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Police States, Theirs and Ours

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By Stephen Gowans

Anyone who’s shocked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that the US state is spying on its citizens shouldn’t be. Liberal democracies have routinely spied on their own citizens, long before Google, Microsoft, Verizon and the iPhone made the job easier. And they’ve done so while denouncing official enemies like the Soviet Union and East Germany—and today Cuba and North Korea—as police states. Indeed, what’s changed isn’t the fact of state surveillance, but its scope and reach.

Writing about Canada, political scientist Reg Whitaker and historians Gregory Kealey and Andrew Parnaby note that “the police showed quite remarkable energy and zeal in spying on large numbers of citizens. (An official) commission (of inquiry) discovered in 1977 that the RCMP security service maintained a name index with 1,300,000 entries, representing 800,000 files on individuals” [1] at a time the country had a population of only 24 million!

Interestingly, Whitaker et al don’t call the RCMP’s security service a “secret police,” or Canada a “police state,” though a secret police force that maintained dossiers on three percent of its country’s population might be termed such by someone not so concerned about stepping lightly around the myth that liberal democracies are bastions of political freedom. (They are bastions of political freedom, but of a certain type: that which leaves private ownership of the economy firmly in place and the owners firmly in charge.)

Among the Canadians that Canada’s police state spied on was Tommy Douglas, a leader of the mildly left-leaning New Democratic Party, who served as the premier of one of Canada’s provinces. Douglas, grandfather of TV spook Kiefer Sutherland, and who is credited with pioneering Canada’s state-run health insurance program, died almost 30 years ago. All the same, the Canadian government refuses to make public its file on the prairie preacher turned social democrat politician. Disclosure, the Canadian police state insists, may reveal the names of informants, some of whom may still be alive, while deterring others from working with the political police, for fear their names may come to light in the future as informants. [2] Stasi informers who spied on their neighbors, workmates and acquaintances are reviled, but enmity isn’t heaped upon your neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances who are informers for Western police states. At least Stasi informers were defending a more egalitarian and humane society than the one it replaced and that has taken its place. Western secret police informers defend states that preside over growing inequality, intolerably high unemployment, a war on unions and wages, and which pursue predatory wars on foreign countries that refuse to allow the rape of their natural resources, labor and markets by the Western states’ ruling classes.

Canada’s NSA equivalent, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), has, like its better known counterpart south of the border, been scooping up “billions of bits of information transmitted around the world in cyberspace or on airwaves.” [3] Canada, along with the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, is part of a signals intelligence community, called the Five Eyes, which spies on the other partners’ citizens and then shares the data with them to circumvent laws prohibiting domestic spying. These laws allow the major English-speaking capitalist democracies to back up their rhetoric about political freedom, while the cozy sharing arrangement among their electronic surveillance agencies frees them from the inconvenience of actually having to live up to it. And like the NSA, CSEC collects ‘meta-data,’ information on the date, duration, location and recipients of phone calls, e-mails, and text messages transmitted in Canada. Today, rather than having files on only 800,000 of its citizens, the Canadian police state has the raw material to assemble files on the vast majority of them.

Whitaker et al call state surveillance of citizens in liberal democracies political policing, which seems far more legitimate (legitimizing) than the name used to describe (discredit) the same behaviour in communist countries. When Cuban or North Korean officials place their citizens under surveillance, they’re accused of totalitarianism and police state repression, though it seems very unlikely, in light of the Snowden and other revelations, that either state can match the scope of snooping that liberal democracies can use to police their own citizens’ political behaviour.

The term “political policing” in lieu of “police state repression” sanitizes the practice when it happens in liberal capitalist states, and is sanitized again when it is acknowledged that “policing politics….has been done and continues to be done” in every liberal democracy, but that it “is inherently anomalous in liberal democracies.” [4] This, of course, is an oxymoron. Spying on citizens and disrupting the activities of those who challenge the established order can’t be inherently anomalous in liberal democracies if it is done in every one of them. It must, instead, be an invariable trait of liberal democracies.

But then, so too is political policing an invariable trait of every other kind of state. Whether it’s North Korea or Cuba spying on its own citizens, or the United States, Britain and Canada doing the same, in all cases, political policing serves a conservative function of defending the established order against those who would challenge it. “[T]he political police,” argue Whitker et al, “are always on the side of the political/economic status quo…. [5]

The difference is that political policing in liberal democracies is “an activist conservatism on behalf of capital against its perceived enemies.” [6] Political policing in East Germany, the Soviet Union, or today in Cuba and North Korea, is likewise an active conservatism, though not on behalf of capital, but against it, and on behalf of capital’s enemies.

It’s naive, then, for anyone in a liberal democracy who poses a serious threat to the established order to believe the state is going to let them be, free to exercise political freedoms that exist largely as a rhetorical contrivance. Challenging the established order is like going to war, and anyone who goes to war and is shocked to discover that the enemy fights back is seriously deluded about war, the state, and the nature of the enemy. All states are police states, including those most attached to rhetoric about political freedom.

In contrast, people who present no serious challenge to the state are typically indifferent to the state panopticon. They reason correctly that since they have nothing to hide, and that they identify with the state and have no inclination to challenge the class that dominates it, that the political police won’t trouble them.

Alternatively, there are people who, while they are not against the state, are in favour of reforms which would restrain the class that dominates the state from pursuing its interests to the fullest. From the perspective of the political police, these people must sometimes be subjected to surveillance to discover whether their quest for reforms is in reality a veiled challenge to the established order, and if not, to provide early warning if it metamorphoses into one. It is these people who are typically the most agitated by political policing, for inasmuch as they conscientiously keep their opposition within legal bounds and are not actively hostile to the state, they believe their privacy should be inviolable. In their view, their activities are “legitimate” (within bounds that do not seriously challenge the established order) and therefore are not fair game for surveillance. Hence, those who seriously threaten the established order know the state will spy on them, and accept surveillance as a reality of war; the apolitical are indifferent, because they know the state has no reason to disrupt their activities; while the reformers are agitated, because they’ve discovered the state isn’t neutral and may indeed disrupt activities they believed to be legitimate and legal.

