough of a problem for Iran, the UK seized and held its tanker, the Grace 1.

(The latest on this story is that the Grace 1 (now renamed the Adrian Darya 1) is in the Eastern Mediterranean, and may well be heading for Syria. One suspects that the Iranians are thoroughly fed up with the US breaking treaties, and the UK seizing ships under false pretences, and feel no obligation to keep their promises to governments they have lost all trust in.)

Iran coup_crop

Another very British coup

However, it may not be completely irrelevant that there is another story here, which is rarely mentioned in the news in the west, but is curiously relevant to current events, and which is pretty well known in Iran. All the 2019 ingredients are there – Iran, an alliance between the US and the UK, the seizing of ships, and yes – even a coup – this time, a real one.

In 1951, Iran’s new democratically elected government decided to nationalise the the BP controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The British government didn’t like this, and

“in July 1952, the Royal Navy intercepted the Italian tanker Rose Mary and forced it into the British protectorate of Aden on the grounds that the ship’s petroleum was stolen property. News that the Royal Navy was intercepting tankers carrying Iranian oil scared off other tankers and effectively shut down oil exports from Iran.”

Furthermore, the British government contacted the Americans and asked if the Americans would organise a coup in Iran to bring down the democratically elected government, and install a government who would give BP back the AIOC. America duly obliged in 1953, and the Shah was installed. Most conveniently, the US government recently released previously confidential papers related to the event, including one with the rather plain spoken title: “British proposal to Organize a Coup d’etat in Iran”.

One suspects that the 1953 coup was no more in accord with the “international rule of law” referred to by Dominic Raab than the seizure of the Grace 1.  Indeed, one could say that staging a coup also counts as a “destabilising action.”  And one suspects that as Iranians today watch the actions of the British and American governments, they do so with a strong sense of déjà vu. 

Getting things in proportion

Which brings me back to Boris’s Brexit coup, and to the words of Professor Bogdanor: “It is time perhaps to tone down the rhetoric.”

People in the UK seem to have been getting very worked up about the prorogation of Parliament.  Whatever the constitutional rights and wrongs, it looks to me like a storm in a teacup.  But they have been remarkably silent about the way that the government has simply ignored the international rule of law with respect to Iran.  And seizing tankers and causing suffering to the poor and the sick of a couple of Middle Eastern countries seems to me to  much more serious than the prorogation of Parliament.

Are the Royal Marines acting like 17th century pirates?

Yesterday, under the headline “Oil tanker bound for Syria detained in Gibraltar“, the BBC reported:

Royal Marines have boarded an oil tanker on its way to Syria thought to be breaching EU sanctions, the government of Gibraltar has said. Authorities said there was reason to believe the ship – Grace 1 – was carrying Iranian crude oil to the Baniyas Refinery in Syria.” adding “The refinery is subject to European Union sanctions against Syria.

It further explains

Gibraltar port and law enforcement agencies detained the super tanker and its cargo on Thursday morning with the help of the marines. The BBC has been told a team of about 30 marines, from 42 Commando, were flown from the UK to Gibraltar to help seize the tanker, at the request of the Gibraltar government. A defence source described it as a “relatively benign operation” without major incident. Mr Picardo said he had written to the presidents of the European Commission and European Council to give details of the sanctions that have been enforced.

And then it gives some background:

“The Baniyas refinery, in the Syrian Mediterranean port town of Tartous, is a subsidiary of the General Corporation for Refining and Distribution of Petroleum Products, a section of the Syrian ministry of petroleum.

The EU says the facility therefore provides financial support to the Syrian government, which is subject to sanctions because of its repression of civilians since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

The refinery has been subject to EU sanctions since 2014.”

A journalist called Neil Clark wasn’t impressed, and tweeted:

This can’t be supported. The Royal Marines should be defending the realm not acting like 17th century pirates.

Is he right?

I would say he is spot on, and that what happened was absolutely shocking and morally indefensible. Why? Let me lay out three reasons:

Sanctions

Sanctions are basically an economic attack on a country – an attempt to hurt a country economically by preventing certain imports and exports. They are generally imposed by wealthy countries on poorer countries to “put pressure on them” – which means, in practice to impose hardship and misery on the ordinary people, because the governments of the sanctioning countries don’t like the governments of the sanctioned countries. They don’t actually hurt the leaders of the countries of the sanctioned countries, merely the ordinary people – and those who get hurt worst are the poorest, for whom hardship and misery mean poverty, ill health, and premature death.

see Rania Khalek’s video for a slightly more detailed look at sanctions.

The fact that the EU imposed sanctions on Syria tells you a lot about the people who run the EU.

