Show Hide image

John Pilger: Let’s learn from Blair’s crimes, so we don’t repeat them in Syria

The warmongering and human rights abuses of the New Labour years seem forgotten by all but the likes of Gareth Peirce. Yet Blair’s legacy lingers on in Afghanistan and Iraq and is re-emerging in Syria and Iran.

In the kabuki theatre of British parliamentary politics, great crimes do not happen and criminals go free. It is theatre, after all; the pirouettes matter, not actions taken at remove in distance and culture from their consequences. It is a secure arrangement guarded by cast and critics alike. The farewell speech of one of the most artful, Tony Blair, had "a sense of moral conviction running through it", effused the television presenter Jon Snow, as if Blair's appeal to kabuki devotees was mystical. That he was a war criminal was irrelevant.

The suppression of Blair's criminality and that of his administrations is described in Gareth Peirce's Dispatches from the Dark Side: on Torture and the Death of Justice, published in paperback this month by Verso. Peirce is Britain's most distinguished human rights lawyer; her pursuit of miscarriages of justice and justice for victims of state crimes, such as torture and rendition, is unsurpassed. What is unusual about this accounting of what she calls the "moral and legal pandemonium" following the 9/11 attacks is that, in drawing on the memoirs of Blair and Alastair Campbell, cabinet minutes and MI6 files, she applies the rule of law to them.

Advocates such as Peirce, Phil Shiner and Clive Stafford-Smith have ensured the indictment of dominant powers is no longer taboo. Israel, America's hitman, is now widely recognised as the world's most lawless state. The likes of Donald Rumsfeld now avoid countries where the law reaches beyond borders, as do George W Bush and Blair.

Jackdaw travels

Deploying sinecures of "peacemaking" and "development" that allow him to replenish the fortune he accumulated since leaving Downing Street, Blair's jackdaw travels are concentrated on the Gulf sheikhdoms, the US, Israel and safe havens such as the small African nation of Rwanda. Since 2007, Blair has made seven visits to Rwanda, where he has access to a private jet supplied by President Paul Kagame. Kagame's regime, whose opponents have been silenced brutally on trumped-up charges, is "innovative" and a "leader" in Africa, says Blair.

Peirce's book achieves the impossible on Blair: it shocks. Tracing the "unjustifiable theses, unrestrained belligerence, falsification and wilful illegality" that led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, she identifies Blair's assault on Muslims as criminal and racist. "Human beings presumed to hold [Islamist] views were to be disabled by any means possible, and permanently . . . in Blair's language a 'virus' to be 'eliminated' and requiring 'a myriad of interventions [sic] deep into the affairs of other nations'." Whole societies were reduced to "splashes of colour" on a canvas upon which Labour's Napoleon would "reorder the world".

The very notion of war was wrenched from its dictionary meaning and became "our values versus theirs". The perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, mostly Saudis who trained to fly in America, were all but forgotten. Instead, the "splashes of colour" were made blood-red - first in Afghanistan, land of the poorest of the poor. No Afghans were members of al-Qaeda; on the contrary, there was mutual resentment. No matter. Once the bombing began on 7 October 2001, tens of thousands of Afghans were punished with starvation as the World Food Programme withdrew aid on the cusp of winter. In one stricken village, Bibi Mahru, I witnessed the aftermath of a single Mk 82 "precision" bomb's obliteration of two families, including eight children. "TB," Campbell wrote, "said they had to know that we would hurt them if they don't yield up OBL."

The cartoon figure of Campbell was already at work on concocting another threat in Iraq. This "yielded up", according to the MIT Centre for International Studies, between 800,000 and 1.3 million deaths - a figure that exceeds the Fordham University estimate of deaths in the Rwandan genocide.

And yet, Peirce wrote, "the threads of emails [and] internal government communiqués reveal no dissent". Interrogation that included torture was on "the express instructions . . . of government ministers". On 10 January 2002, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw emailed his colleagues to agree that sending British citizens to Guantan­amo Bay was "the best way to meet our counterterrorism objective". He rejected "the only alternative" of repatriation to the United Kingdom. On 6 February 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett noted that he was in "no hurry to see any individuals returned to the UK [from Guantanamo]". Three days later, the Foreign Office minister Ben Bradshaw wrote: "We need to do all that we can to avoid the detainees being repatriated to the UK." Not one of the people to whom they referred had been charged with anything; most had been sold as bounty by Afghan warlords to the Americans.

Death by misadventure

Immersed in its misadventure and lies, listening only to their leader's crooned "sincerity", the Labour government consulted no one who spoke the truth. Peirce cites one of the most reliable sources, the Conflicts Forum, run by the former intelligence officer Alastair Crooke, who argues that, to "isolate and demonise [Islamic] groups that have support on the ground, the perception is reinforced that the west only understands the language of military strength". In wilfully denying this truth, Blair, Campbell and their echoes planted the roots of the 7/7 attacks in London.

Today, another Afghanistan and Iraq beckon in Syria and Iran, perhaps even a world war. Once again, voices such as Crooke's attempt to explain to a media salivating for "intervention" in Syria that the civil war in that country requires skilled and patient negotiation, not the provocations of the British SAS and the familiar bought-and-paid-for exiles who ride in Anglo-America's Trojan horse.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.