British Labour MP Chris Mullen’s thought experiment, the novel A Very British Coup, explores the question of whether the British state would allow a leftist government to pursue far-reaching socialist reforms even if the government played by the formal rules. His conclusion: no. The political police, working with the United States, would orchestrate the government’s overthrow. It has typically been the case that left-wing movements that have come to power in liberal democracies either quickly abandon their agenda or actively pursue it and are replaced, as a consequence, by a military dictatorship or fascist coup. Under threat, capital shares none of the reverence for liberal democracy that moderate socialists so ardently display and believe in, to their detriment. Even Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whose challenge to the established order within his own country was partial at best, was briefly toppled in a coup, and remained menaced throughout his tenure as president by the efforts of the United States and owners of the country’s private productive assets to disrupt his government—a government that scrupulously operated within the boundaries of liberal democracy.

Likewise, it’s naive to think that the state in communist countries will not spy on, and try to disrupt, the activities of those who seriously threaten the established socialist order, and who seek to bring about a return to a society of exploitation, or subordination to foreign tyranny, or both. To object to this practice would be to elevate abstract ideas about political freedom above freedom from exploitation, oppression, hunger, and insecurity; to make the freedom to politically organize for the creation of conditions of exploitation senior to freedom from exploitation. Objecting to the Cuban state spying on citizens who want to return to the days of Batista and US domination is like objecting to the machine-gunning of an advancing Waffen SS column. It may not be pretty, but is necessary to defend something better than the alternative.

To sum up, police state measures—the stock in trade of all states, whether of exploiters or the previously exploited—are neither intrinsically objectionable nor inherently desirable, any more than nuclear technology is. So long as societies are divided by class, there will be states, and so long as there are states, there will be political police. Political policing, like nuclear technology, can be used for good or ill, to protect or destroy, to advance or hold back. We should be for it when it’s used for good and to advance; against it when it’s not. And we should be clear too that as much as the states they revile, liberal democracies are police states, and will always be, so long as the parasitism of capitalist society produces a determined opposition to the parasites.

1. Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey and Andrew Parnaby. Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America. University of Toronto Press. 2012. p. 9.
2. Colin Freeze, “CSIS fights to keep Tommy Douglas spying file under wraps,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 10, 2010.
3. Michelle Shephard, “Web snooping vital, spy agency boss says”, The Toronto Star, October 23, 2005.
4. Whitaker et al, p. 10.
5. Whitaker et al, p. 11.
6. Whitaker et al, p. 12.

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June 14, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Canada’s Nonsense Trade Ban on Iran

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By Stephen Gowans

Who says you can’t form accurate judgments of people on the basis of first impressions? Long before he was Canada’s foreign minister, before he was even elected to public office, John Baird knocked at my door and introduced himself as a candidate in my riding for an election that had yet to be called. From the moment he spoke, I took a visceral dislike to him and pegged him for what he is: a demagogic creep whose life mission is pandering to the powerful.

His actions since have done nothing to soften my view. Consider, for example, his recent announcement that Canada will impose a total trade ban on Iran. Canada exports a few bushels of wheat to Iran in return for a truckload of Persian rugs. The ban means little sacrifice at home—and little pain for Iranians. In other words, it’s symbolic.

But it gives Baird a platform from which to demonize Iran and, in doing so, to ingratiate himself with Washington and Tel Aviv. Baird says the ban is necessary to punish Iran’s “reckless and irresponsible” behaviour in increasing its uranium enrichment activities. Problem is, there’s nothing reckless or irresponsible about Iran enriching uranium. Indeed, if anyone is reckless and irresponsible, it’s Canada.

As a non-nuclear weapons party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has a right to enrich uranium, as long as it refrains from diverting fissile material to military use. The International Atomic Energy Agency—which monitors Iran’s enrichment activities—has never reported a single instance of Iran diverting fissile material. What’s more, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Japan also enrich uranium on their own soil. When last I checked, Baird wasn’t denouncing these countries’ enrichment activities as reckless and irresponsible.

Iran has no nuclear weapons. And the US intelligence community says that, in its view, the Iranians aren’t developing them. As to the charge that Iran is just a few years away from a bomb, that canard has been around since the mid-1980s. And still Iran hasn’t a single nuclear weapon.

There’s nothing about Iran’s enrichment activities that are worthy of a trade ban. Except pandering to Israel. Which is kind of tricky considering that unlike Iran, Israel actually does have nuclear weapons—an estimated 400, and the means to deliver them by missiles, aircraft and submarines. Even if it did have nuclear weapons, Iran would—without long range bombers and submarines, and with missiles of limited range—struggle to deliver them.

Moreover, unlike Iran, Israel bars IAEA inspectors from monitoring its nuclear facilities. It won’t join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite UN resolutions directing it to do so. If any country were deserving of a total trade ban, Israel would seem to fit the bill, not only for its nuclear activities, but for its ongoing oppression of Palestinians and habit of attacking its neighbors.

Baird, then, can’t possibly be concerned about the presence of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Or anywhere else, for that matter.

In 2010—and here’s where Canadian recklessness and irresponsibility come in–Canada signed off on a deal to export uranium to India, despite concerns that the south Asian country would use the uranium to free up its domestic supply for military use. It’s widely believed that India used a research reactor sold to it by Canada to obtain weapons-grade plutonium to develop its first nuclear weapons. Because India, like Israel, is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, there are no international inspectors in India to ensure that uranium is used for peaceful purposes alone, as there are in Iran.