The strange logic

Furthermore, note that the reason that the EU imposed sanctions on Syria was because of the Syrian government’s “repression of civilians since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

So – the government of Syria was repressing Syrian civilians and the response of the EU was to inflict hardship and misery on Syrian civilians? To say this is bizarre is a bit of an understatement

The truth about Syria

As for the matter of the “repression of civilians since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011“, there is the question of what actually happened on the ground in Syria. If you have an uprising against a government, you can expect a response from the government. Western political leaders tended to claim that the response of the Syrian government to the uprising was completely out of proportion, and gave the impression that the Syrian uprising was simply peaceful protesters wanting more freedom and democracy.

Sharmine Narwani, a former senior associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, has done a lot of first class investigative work to get at what really happened in the war in Syria, and she tells a very different story. In an interview entitled “Reporter Sharmine Narwani on the secret history of America’s defeat in Syria“, she tells how she discovered that the uprising against the Syrian government was violent right from the early days, and the response of the Syrian government was pretty much what you would expect from any country that faced an armed uprising. Right from the beginning, members of the Syrian security forces were being killed in large numbers.

And, as it turned out, the uprising against the Syrian government largely consisted of militant Islamic Jihadists, who received a lot of support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar – and a fair amount behind the scenes from U.S. government.

The fact that the EU imposed sanctions on Syria in these circumstances strikes me as being simply evil.

And as for the fact that Royal Marines were involved in seizing a tanker bound for Syria – I can’t see how that is any different from piracy.

The fact that they fly a Union Jack rather than a Jolly Roger, and that they are acting under the auspices of a national government doesn’t really make any difference.  

Tanker attacks, Iran, and what Christians should be doing

Last Thursday, the BBC reported that two tankers were “significantly damaged in suspected attacks in the Gulf of Oman. The Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous with 23 crew members aboard and Norway’s Front Altair with 23 people were abandoned after the blasts.”  It added “It is unclear what caused the blasts coming amid high US-Iran tensions.”

The US was quick to blame Iran for the blasts, and released a video as evidence.

Most people remain sceptical. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas commented “The video is not enough. We can understand what is being shown, sure, but to make a final assessment, this is not enough for me.”   The Japanese government also asked the U.S. for more evidence, with a senior government official saying “The U.S. explanation has not helped us go beyond speculation”.

The Kokuka Courageous’s Japanese owner also cast doubt on the theory that a mine had been used to attack the ship, telling journalists that members of his crew had witnessed a flying object.

And there are further reasons to be sceptical.

Learning from history

For a start, there’s history.   Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, who famously said “We lied, we cheated, we stole”, has a history of making statements about Iran over the past few months which are completely untrue.

Before that, America (assisted by allies like the UK), twice bombed Syria after claiming that the Syrian government had carried out chemical weapons attacks – when the evidence indicates that the Syrian government almost certainly had not done so.

And there were the statements made before western air power was used in Libya which were wildly exaggerated.

And then there was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on American claims about “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, which turned out to be complete fiction.

And, if you want to go back before that, there was the shooting down in 1988 by the US of an Iranian civilian airliner (Flight 655) killing all 290 individuals on board. It later emerged that everything Iran said about the incident was true, whereas most of what the US claimed was not.

And of course, there was the Gulf of Tonkin incident which bears some interesting similarities to last week’s events.

The lesson that history teaches us is that American government statements about what is going on in the Middle East should be taken with a large dose of salt.

A likely story

But added to that, the story itself is, itself, extremely unlikely.

Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, sums it up nicely: “I really cannot begin to fathom how stupid you would have to be to believe that Iran would attack a Japanese oil tanker at the very moment that the Japanese Prime Minister was sitting down to friendly, US-disapproved talks in Tehran on economic cooperation that can help Iran survive the effects of US economic sanctions. “

How stupid would you have to be?

Well, the UK Foreign Office said that it was “almost certain” that a branch of the Iranian military – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – attacked the two tankers on 13 June, adding that “no other state or non-state actor could plausibly have been responsible”.

