by Mark Curtis
Red Pepper, December 2004
The Blair government’s foreign policy since the invasion of Iraq has been disastrous for human rights. Outside of media and parliamentary scrutiny, decision-makers have been implementing some remarkable steps: Britain is deepening its support for state terrorism in several countries while unprecedented plans are being developed for global military intervention. The government has also announced that, following Iraq, state propaganda operations will increase.
There are certain issues which it is not done to mention in respectable circles, and one is British involvement in terrorism. Take Blair’s extraordinary support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian atrocities in Chechnya have worsened throughout 2003 and 2004. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or forced to flee. While Britain was busy invading Iraq in March 2003, Human Rights Watch was documenting the highest rate of “disappearances” since the beginning of the war in Chechnya, invaded by Russia in 1999.
In their numerous meetings, Blair has consistently defended Putin, even boasting that “I have always been more understanding of the Russian position [regarding Chechnya], perhaps, than many others”. Their June 2003 meeting took place as Russia’s military widened the conflict to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, replicating many abuses committed in Chechnya. Blair stated that “I think the leadership of President Putin offers not just tremendous hope for Russia, but also for the wider world”, adding that Putin was “a partner and a friend”.
Blair claimed in parliament that Chechens had fought in Iraq against US and British forces. A few months later, the government admitted that “we have no evidence of Chechen terrorists being in Iraq”.
A referendum in Chechnya designed by Moscow to win a mandate for a new constitution took place “in atrocious circumstances” including “daily disappearances”, according to Human Rights Watch. This was good enough for Blair, who told Russians that “I think it is absolutely right that you resolve [the situation] through the policy process and political dialogue that you have engaged in”.
The Blair government has also increased support to the worst human rights violator in the Americas, Colombia. At least 15,000 civil society activists such as trade union leaders, teachers, land reform and human rights campaigners and peasant and indigenous leaders have been killed in the past decade.
The election of President Alvaro Uribe in August 2002 has resulted in strengthened relations with London. As a large landowner, Uribe was implicated in massacres of peasant and trade union leaders when he was a state governor in the mid-1990s. Blair hosted a carefully orchestrated international donors’ meeting in London in June 2003 that declared admiration for Uribe’s progress on human rights and which opened the door for Colombia to receive new international loans. At the same time, the Colombian Commission of Jurists was reporting nearly 7,000 political killings and “disappearances” in Uribe’s first year.
Britain has long provided aid to Colombia outside of media and parliamentary scrutiny. The SAS have been there since 1989. Arms exports rose 50 per cent in 2001/02 with supplies including missile technology, components for combat helicopters and explosives ostensibly for anti-drugs operations. Press reports in 2003 revealed secret increases in British military aid including hardware, SAS training the narcotics police, advice to the army’s new counter-guerrilla mountain units and in establishing a joint intelligence committee. This aid makes Britain the second largest military supporter of Colombia after the US.
A second extraordinary feature of government policy since invading Iraq is military planning. In December 2003 the government produced one of the most worrying documents I have ever seen. The Defence White Paper – Delivering security in a changing world, a formulation worthy of Orwell – states that “we must extend our ability to project force further afield”. Examples given are “crises occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia” and those arising from “the wider threat from international terrorism”. It calls for “rapidly deployable forces” to be used in “expeditionary operations” in “a range of environments across the world”.
The forces needed include cruise missiles which “offer a versatile capability for projecting land and air power ashore”, and two new aircraft carriers and combat aircraft which will “offer a step increase in our ability to project air power from the sea”. In all this, “our armed forces will need to be interoperable with US command and control structures”.
The report continues: “Whereas in the past it was possible to regard military force as a separate element in crisis resolution, it is now evident that the successful management of international security problems will require ever more integrated planning of military, diplomatic and economic instruments”. Translated: we will increasingly threaten those who do not do what we say with the prospect of military force.
It was not Bush that first committed to a strategy mislabelled “pre-emption” – ie, to use military force not in response to an imminent threat, but before a threat materialises. Blair had already committed the UK to such a doctrine two years before Bush’s election, in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. This stated that Britain’s priority was “force projection” and that “in the post cold war world we must be prepared to go to the crisis rather than have the crisis come to us”. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon now says that “long experience indicates that a wholly defensive posture will not be enough”; the key “is to take the fight to the terrorist”.
These plans reconfigure British military strategy to an overt focus on offensive operations; Britain now has a Ministry of Offence. “Defence” was always a misnomer intended largely for public relations. Britain has always had a strong intervention capability and has conducted numerous offensive operations which have had nothing to do with defending Britain or the interests of the public. But now this is barely even being hidden.
Those people feeling depressed that marching against the invasion of Iraq stopped nothing might reflect on what other military plans they may have deterred.
Also missed by the mainstream media are indications that, following Iraq, government propaganda will increase. An MoD report of December 2003 – entitled Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the future – states that future military strategy “will place greater emphasis on information and media operations, which are critical to success”. In a section called the “key lessons” of the Iraq campaign, number one is: “An information campaign, to be successful, needs to start as early as possible and continue into the post-conflict phase of an operation”.
Another lesson is that “targeting of indigenous media infrastructure, where justified under international law, needs to take account of the respective needs of the information campaign and the overall military campaign”.
The all-party House of Commons Defence Committee agrees on the importance of “information” and media operations, illustrating the degree to which elected MPs represent the interests of the public. In a March 2004 report entitled Lessons of Iraq, the committee stated that “our evidence suggests that if information operations are to be successful, it is essential that they should start in the period when diplomatic efforts are still being made, albeit backed by the coercive threat of military force through overt preparations”.
It is not only the atrocities committed by the occupation forces in Iraq that demand we take action to stop what is being done in our name. Since that invasion, British foreign policy across the board is easily revealed as immoral and abusive of basic human rights: Iraq is a microcosm of a much wider crisis in the governance of Britain.
Around 100,000 people may have died in Iraq since the invasion while the occupation forces have said they are not even counting the dead. These are Unpeople, those whose lives are worthless in the pursuit of power and commercial gain. Iraqis, Chechens and Colombians are the modern equivalent of the “savages” of the imperial era, who could be mown down by British guns in secrecy or while the perpetrators were upheld as defenders of civilisation.
I have calculated that Britain is complicit in the deaths of around 10 million people since 1945, in conflicts or covert operations where Britain has played a direct role or where it has strongly supported aggression by allies, especially the US. Declassified government files reveal a whole series of largely unknown British policies, for example British support for the 1963 killings in Iraq that brought Saddam’s Ba’ath party to power and the British arming of Baghdad regimes’ brutal aggression against the Kurds throughout the 1960s.
Britain was also complicit in the millions of deaths in the Vietnam war: it covertly sent troops to work alongside US forces, provided training to hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers while Harold Wilson consistently assured US presidents of his support for US strategy in private. The British covert operation to destabilise the government of Yemen in the 1960s fuelled a civil war that cost up to 200,000 lives, involving a pattern of human rights abuses and war crimes also typical of overt military interventions in Aden and Oman.
Britain conducted covert operations to overthrow the governments of Indonesia and British Guiana in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Heath government secretly welcomed the coup that brought General Pinochet to power in Chile in 1973, overthrowing a democratically elected government. Even worse, it welcomed the coup that brought Idi Amin to power in Uganda in 1971 and provided aid, arms and diplomatic support while Amin began instituting a military dictatorship that went on to kill around 300,000 people.
This is an adapted extract from Mark Curtis’s new book, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, published by Vintage. To order a copy, go to: www.word-power.co.uk, or telephone 01206-256000.