All of which means that Canada is about to sell uranium to a south Asian proliferator for commercial gain while imposing a symbolic trade ban on a non-proliferator to curry favour with a west Asian proliferator. And the west Asian proliferator is the regional attack dog of a country loaded to the gunwales with nuclear weapons, and no intention of relinquishing the political utility they provide in bullying other countries.

As I said: pandering to the powerful.

Finally, let’s be clear. As Peter Oborne and David Morrison point out in their excellent book, A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran, the West never had a problem with Iran’s nuclear program when Washington’s marionette, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ruled with an iron fist in Tehran. It was only when the Iranians sent Pahlavi packing and asserted their independence that the United States turned sour on Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program—and much else about the country too.

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May 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Is Canada Imperialist?

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By Stephen Gowans

Canadians measure their country against the United States. And the US benchmark defines their aspirations. If only Canada had a military to bestride the globe, moan many Canadians, a foreign policy leadership involved in all significant matters of international affairs, a reputation as a global leader, and an informal empire of countries governed by marionettes answerable to Ottawa. While many Canadians would like to elevate Canada’s role on the world stage to that of an imperial power on par with the United States, some on the left have gone beyond other Canadians’ aspirations. These leftists define Canada as a country with an “imperialist project,” all the better, perhaps, to show that just like their US counterparts, they too have an honest to goodness imperialist beast to slay, right here at home.

Todd Gordon, author of Imperialist Canada, cites numerous examples of retrograde Canadian behaviour on the world stage. These include Canada supporting a coup in Honduras, taking a lead role in promoting market-oriented reforms in Haiti, and military participation in the occupation of Afghanistan. Gordon believes these actions show Canada to be an imperialist country, just like the United States.

But in Gordon’s world, dominating other countries politically, backed up by military might—in other words, having an empire, whether formal or undeclared—is not the essential feature of imperialism. And for a leftist aspiring to wrestle with an imperialist beast at home, it’s a damn good thing. Turns out, Canada doesn’t have one.

So, if Canada is empire-free, how is that it has come to be called imperialist? Gordon says because Ottawa’s foreign policy supports Canadian business interests abroad (it “drains the wealth” of other countries.) Implicit in this view is the idea that any country with foreign investment outflows, and a foreign policy aimed at protecting and promoting them, is imperialist. Which means that counting the countries that aren’t imperialist becomes a task a kindergarten student can handle. One…two…three…four….According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, even developing countries generate massive foreign direct investment outflows, $356.5B in 2011.

By Gordon’s definition, then, imperialism becomes a near universal, applicable to all countries but the poorest. That’s fine, so long as we acknowledge that if almost all countries are imperialist then imperialism doesn’t mean much of anything. When Lenin spoke of the advanced industrial countries carving up the world amongst themselves into mutually exclusive spheres of influence, we knew what he meant. A few rich countries dominated the rest of the world, and had hostile relationships with each other. Lenin’s definition wasn’t a near universal that would allow leftists in practically every capitalist country to claim that their country was also imperialist. If “imperialism” means much the same as “capitalism with foreign investment outflows” we no longer need the term imperialism. And exactly where is Canada’s unique sphere of influence anyway?

In a Briarpatch Magazine article titled “Canada’s imperialist project” Gordon says that Ottawa’s foreign policy is “increasingly aggressive” but offers no evidence that it’s any more aggressive nowadays than it was a hundred years ago. Canada’s long history of entanglment in other countries’ military aggressions makes Gordon’s examples of Canada’s supposedly new muscular foreign policy—supporting coups in Honduras and Haiti, and a largely symbolic military presence in Afghanistan—seem rather wimpy by comparison. Canada sent troops to Europe in 1914 to participate in a bloodletting that had nothing whatever to do with Canada, intervened militarily in the civil war in Russia to crush the nascent Bolshevik revolution, participated in the UN “police action” in Korea from 1950-53 to prevent the Koreans from uniting under Kim Il Sung, and joined NATO to roll back communism. However, Gordon appears to harbour the delusion that foreign policy in Canada used to be a rather benign affair until the country underwent “significant transformations…over the last 20 years of neo-liberal entrenchment.” This is the myth of the capitalist golden age, within which lurks the deception that it’s not capitalism, but its neo-liberal variety, that is the problem.

Canada has long had enterprises with investments overseas, governments that support them, and a foreign policy subordinate to that of countries that have normally been understood to be imperialist—Great Britain initially and the United States later on. But Canada has never had the clout to dominate other countries politically—not in a world in which the greater power has always been in the hands of truly imperialist countries.

But we don’t have to call Canada what it isn’t to recognize that it doesn’t wear a white hat on the world stage (contrary to what many Canadians believe). Nor do we have to stretch the definition of imperialism on a Procrustean bed to make it fit Canada. Like other capitalist countries, Canada uses what leverage it has to promote the interests of its corporations, bankers and wealthy investors abroad, and this involves the exploitation of people in other countries, some of them the world’s poorest.

Canada may have recognized the coups in Haiti and Honduras, but it didn’t engineer them. (The Marshall Islands recognized the coups, too. Does that make the Marshall Islands imperialist?) Canada participated in the occupation of Afghanistan, but it didn’t initiate it, and nor was its contribution large enough to make a significant difference. The United States led the NATO operations in Yugoslavia and Libya, in which Canada played bit roles. It is unimaginable that Canada would have—could have—led these campaigns. Participate vs. led. Canada participated in WWI, but no one thought its participation made the country imperialist—only part of an imperialist bloc led by Great Britain. Today, Canada is part of a much larger imperialist bloc led by the United States, in which exist separate semi-independent sub-imperialist blocs based on the vestiges of once formal European empires.