In response, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted

“Britain should act to ease tensions in the Gulf, not fuel a military escalation that began with US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. Without credible evidence about the tanker attacks, the government’s rhetoric will only increase the threat of war. “

I don’t think that is very controversial. But it didn’t go down well with Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, who responded:

“Pathetic and predictable. From Salisbury to the Middle East, why can he never bring himself to back British allies, British intelligence or British interests? “

And, as reported the BBC, “Mr Hunt’s fellow Conservative leadership candidates, including Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, also condemned Mr Corbyn’s recent comments. ”

That accounts for all the Conservative leadership candidates, with the exception of Boris Johnson, who, of course, is a former foreign secretary.   What did he say?   Well, Johnson has not exactly gone out of his way to comment on the matter, but he did retweet the response of Conservative MP Liz Truss to Corbyn:

“Yet again Corbyn sides with an authoritarian regime over believers in democracy and freedom. He seeks to undermine everything that makes our country great. “

I can only assume that Johnson endorses Truss’s comments – which is very disappointing, because they strike me as incredibly foolish. If she is really saying that one should always believe that the government of a democratic country is saying in the run up to a war with a non-democratic country, then she has clearly forgotten the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the shooting down of Flight 655 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Western action in Libya in 2011.

And, of course, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Looking at what is happening in the Middle East, and the sabre-rattling that has been going on in Washington DC, and the response of the British government and the contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party – one of whom will, presumably, be the next Prime Minister, is somewhat depressing. 

Our job

What are we supposed to do?

And the answer, if you are a Christian, is to remember what Paul told Timothy:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”  (I Timothy 2:1-2)

The point is that we want to live a peaceful and quiet life – which requires not having a war raging all around us.

The big question is “Who’s we?”   Paul and Timothy?

Obviously not, but I suspect a lot of the time, those who read this think it means primarily me and my neighbours – people in the country I live in – or Christians in the country I live in. We take it that we are being asked to pray for our rulers. But Paul says “all kings” – and be “we”, I suspect he means all Christians, for he speaks of leading not only a peaceful and quiet life, but also a godly one.

All Christians includes the ones in the Middle East. The fact is that the West’s military incursions in the Middle East in recent years have made life particularly difficult for Christians there – in Iraq, in Syria, and in Libya for starters. Those military adventures have lead to Christians (and not just Christians) being killed and driven from their homes by Islamic extremists. If war involving Iran were to break out, you can be assured that it would make life very difficult for Christians in Iran. According to Wikipedia, there are between 300,000 and 400,000 – but Open Doors reckons that the number is closer to 800,000.

But since Christians believe in doing unto others as you would have them do onto you, we also want non-Christians to be able to live peaceful and quiet lives, and to have freedom from war.

As we look at the Middle East, and listen to the noises coming out of Washington and Westminster, the message that should be coming through loud and clear is that we need to bring these people before God in prayer.

The justice of Pontius Pilate, and the defamation of Julian Assange

Some 2000 years ago, a court case made history. The judge was Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea, and the accused was a man called Jesus. We are told some interesting things about the trial.

1) Pilate believed that Jesus was not guilty.

“Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. .” (Luke 23:13-15)

2) As a result, Pilate wished to release Jesus.

“Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, ” (Luke 23:20)

3) Pilate decided to have Jesus sentenced to death because of public pressure, out of a desire to “satisfy the crowd”:

“And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. ” (Mark 15:12-15)

4) The reason that the crowd called on Pilate to sentence Jesus to death was because they had been stirred up by the enemies of Jesus. Pilate asked the crowd, 

“Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead.” (Mark 15:9-11)

In other words, we can see that the Roman justice system could be much influenced by public opinion, especially if there were powerful people / groups who wanted a certain result – e.g. to have a person that they didn’t like executed – even when that person was not actually guilty of a criminal offence.

Public opinion and popularity 

This, of course, is not just true of the Roman justice system 2,000 years ago. It is also true in many countries today. It is potentially true in any country at any time.

What is significant about this is that in the past few days, I have heard two people being interviewed making very similar comments with regard to the case of Julian Assange.

One is Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation in America, who commented that the American Justice Department might think that since “Assange is an unpopular person” they could probably “get away” with prosecuting him in order to “criminalise journalism”, and that “they decided to go against someone who is, at least in mainstream circles, unpopular, and thinking they can get away with it.”

The other is George Galloway, a former member of the UK Parliament, who said:

“This is a story with multiple layers, and that will not just be decided in a court room, because court rooms are not impervious to public opinion, political opinion and the view of the government.”

In other words, what the crowds think, and what the powerful think, and how popular a defendant is (which is basically the same as what the crowds think), are all highly significant in what happens in court rooms – just as in the days of Pontius Pilate.

The usefulness of defamation

Which is why the defamation of Julian Assange, which was highlighted by Nils Melzer (the UN Special Rapporteur on torture ), and which I wrote about last week, is significant.

To put it bluntly, the more unpopular someone is, the less likely that person is to get a fair trial. If the crowd doesn’t like you, you are more likely to be found guilty. That is the sad reality of life in this world, and no-one should kid themselves that it isn’t true.

And the fact is that the main reason that Julian Assange isn’t popular  is (to use Melzer’s phrase) an “unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation against Mr. Assange, not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Sweden and, more recently, Ecuador.”

