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Friday, February 20, 2004

An article which originally appeared in the February 2004 edition of Ceasefire.

Morality fallacies

As the US-UK Axis prepared for and carried out the invasion and occupation of Iraq many of us, opposed to the war pointed to the hypocrisy of the whole thing given Western support for Saddam during the 1980s. This included providing them with arms and equipment which could be used in the development of WMDs, extending huge loans to the country, removing them from the list of countries supporting international terrorism and providing intelligence on Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War (in which the US and other Western countries was officially neutral).

This support was provided with full knowledge of the regime's human rights abuses, which were extensively documented by the likes of Amnesty International. Saddam's WMD programme and use of such weapons was also no secret to his supporters. In November 1983, for instance, George Schultz, then Secretary of State, received intelligence reports showing that Iraqi troops were resorting to "almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons] against the Iranians." The flow of arms and equipment continued unaffected. On December 20 of that year, Donald Rumsfeld then special envoy of Ronald Regan met with Saddam to discuss matters of mutual concern such as Iran and Syria. Notes of the meeting taken at the time make no mention of references to chemical weapons usage.

Despite the evidence that Western support was pursued with open eyes, those who supported the war with Iraq tended to ignore such support or regard it as a "mistake". We can dismiss the former position as moral cowardice, which leaves only the latter as a serious response. However it seems fair to argue that if such support was indeed a "mistake" (unlikely as that conclusion seems in light of the facts) then our leaders would be doing all they can to avoid repeating it. The more cynical among you may not be surprised to discover that this has not been the case. To consider but one example we turn to the Central Asian republic of Uzebekistan.

Islam Karimov was re-elected president of the country in January 2000 after elections in which, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) there was no democratic competition. He rose to power in the days of the USSR, where he learnt his trade, and the collapse of the old regime did not interrupt his rule. Human rights groups accuse the government of serious human rights abuses. Amnesty International reports the arbitrary detention of opposition political figures, human rights defenders, devout Muslims (often accused of being "Wahhabists") and homosexuals. Indeed there are over 6,000 political and religious prisoners in the country. Detainees are frequently the victim of torture and ill-treatment, including having bits of skin and flesh ripped off with pliers, having needles driven under their fingernails, being left to stand for a fortnight in freezing water or even being boiled to death.

Amnesty reports that "upon arrival at a prison camp suspected 'Wahhabists' or suspected members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir [one of the Islamic opposition parties] are separated from other prisoners and made to run between two lines of guards who beat them with truncheons as they pass." In August 2000, the Uzbek military rounded up and resettled thousands of Tajik inhabitants from mountain villages in the southern Surhandarynsk region near the border with Tajikistan, which they alleged had been infiltrated by Islamic militants. Amnesty reported that "the villages were set on fire and bombed, livestock were killed, houses and fields destroyed."

Remember, it was it was apparently because of atrocities not unlike these that NATO bombed Serbia, even the excuses are essentially the same with only the names of the "terrorist" groups changed. Nonetheless the West is not getting ready to attack Karimov and his government to show him the error of his ways. In fact US assistance to Uzbekistan has increased massively. In 2002, it received $500 million, of which $79 million went to the police and intelligence services, who are responsible for most of the torture. The US claims that its engagement with Karimov will encourage him to respect human rights, however, as George Monbiot notes, "he recognises that the protection of the world's most powerful government permits him to do whatever he wants. Indeed, the US State Department now plays a major role in excusing his crimes."

Under legislation enacted by the US Congress in July 2002, the State Department was required to report to Congress on the progress of the Uzbek government for $45 million in additional aid to the country. This report listed the improvements had made, but was criticised by Human Rights Watch for exaggerating "Uzbekistan's human rights gains, evidently in order to maintain foreign assistance to that country's government." They alleged that, "In determining progress in these areas, the State Department listed a number of steps taken by Uzbekistan in response to U.S. concerns. Yet for each step cited, Uzbek authorities have adopted repressive measures that undermine its impact." "The State Department did not use this law as it was intended," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "We expected a proactive effort. All we got was a pro-forma report."

Britain's role in the whole affair and specifically that of Tony Blair, "the man who claims that human rights are so important that they justify going to war" (Monbiot) has been little more than contemptible. At the beginning of 2002 Uzbekistan was granted an open licence to import whatever weapons it wanted from the United Kingdom. There have also been moves to censure British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who has been highly critical Karimov's policy of torture and repression. Mr Murray has been threatened with the sack, investigated on trumped up charges and came under so much pressure that he had to spend time in a psychiatric ward. According to a senior government source, this pressure was exerted at least in part "on the orders of No 10".

It is clear that little has changed in policy circles since the heady days of the 1980s. Human rights remain a powerful propaganda tool, but are of little concern in actual practice. It would not be difficult to find similar examples, of varying degrees of severity, from other countries whose leaders serve Western interests. Consider for instance, Pakistan's "President" Perez Musharraf whose support for the "War on Terror" endeared to him to Bush and Blair despite his thinly veiled contempt for democracy or Western support for the corrupt and autocratic Saudi royal family. In light of this it is clear that claims that Western foreign policy is driven by moral considerations is at best naïve and at worst a straightforward lie. Whichever, the consequences for the victims are very real, a matter which should be of no little concern to anyone who pays anything more than lip service to basic moral considerations.
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