Which isn’t to say that Canada wouldn’t have engineered coups d’état, initiated invasions and fought wars for the re-division of the world had it the resources to do so and an empire, formal or otherwise, to defend and enlarge. Capitalist imperialism depends on two conditions. A compulsion to seek profits abroad. The means to dominate. Canada has the first, but not the second. If Gordon would like to call Canada an aspiring imperialist power, I’m happy to agree. But for the moment, the reality is that Ottawa contents itself with the being a second stringer on team USA, called in every once in a while to relieve the first string, and free to do its own thing, so long as it checks with Washington first. Hardly the picture of an imperialist.

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November 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Posted in Canada, Imperialism

The Most Significant Threat to Global Peace and Security in the World Today

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Canada has severed diplomatic relations with Iran, a country it decries as “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” and it has done so as part of the Harper government’s re-orienting Canada’s foreign policy to more vigorously back Israel. But it is Israel—which daily clamours for an attack on Iran and threatens to undertake one itself—that is the greatest current threat to world peace and international security.

Canada has withdrawn its diplomats from Tehran and ordered Iran’s out of Canada. Ottawa says it has suspended diplomatic relations because Iran is:

 Providing military assistance to the Syrian government;
 Refuses to comply with UN resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program;
 Routinely threatens the existence of Israel;
 Engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric and incitement to genocide;
 Is among the world’s worst violators of human rights;
 Shelters and materially supports terrorist groups.

Given rampant speculation in Canada about the real reasons Ottawa has suddenly broken off relations with Iran, it’s clear that Ottawa’s purported reasons have been dismissed as empty rhetoric.

And so they should be.

If Ottawa were genuinely concerned about the world’s worst violators of human rights giving military assistance to tyrannical regimes to put down peaceful uprisings, it would have shut its embassy in Saudi Arabia long ago. Human Rights Watch describes rights violations in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that refuses to tolerate meaningful democratic reforms, as “pervasive.” And when Bahrainis rose up in peaceful protest against their country’s despotic rulers last year, Saudi troops and tanks spilled into the country to help Bahrain’s absolute monarchy violently suppress the uprising. Canadian diplomats remain on station in both countries.

The United States refuses to comply with innumerable UN resolutions to lift its illegal blockade on Cuba, and yet Ottawa continues to maintain diplomatic relations with Washington. UN resolutions in connection with the Palestinians are regularly ignored by Israel, but all the same Canadian diplomats are not withdrawn from Tel Aviv.

Indeed, Israel offers multiple reasons for Ottawa to close its embassy in that country and boot Israeli diplomats out of Canada. Human Rights Watch describes conditions in territories occupied by Israel as a “human rights crisis.” Within Israel proper, Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, subordinate to the favoured children, the Jews.

Israel’s record of furnishing military aid to repressive, retrograde regimes is long and shameful. After the Carter administration suspended military aid to the Chilean regime of Augusto Pinochet in 1977, Israel stepped in to become the dictator’s major arms supplier. Israel ran guns to Iran soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, to fan the flames of war between Iran and Iraq, and before that was a major supporter of the Shah’s dictatorial, human rights charnel house. [1] In the 1970s, it entered into a secret military alliance with South Africa’s racist apartheid regime, offering to sell it nuclear weapons.

As for the Canadian government’s professed opposition to nuclear weapons proliferation, Tel Aviv’s nuclear program should be ringing alarm bells in Ottawa. Israel is estimated to have some 200 nuclear weapons. It refuses to hear any discussion about giving them up, won’t join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and bars international inspectors from entering the country.

By contrast, the Iranians have no nuclear weapons—and as US military and intelligence officials continue to affirm—there is no evidence they’re working to acquire them (see here, here, here, here, here, and here.) More than that, there is evidence of absence. “Certain things are not being done,” a former US intelligence official told the Washington Post, that would have to be done were the Iranians working to weaponize their civilian nuclear energy program.

And unlike Israel, Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Its nuclear facilities are regularly scrutinized by international inspectors. And while it is true that Tehran refuses to comply with some UN resolutions related to its civilian nuclear program, it does so because the resolutions would uniquely deny its right to process uranium—a right the non-proliferation treaty guarantees.

And as for supporting terrorists, in the early 1980s Tel Aviv groomed Christian Phalangist right-wing militias to act as Israel’s proconsul in Lebanon. When a bomb killed the Phalanges’ leader Bashir Jumayal, who had been recently elected president, the militias went on a rampage, terrorizing Palestinians and Shiite Lebanese in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. As the Phalanges rampaged through the camps, killing men, women and children, the Israeli army threw up a cordon around the camps, firing flares into the night sky to provide illumination to help the terrorists do their grisly work. [2]

Far worse is the reality that the Israeli state was founded on terrorism. For one thing, Zionists used terrorism to try to drive the British out of mandate Palestine, bombing the King David hotel, headquarters of the British mandate authority, in 1946. But that was small potatoes compared to what was to come. Exhausted, and no longer willing to administer Palestine, the British transferred responsibility to the UN in 1947. Over the objections of the majority Arab inhabitants, the UN developed a partition plan which would allocate 56 percent of mandate Palestine to a Jewish state. Jews made up only one-third of the population. The Arabs, two-thirds of the population, would receive only 42 percent (Jerusalem, the remaining two percent, would become an international city.) The Jewish state would have a rough demographic balance of 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs (the Arab state 800,000 Arabs and 100,000 Jews.) Recognizing that a democratic Jewish state could not long exist without a preponderance of Jews, Zionists terrorized Arab villages to depopulate them, sending hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians fleeing for safety. They were later barred from returning. Zionists claim the Arabs fled only to get out of the way of advancing armies from neighbouring Arab states. But the terror, formalized as Plan Dalet, was well underway before the Arab armies intervened. In end, the Zionists seized 80 percent of Palestinian territory, and were only prevented from seizing all of it by the intervention of Egypt and Jordan. [3]

What’s more, Canada might consider its own support for terrorists. Some Canadian military officers who had participated in last year’s NATO air war against the government of Libya referred to NATO jets bombing Gadhafi’s troops as “al-Qaeda’s air force,” a recognition that Islamist terrorists made up part of the opposition that NATO, with Canada’s participation, intervened on behalf of.