Melzer, in an interview in The Canary, expanded on this, saying

. . . we have to realize that we have all been deliberately misled about Mr Assange. The predominant image of the shady “hacker”, “sex offender” and selfish “narcissist” has been carefully constructed, disseminated and recycled in order to divert attention from the extremely powerful truths he exposed, including serious crimes and corruption on the part of multiple governments and corporations.

By making Mr Assange “unlikeable” and ridiculous in public opinion, an environment was created in which no one would feel empathy with him, very similar to the historic witch-hunts, or to modern situations of mobbing at the workplace or in school. Once totally isolated, it would be easy to violate Mr Assange’s most fundamental rights without provoking public outrage.

Defamation is serious matter. The problem with people saying nasty things about you is not just that it hurts your feelings, but that it affects the way you are treated – sometimes in horrifying ways.

And that might explain why it defamation (i.e. slander) is treated as a very serious evil in some of the Psalms. Psalm 15, for examle, begins with the question “Who is fit to come into God’s presence?” The answer, we are told, is:

“The one whose way of life is blameless,
  who does what is righteous,
     who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbour,
         and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
bu
t honours those who fear the Lord;
         who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.”

It’s an interesting selection of characteristics, but what is notable is that defamation comes high in the list of things that are completely unacceptable.

In Psalm 120, the psalmist is clearly very unhappy, and calls on God to save him.   What does he want saved from? What are his enemies doing that is so distressing?   They are telling lies.  In other words, they are slandering him.

“I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me.
   Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.

What will he do to you, and what more besides, you deceitful tongue?
    He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows,
        with burning coals of the broom bush.”

If the punishment that the psalmist calls for seems severe, there is a good reason for that. Defamation can wreck people’s lives – or even get them killed.

Note

The main reason (though not the only one) that most people don’t like Assange is the matter of the rape case in Sweden – and in particular, the way it has been reported in most of the press in the UK and US.  The reality is that the case against him is very weak, and the way it has been handled by Sweden verges  on bizarre.  For those interested in knowing more, Nils Melzer has spoken about it in an interview (and he is scathing about Sweden’s behaviour), or see Joe Lauria’s article in Consortium News.   

 

Who is on trial? The UN expert, Julian Assange, and bearing false witness

Last week, the UN Human Rights office put out a statement which declared that 

“A UN expert who visited Julian Assange in a London prison says he fears his human rights could be seriously violated if he is extradited to the United States”

Furthermore, this expert, Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture,

“condemned the deliberate and concerted abuse inflicted for years” on Assange.

The BBC reported on the statement, and focussed on the fact that it said

Assange has suffered “prolonged exposure to psychological torture.” 

In the words of Melzer,

. . . in addition to physical ailments, Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma. . . . The evidence is overwhelming and clear. Mr. Assange has been deliberately exposed, for a period of several years, to progressively severe forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the cumulative effects of which can only be described as psychological torture.

The headline in Reuter’s report on the statement not only uses the word “torture”, but also speaks of a “show trial”.

Reuters actually interviewed Melzer, and he told them

““I am seriously, gravely concerned that if this man were to be extradited to the United States, he would be exposed to a politicized show trial and grave violations of his human rights . . .”

Melzer (Reuters explained) did not expect U.S. authorities to subject Assange to physical torture such as water-boarding during interrogations.  Rather, 

I would much more expect him to be subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, to very harsh detention conditions and to a psychological environment which would break him eventually.””

Psychological torture and show trials are not the stuff of free countries, so Melzer’s words have not gone down well. Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, rejected Melzer’s accusations by tweeting:

“This is wrong. Assange chose to hide in the embassy and was always free to leave and face justice. The UN Special Rapporteur should allow British courts to make their judgements without his interference or inflammatory accusations.”

to which Melzer bluntly responded:

With all due respect, Sir: Mr Assange was about as “free to leave” as a someone sitting on a rubberboat in a sharkpool. As detailed in my formal letter to you, so far, UK courts have not shown the impartiality and objectivity required by the rule of law.

It is clear that Melzer does not believe that Assange was running away from justice, but was seeking to avoid a show trial where it was very doubtful that he would receive justice.

This, as I say, is a very serious accusation. Melzer has questioned the fairness of both British and American courts.

On this subject, I recommend reading Craig Murray’s article “Jeremy Hunt Works That Rogue State Status” in which he says that it is “immensely sad to see the abandonment of the project for an international system based on the rule of law rather than on force,” and concludes

“One by one, the UK is simply repudiating the authority of all the major international institutions that enforce international law. The UK is acting as a rogue state. “

Defamation and vilification

However, there is one particular aspect of the Julian Assange affair, and of Melzer’s report, that I think is important, and that is not getting much attention.

