Labour claims its actions are lawful while it bombs Iraq, strarves its people and sells arms to corrupt states
7 August 2000
"All governments are liars," wrote the great American muckraker I F Stone, "and nothing they say should be believed." He exaggerated, although not by much.
The lies of new Labour appear more grandiose than those of its Tory predecessors in government, only because of the illusions it is allowed to promote. For example, under headlines announcing a "revolution", Gordon Brown was said to "hand out" the "historic sum" of ?43bn. The truth was the opposite: new Labour's spending on public services will be considerably less than in all but three years of Tory governments since 1979.
Under this government, the divisions between the healthy and sick, rich and poor, have grown as never before. However, as the Prime Minister noted in his famous leaked memo, new Labour will "stand up" for Britain. There is some truth in this, if you regard the war industry as Britain. Military spending is to rise for the first time since the end of the cold war. That is to say, the one, true commitment of new Labour is the acquisition, manufacture and selling of the means of killing and maiming, and the pursuit of policies that, by other means, have a similar effect. Here, the attendant lies are spectacular.
On the BBC's Today programme recently, the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain gave his personal assurance that new Labour had never sold arms to any government that used them for internal repression. At last month's Farnborough arms fair, weapons and all manner of war equipment were on offer to Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and other countries for which there is a voluminous record of internal repression.
Such is the scale of the repression, and so corrupt is the medieval regime in Saudi Arabia, that the report of the National Audit Office into the multibillion-pound British arms deal known as Al Yammamah remains suppressed by this government, largely at the urging of the Foreign Office, of which Hain is one of the most enthusiastic mouthpieces in memory. Apart from an occasional Amnesty report, the Foreign Office has largely succeeded in keeping the facts about the Saudi regime out of the British media. In the same way, the export of handguns that are banned in this country and the use of cluster bombs - landmines in all but name - have been minimised as issues of international criminality, along with the targeting of civilians in Iraq and former Yugoslavia.
"As I have told the House on many occasions," said Hain on 2 May, "we are not conducting a bombing campaign against Iraq . . ."
The Royal Air Force, together with the US, bombs Iraq almost every day. Since December 1998, the Ministry of Defence has admitted dropping 780 tonnes of bombs on a country with which Britain is not at war. During the same period, the United States has conducted 24,000 combat missions over southern Iraq alone, mostly in populated areas. In one five-month period, 41 per cent of casualties were civilians: farmers, fishermen, shepherds, their children and their sheep - the circumstances of their killing were documented by the United Nations Security Sector. Now consider Hain's statement that no bombing campaign exists. In truth, it is the longest such campaign since the Second World War.
"Our actions are entirely lawful," wrote Hain in a now notorious letter drafted by the Iraq desk at the Foreign Office. In fact, the bombing has no basis in international law. To be absolutely sure about this, I took the trouble to ask Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was secretary-general of the UN when the US and Britain set up the so-called "no-fly zones", in which they dictate whose aircraft can fly. "The Security Council never approved or in any way ratified these zones," he said. Does that make them illegal? I asked. "Yes," he replied. Although minuscule compared with the US adventure in Iraq, the RAF bombing costs the British taxpayer ?63m a year. That, incidentally, is the figure new Labour clawed back from single mothers in benefits. Hain seems to want to make his name on the great suffering of Iraq, as well he might. He has signed a long letter to MPs and constituents that is almost entirely untrue. For example, it says that there is "no credible research data" linking the use of depleted uranium(DU) with the sevenfold increase in cancer in southern Iraq.
Since 1943, when the atomic bomb was being developed, there has been an abundance of documented evidence that DU destroys lung tissue and leads to cancer. The UK Atomic Energy Authority quoted a theoretical "500,000 potential deaths" in the region following the Gulf war if only a fraction of DU dust was inhaled. It is ten years on 6 August, Hiroshima Day, since economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq. The United Nations Children's Fund has confirmed that at least half a million children have died as a result of the sanctions and the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure. That is many more than died at Hiroshima.
The crime of using DU is compounded by the denial to Iraq of equipment and expertise that can be deployed to clean up its contaminated battlefields, as Kuwait was cleared up. At the same time, the US-dominated Sanctions Committee in New York has blocked or delayed a range of cancer-diagnostic equipment, chemotherapy drugs and even painkillers; there is virtually no morphine, the drug that allows cancer sufferers to die without the extremes of suffering and with dignity. "For us doctors," said Dr Al-Ali, a paediatrician in Basra, "it is like torture." Three children died while I was in his ward. Those responsible should be called to account for acts no less murderous than the crimes of the thug in Baghdad. That they take their lethal decisions at great remove in distance and culture in no way diminishes their culpability.
"If we can't make the world perfect, we can make it better," said Hain the other day. "Because we can't do everything, that doesn't mean we should do nothing." This intriguing statement brings me to a masterly analysis by Abdullah Mutawi, a lawyer and the director of the Middle East Programme of the Centre for Economic and Social Rights. Writing in Middle East International, he points out that "it is no longer too controversial to suggest that the sanctions policy, targeted at a national group," is genocide. He refers to an "invisible line of acceptability", a term used by Denis Halliday, the former assistant secretary-general of the UN who resigned rather than implement sanctions. "While it is acceptable to call for the trial of Iraqi officials," writes Mutawi, "it is apparently not acceptable that officials of the UN, the US, the UK and culpable others should even be called to account."
The very notion of human rights in the west is corrupted, he argues, while "selected rights can be championed while others are ignored" and while those indicted as criminals are merely the accredited demons, leaving others who are just as guilty to hide behind the "invisible line" - a line drawn by Orwellian language about "humanitarian wars" and "making an imperfect world better". Mutawi calls this a "bastardisation" of human discourse. But this is changing as the crimes of those behind the invisible line become more brazen. Amnesty International, at first co-opted by the absurd "ethical dimension" in new Labour's foreign policy, recently described the Nato bombing of the Belgrade TV headquarters last year as "a deliberate attack on a civilian object and as such constitutes a war crime". In Britain and North America, groups of lawyers are working on bringing against Clinton and Blair charges that are not dissimilar, in principle, to those brought against the likes of Slobodan Milosevic.
A few years ago, the charge of "war crime" directed at western politicians would have been unimaginable, and relegated to agitprop. Not so today. And no greater, unpunished crime endures than the silent holocaust in Iraq. The ambitious Hains beware; the invisible line is moving.