As for the Canadian government’s claim that Iran “routinely threatens the existence of Israel,” this is pure wind. Tehran is certainly hostile to Zionism—the idea that European Jewish settlers, through a program of ethnic cleansing, have a legitimate right to found a state on someone else’s land. And there can be little doubt that Iran is ready to do all it can to facilitate the demise of the Zionist regime. But the notion that Iran has the intention—even the capability—to bring about the physical destruction of Israel is absurd in the extreme. Iran is severely outclassed militarily by Israel, and its possession of a handful of nuclear weapons—if it were ever to acquire them—would be no match for Israel’s hundreds, or the formidable military might of Israel’s sponsor, the United States. The idea that Iran threatens Israel is a silly fiction cooked up by Israeli warmongers to justify an attack on Iran to prevent the latter from ever acquiring even the potential to develop nuclear weapons in order to preserve Tel Aviv’s monopoly of nuclear terror in the Middle East. Canadian politicians simply ape the line that Israel is threatened, a canard Zionists have used since 1948 to justify their aggressions. On the contrary, it is Israel—a super-power-sponsored nuclear weapons state—which threatens Iran, to say nothing of Syria and Lebanon.

So why has Ottawa really suspended diplomatic relations with Tehran? Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi says Canada’s government is “neo-conservative”, “extremist”, and “boundlessly defending international Zionism.” These are apt descriptions. Canada has practically outsourced its Middle East foreign policy to Israel, letting it be known that it will unquestioningly prop up Israeli interests. Extremist? Since Ottawa’s outsourcing of Middle East foreign policy to Israel yokes Canada to a bellicose regime with an atrocious human rights record, how could it be otherwise?

But Salehi’s description, no matter how apt, does not explain why Ottawa has severed ties with Iran now.

Former Canadian ambassador to Iran John Mundy raises the possibility that Ottawa is pulling its diplomats out of the country in anticipation of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Since Canada has offered unqualified support to Israel, Canadian diplomats would be in danger if Israel followed through on its threats. Britain recalled its diplomats when, last November, protesters stormed the British Embassy in Tehran. Canada may be seeking to avoid a similar occurrence. Ottawa may have no specific knowledge of an impending Israeli strike, but may be playing it safe all the same. Or it might be participating in an Israeli-sponsored ruse to ratchet up psychological pressure on Tehran, withdrawing its diplomats to falsely signal an imminent Israeli strike.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Canada has adopted the extremist position of supporting a rogue regime in Tel Aviv that, to quote Ottawa’s misplaced description of Iran, is “the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.”

1. Patrick Seale. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. University of California Press. 1988.
2. Seale.
3. Ilan Pappe. The Ethnic Cleasning of Palestine. One World. 2006.

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September 10, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Canada, Iran, Israel, Zionism

Dual injustice: Is Canada outsourcing torture in an unjust war?

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By Stephen Gowans

There are two questions about the justice of any war. Are the reasons for fighting it just? Is it fought in a just way? When it comes to Canada’s involvement in the war on Afghanistan, it looks like the country fails on both counts.

Let me defer to the end the question of whether Canada’s participation in the US-led war on Afghanistan is just, noting only at this point that an April public opinion poll by the Canadian pollster Angus Reid shows that only 39 percent of Canadians support their country’s military mission in Afghanistan. [1] Take away an enormous propaganda effort to rally Canadians to support the war and these numbers would be smaller still. The propaganda effort has included a “wear red on Friday” campaign to “support our troops”, bumper stickers warning that anyone who doesn’t stand behind the troops shouldn’t dare stand in front of them, and the first intermission of the popular Hockey Night in Canada TV broadcast being transformed into an ongoing PR campaign for the Canadian Forces’ role in Afghanistan.

Hockey Night in Canada’s first intermission revolves around former National Hockey League coach Don Cherry, a pugnacious, inarticulate and bigoted blowhard, whose jingoist leitmotif is that Canada distinguishes itself on the world stage in two ways: by producing the world’s best hockey players and the world’s best soldiers. He has, ever since Canadian soldiers shipped out to Afghanistan, turned his Coach’s Corner segment into a platform for promoting unquestioning support of the Canadian military.

Don Cherry, a pugnacious, inarticulate and bigoted blowhard, whose jingoist leitmotif is that Canada distinguishes itself on the world stage in two ways: by producing the world’s best hockey players and the world’s best soldiers. He has, ever since Canadian soldiers shipped out to Afghanistan, turned his Hockey Night in Canada Coach’s Corner segment into a platform for promoting unquestioning support of the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan.

The more immediate question is whether Canadian troops have conducted themselves justly in the war, and specifically, whether they’ve been complicit in the torture of the Afghan militants they’ve captured. We do know that Afghan authorities have tortured prisoners. The question is: Did Canadian troops know that the captives they transferred to Afghan authorities would be abused? While we can’t at this point say for sure that that they did, what we do know fails to support Ottawa’s denials that they did.

Canadian troops have detained Afghans for years. They haven’t held the detainees in a Canadian detention facility, because no Canadian detention facility exists. No facility exists because Canada refuses to build one. Several countries and branches of the Afghan government have urged Ottawa to build its own prison in Afghanistan to get the notorious Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) out of the business of holding detainees. [2]

Numerous concerns have been raised about the NDS, and it is hardly a secret that the organization has a reputation for torturing prisoners.