There is something important that Melzer speaks about that is not mentioned at all in the BBC report, but is mentioned in the opening sentence of the Reuters report:

“WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has suffered psychological torture from a defamation campaign and should not be extradited to the United States where he would face a “politicized show trial”, a U.N. human rights investigator said on Friday. “

The word that the BBC does not mention is “defamation”.

The UN report states

“Since then, there has been a relentless and unrestrained campaign of public mobbing, intimidation and defamation against Mr. Assange, not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Sweden and, more recently, Ecuador.” According to the expert, this included an endless stream of humiliating, debasing and threatening statements in the press and on social media, but also by senior political figures, and even by judicial magistrates involved in proceedings against Assange. 

Further down the page, the report uses the word “vilification”:

“I condemn, in the strongest terms, the deliberate, concerted and sustained nature of the abuse inflicted on Mr. Assange and seriously deplore the consistent failure of all involved governments to take measures for the protection of his most fundamental human rights and dignity,” the expert said. “By displaying an attitude of complacency at best, and of complicity at worst, these governments have created an atmosphere of impunity encouraging Mr. Assange’s uninhibited vilification and abuse.”

Melzer is saying that there has been a deliberate campaign to blacken Assange’s name. I suspect that it may be significant that the BBC report didn’t mention this.

Why do I raise this subject?  Because just about every time I mention Assange to someone, almost the first thing they say is something along the lines of “he’s not a very nice person”. It’s almost like there is something so unpleasant about him that people don’t want to talk about him.  I don’t know if anyone has every mentioned Assange to me in a conversation.  And the reason for that is that just about everybody, even those who have not made any effort to follow Assange’s case, has heard quite a few things about him that do not exactly endear him to them – things that are distasteful.

That is where the words “defamation” and “vilification” come in. People think what they think because of what they hear.  But are the things that they hear true?

Australian journalist Caitlin Johnstone has written an article entitled “Debunking All The Assange Smears”, in which she lists 29 smears against Assange, and deals with them – in great detail – one by one. It is a pretty long article.

But before she starts going through them, she makes this comment:

Looking at that list you can only see two possibilities:

Julian Assange, who published many inconvenient facts about the powerful and provoked the wrath of opaque and unaccountable government agencies, is literally the worst person in the whole entire world, OR

Julian Assange, who published many inconvenient facts about the powerful and provoked the wrath of opaque and unaccountable government agencies, is the target of a massive, deliberate disinformation campaign designed to kill the public’s trust in him.

And then she adds:

As it happens, historian Vijay Prashad noted in a recent interview with Chris Hedges that in 2008 a branch of the US Defense Department did indeed set out to “build a campaign to eradicate ‘the feeling of trust of WikiLeaks and their center of gravity’ and to destroy Assange’s reputation.” 

The fact is that it is possible to destroy people’s reputations, and thus wreck their lives, by engaging in a whispering campaign is certainly true.  And, it seems to me, it has certainly worked in the case of Julian Assange.  

Bearing false witness

Which brings me to the ninth of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

What does that mean?

The Shorter Catechism (drawn up by the Westminster Assembly almost 400 years ago) spells out what it requires, and what it forbids:

The ninth commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbour’s good name, especially in witness bearing.

The ninth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own, or our neighbour’s, good name.

Or, in modern English:

The ninth commandment requires us to tell the truth and to maintain and promote it and our own and others’ reputations, especially when testifying.

The ninth commandment forbids anything that gets in the way of the truth or injures anyone’s reputation.

That seems pretty relevant to the case of Julian Assange.

And note the words “especially when testifying.” It is when someone is being charged in court that this becomes particularly important – because lying can bring about serious harm to an innocent person.

But in addition to that, the way that our world is, and the way our society works, means that it is also true that if a person’s reputation can be damaged sufficiently, then it is easier to get them to brought to court, and more likely that they will be found guilty.

But there is one other thing that needs to be said.

The Westminster Assembly’s Larger Catechism, expands on what the ninth commandment requires and forbids.

And I find it very interesting that one thing that it says that real obedience to the ninth commandment requires that we should not avoid

receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defence

– or, in modern English

receiving and giving credit to evil reports, and refusing to listen to a legitimate defence.

It seems to me that perhaps that speaks to each one of us about how we read and listen to news reports – and in particular what we think of Julian Assange.  Because it seems to me that when we hear bad things said about people (especially if we hear them again and again and again) we all to easily accept those those reports without making any attempt to examine them.