In “September, 2006, near the beginning of the Canadian and British military operations in the south…a memo from [British] military lawyers describe[d] efforts to have a NATO-monitored prison facility opened and run in order to get the NDS out of the detainee-handling chain. The memo [said] that a desirable option would be to build a facility in an unused building in Kandahar, but… that the ‘proposal is meeting resistance from the Canadians and the Dutch.’” [3]

Documentation drawn from British military files alleged that “in six known cases in which Afghan captives [were] handed by British forces to the [NDS] prisons, including one in Canada’s military jurisdiction in Kandahar,” detainees had been “tortured using electric shocks, beatings with wires, whips and metal rods, sleep deprivation and cuts, between early 2007 and late 2008.” [4]

In 2007, both an Amnesty International report and investigation by the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail warned that the NDS was torturing captives turned over to them by Western forces. [5]

Richard Colvin, a Canadian diplomat who was posted to Afghanistan for 17 months, testified before a complaints commission that he had warned Ottawa that “the NDS tortures people. That’s what they do, so if we don’t want detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS.” [6] The commission, known as the Military Police Complaints Commission, was established after the Canadian military tried to cover up the torture of Somali captives by Canadian troops. Canada sent a military mission to Somalia in 1993.

Earlier, Colvin had told the Canadian parliament that he had informed Ottawa as early as May 2006 that the NDS was torturing prisoners. “According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.” [7]

Richard Colvin, Canadian diplomat who served 17 months in Afghanistan: “According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured.”

But neither Colvin’s bosses nor the Canadian military were interested. It took a whole year before Ottawa changed its prisoner-transfer policy to allow “for follow-up visits to ensure detainees weren’t tortured.” [8] “But on February 11, 2009, Canada signed a letter along with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands” offering “to provide (NDS) intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh advance warning of monitoring trips to detention facilities.” [9] The advance warning would give the NDS time to cover up evidence of torture, allowing Ottawa to claim it had no evidence the NDS was abusing the captives Canadian troops were transferring to NDS custody. And when “the Red Cross tried to raise concerns about detainees with the Canadian army, the ‘Canadian Forces in Kandahar wouldn’t even take their phone calls.’” [10] As further evidence that Ottawa was deliberately turning a blind eye, Colvin said “the Canadian government responded to his frequent warnings by telling him to stop writing these concerns into reports.” [11]

Earlier this month, Ahmadshah Malgarai, a Canadian citizen born in Afghanistan who worked as an interpreter for the Canadian army in Afghanistan, testified that “the (Canadian) military used the NDS as subcontractors for abuse and torture.” [12]

He said that Canadian soldiers transferred prisoners to Afghan officials knowing they would be tortured. “I saw Canadian military intelligence sending detainees to the NDS when the detainees did not tell them what they expected to hear.” He added that “If the [Canadian] interrogator thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, Afghan style. Translation: abuse and torture.” [13]

The response of the Canadian government to these allegations has been to stonewall requests for pubic access to documents that would show whether the Canadian military did indeed turn over prisoners to the NDS knowing they would be tortured.
Canada’s Parliament has demanded that the government make public thousands of pages of heavily censored documents. But the government refuses.

While it says it can’t publically disclose the documents for national security reasons, there are other reasons Ottawa might be reluctant to comply with Parliament’s order. Twenty-three years ago, Canada wrote the United Nations Convention against Torture into its criminal code. The convention prohibits the transfer of a prisoner to a state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” [14]

Ahmadshah Malgarai, a Canadian citizen born in Afghanistan who worked as an interpreter for the Canadian army in Afghanistan: “If the interrogator thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, Afghan style. Translation: abuse and torture.”

Given that there are substantial grounds for believing the NDS is torturing prisoners, and that Ottawa has received ample (though apparently unwelcome) warning that prisoners transferred by Canadian soldiers to the NDS were being abused, public disclosure of the documents could open senior members of the Canadian government and top military brass to war crimes charges.

As Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom points out, “Technically, there seem to be grounds for charging Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former defence minister Gordon O’Connor, current Defence Minister Peter MacKay, former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier and various others under both Section 269.1 of the Criminal Code and Canada’s Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act.” [15]

On top of complicating efforts to determine whether the Canadian government and military have committed war crimes, the Harper government’s refusal to comply with Parliament’s directive tramples “centuries of precedent [which] dictate[s] that Parliament is supreme in holding the government to account.” If Canada’s parliamentary speaker rules that the government is in contempt of Parliament, and the government continues to refuse to disclose documents in its possession, Canada’s whole system of government will have been undermined, according to University of Ottawa law professor, Errol Mendes. “The executive would no longer be accountable to the House of Commons.” [16]

Here, then, is what we know. Canadian troops are in the business of detaining and interrogating Afghan militants. They don’t hold the militants in Canadian-run detention facilities. There are none. Canada has been asked by several countries and Afghan government departments to build its own detention facilities in order to protect detainees from torture at the hands of the NDS. Canada refuses. Instead, the Canadian military transfers captives to the NDS, despite the organization’s notorious reputation for abusing prisoners. “If we don’t want detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS,” warns diplomat Richard Colvin. An Afghan who worked as a Canadian army interpreter testifies that Canadian interrogators transferred detainees they suspected of lying to the NDS, knowing the NDS would use torture. The Canadian government stonewalls demands for public disclosure of documents that could show whether the government and military were complicit in torture. The stonewalling places the government in contempt of Parliament. The fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy — that the executive is answerable to parliament — has been undermined. Does it seem likely, given this, that Ottawa and the Canadian military are innocent of all charges?

NDS intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh: Canada offered to provide him with advance warning of monitoring trips to his detention facilities. Advanced warning would allow the NDS to cover up evidence of torture before Canadian monitors arrived.

The justification for Canada’s involvement in the war on Afghanistan has never been strong. The US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was carried out in violation of international law. The claim that Afghanistan must be made safe against the return of al Qaeda holds no water. Al Qaeda’s operations can be planned practically anywhere, and have been. Crushing the Taliban, if that’s even possible, won’t stop al Qaeda. On the contrary, Western wars of aggression on Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, on top of military and diplomatic support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist forces, simply enrage more southwest Asians and north Africans, making it more likely they will be galvanized into action against Western aggression under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism or, in Afghanistan and Iran, under the banner of liberation from foreign occupation. For example, “There is no doubt among (US) intelligence officials that the barrage of attacks by CIA drones over the past year have made Pakistan’s Taliban…increasingly determined to seek revenge by finding any way possible to strike at the United States.” [17] The failed attempt of Faisal Shahzad to carry out a car bomb attack in Times Square is now seen as a possible revenge attack.

Canada’s Afghan mission represents complicity with the United States in predatory wars which do nothing to prevent the aggrieved of southwest Asia from striking out against the West and everything to increase the number of aggrieved.

And while Canadians have looked askance at the US-led war on Iraq, the minority that continues to support Canada’s Afghan mission should recognize that the mission they support – and the troops they support who carry out the mission — have assisted the United States by freeing up US troops to serve in Iraq. Canada, then, has made its own (indirect) contribution to an Iraq war which is unjustifiable on moral and legal grounds and, far from promoting or defending the interests of ordinary people in the United States, does the opposite. It is ordinary Americans who carry the burdens of fighting the wars and paying for them through their taxes and who bear the burdens of the retaliation the wars inevitably provoke.

Finally, while Canada’s Afghan mission is sometimes justified as necessary to defend the Karzai regime, who wants to defend a regime that beats prisoners with wires, whips and metal rods and hooks their genitals up to car batteries? Apparently the Canadian government does, and worse, appears to count on the Karzai regime’s torturers to act as an outsourced shop for torturing prisoners who don’t bend under the interrogation of the Canadian military.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper: Technically, there seem to be grounds for charging him, along with former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, current Defence Minister Peter MacKay, former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier and various others under both Section 269.1 of the Criminal Code and Canada's Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act.

If we consider that it’s not the Karzai government that exercises real power in Afghanistan — it’s the US-led occupation force that calls the shots — a critical question arises. Could the NDS’s regular use of torture continue without the occupation’s implicit support? The answer is obvious. No. That the NDS continues to use torture suggests that the practice is tolerated because it serves a purpose: it offers an outsourced means of torturing recalcitrant prisoners, allowing Western militaries to preserve a carefully cultivated but undeserved pristine image for conducting themselves justly in war. “We would never stoop to the brutality of torturing prisoners,” the Canadian military seems to say, (ignoring the 1993 torture of Somalis by Canadian troops) “but we’re perfectly willing to outsource torture to the NDS” (and provide advance notice of our monitoring visits to allow evidence of torture to be covered up.) [18]

On top of becoming embroiled in a conflict with no justification, and one which depletes the public purse of funds that could otherwise be used for humane purposes, it appears that Ottawa and the Canadian military are complicit in the torture of Afghans. Considering that the occupation’s rational is indefensible and that Afghans therefore have every right to resist the foreign troops who exercise the occupation, Canada’s probable complicity in the abuse of Afghans puts the Canadian government even more decisively on the wrong side of justice, morality and history. The war is doubly unjust. There are no defensible grounds for it, and the actions of Canada’s military in it, appear on the basis of what we know, to be criminal.

1. “Support for Afghanistan Mission Falls Markedly in Canada,” http://www.visioncritical.com/2010/04/support-for-afghanistan-mission-falls-markedly-in-canada/
2. Doug Saunders, “British officers recorded claims of detainee torture, memos reveal”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 20, 2010.
3. Doug Saunders, “Detainee-torture allegations spread to Britain”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 19, 2010.
4. Saunders, April 20.
5. Saunders, April 19.
6. Ibid.
7. Steven Chase, “Canada complicit in torture of innocent Afghans, diplomat says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 18, 2009.
8. Ibid.
9. Steven Chase, “Afghan detainee monitoring not undermined by offer of advanced notice, Ottawa insists”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 22, 2010. Ottawa says the letter was a “slip-up” and that the offer was retracted.
10. Chase, November 18.
11. Ibid.
12. Steven Chase, “Soldiers did not unlawfully shoot unarmed Afghan: Natynczyk”, The Globe & Mail (Toronto), April 16, 2010.
13. Ibid.
14. Thomas Walkom, “Walkom: Only the losers need to fear war-crime laws,” The Toronto Star, November 21, 2009.
15. Ibid.
16. John Ibbitson, “Historic ruling to decide who holds real power in Ottawa”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 20, 2010.
17. Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Evidence mounts for Taliban role in car bomb plot”, The New York Times, May 5, 2010.
18. The US-led occupation is also the de facto authority in Iraq. How is that, as Steven Lee Myers reported in the April 21, 2010 edition of The New York Times that “Torture and other abuses of prisoners are pervasive in Iraq”? (“Secret Baghdad jail held Sunnis from the north”). Myers reports that “An Iraqi security force under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s direct command held hundreds of detainees from northern Iraq in an undisclosed prison in Baghdad, torturing dozens of them” and that 505 cases of torture were recorded in 2009 alone. This raises questions about why the United States is supporting a government known to practice torture, and whether it tolerates the practice in order to use Iraqi security forces as an outsourced shop for the coercive extraction of information from captives through maltreatment.

The Guardian’s (UK) Mark Tran reported on April 28, 2010 (“Iraqis tortured at secret Baghdad prison, says watchdog”) that Human Rights Watch “had interviewed 42 men who were among about 300 detainees transferred from (a) secret facility” that “was under the jurisdiction of Maliki’s military office.”

According to the rights organization,

“The jailers suspended their captives handcuffed and blindfolded upside down by means of two bars, one placed behind their calves and the other against their shins. All had terrible scabs and bruising on their legs. The interrogators then kicked, whipped and beat the detainees. Interrogators also placed a dirty plastic bag over the detainee’s head to close off his air supply. Typically, when the detainee passed out from this ordeal, his interrogators awakened him with electric shocks to his genitals or other parts of his body.”

Wasn’t putting an end to ‘Saddam’s rape rooms and torture chambers’ one of the US pretexts for the invasion of Iraq? Perhaps an end has been put to Saddam’s torture chambers, but torture continues, now under the direction of a new local puppet. How is it that torture persists in the lands the US has ostensibly liberated in the name of human rights, if not through its complicity and (in Afghanistan) that of Canada and other errand-boys of US foreign policy?

Last updated May 6, 2010.

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April 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Dracula censures mosquito for feasting on human blood‏

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Despite revelations of complicity in major human rights abuses, Canada takes lead role in U.N. rebuke of Iran.

By Stephen Gowans

Canada sponsored on November 20 a U.N. General Assembly Resolution censuring Iran for human rights abuses, only three days after a senior Canadian diplomat testified before a Canadian House of Commons committee that the Canadian military had been complicit in the torture of Afghans.

Richard Colvin, who served 17 months in Afghanistan, testified that Afghans who were detained by Canadian soldiers were tortured after they were turned over to Afghan authorities. Colvin says that when he raised the matter with higher authorities, he was ignored and later told to remain silent.

In his testimony, Colvin asked Canadian members of parliament, “If we are complicit in the torture of Afghans in Kandahar, how can we credibly promote human rights in Tehran or Beijing?” [1]

As early as May 2006, Colvin informed Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, then-commander of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, that he had reason to believe ”the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured.” [2]

Despite repeated attempts to red-flag his concerns to higher authorities, Colvin was ignored. Then in April 2007, he received “written messages from the senior Canadian government co-ordinator for Afghanistan to the effect that (he) should be quiet and do what (he) was told.” [3]

Canada had defended its transfer policy, arguing that if detainees were tortured, the Red Cross would let Canadian military officials know. But Colvin testified that when the Red Cross tried to alert the Canadian military, the “Canadian Forces in Kandahar wouldn’t even take their phone calls.” [4]

After Colvin raised the alarm, it took more than a year for Ottawa to negotiate a new transfer agreement. Under the new agreement, Canadian officials were able to visit detainees to determine whether they were being tortured. An Afghan human rights organization that receives funding from the Canadian government, reported this year that 98 percent of detainees are tortured, an indication that torture continues, despite the amended transfer agreement. [5]

While Colvin condemned Canada’s complicity in torture on the grounds that it is “a very serious violation of international and Canadian law” and is “a war crime,” [6] the Canadian media have largely overlooked the principal wrong, focusing instead on how the revelation could strengthen the insurgency and complicate efforts to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. That Canada’s military has committed a serious violation of international law – a war crime — is barely acknowledged.

Colvin is partly to blame for deflecting attention from the principal crime to tactical considerations. In his testimony, he offered four reasons Canadians ought to care about Afghan detainees being tortured. (That he felt he had to offer any reason, is shocking.) Violating Canadian and international law ranked only second. What concerned Colvin more – and what the Canadian media have picked up on as the principal crime – is that most of the detainees were “innocent,” that is, weren’t insurgents. In other words, implicit in much of the media coverage, and Colvin’s testimony, is the idea that the real scandal isn’t that detainees were tortured, but that the wrong people were tortured, and that this strengthens the insurgency by turning large numbers of Afghans, who would have otherwise acquiesced to the occupation, against it. Based on the additional concern Colvin has shown for the “farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants” and “random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time; young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up,” [7] torturing those who resist a foreign military occupation isn’t the problem; it’s the torture of “innocents” that is troubling, and it’s troubling because it stirs up the natives. Canadian soldiers, then, are being criticized, not, as they should be, for committing a war crime, but for acting in a way that undermines the mission’s goal of pacifying the Afghan population.

The use of the word “innocents” to describe those who aren’t resisting occupation, and by implication, “guilty” for those who are, is a criminalization of a behavior that, while inconvenient to the goals of the Canadian military in helping to enforce U.S. domination of Afghanistan, is hardly criminal at all. It is what some part of a population will reliably do, and has every right to do, when confronted by an uninvited foreign military presence. Complicity in the torture of insurgents is every bit as much a crime as complicity in the torture of non-insurgents.

As other Western countries, Canada presents itself as having the moral authority to call non-Western nations to account for human rights abuses. Its condemnations, however, are selective, directed exclusively at countries that resist Western domination, while passing over those that are firmly within the orbit of U.S. imperialism. Canada is prepared to censure Iran, Zimbabwe and China, but not Haiti (where it acts as part of a foreign occupation force), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and countries of North Africa, despite regular and flagrant human rights violations in these countries. It is difficult to understand how a country that participates in the military occupation of Afghanistan for reasons that are contrived and indefensible, joined an unprovoked and illegal air war against Yugoslavia in 1999, is complicit in torture, and has treated its aboriginal people abominably, has the moral authority to lecture anyone on human rights.

By contrast, Iran, the object of Canada’s censure, hasn’t attacked any country in the modern era, doesn’t act as a janissary to an imperialist bully, and isn’t complicit in torture as an occupying force in foreign territory.

Were Canada genuinely interested in promoting human rights it would have long ago sponsored U.N. General Assembly resolutions to censure the United States for its notorious abuses of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and at the largest U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, Bagram air base, where US “military personnel who know Bagram and the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, describe the Afghan site as tougher and more Spartan” and where “many are still held communally in big cages.” [8] But, then, the abuse of prisoners carried out in the service of U.S. foreign policy goals doesn’t seem to rank high on Canada’s list of human rights violations.

Canadian officials defend their country’s military presence in Afghanistan as necessary to back up the “democratic” government of Hamid Karzai, and yet Karzai’s government routinely tortures prisoners, and without the slightest censure by Canada in international forums. Karzai recently won a second term as president in an election marred by fraud engineered in part by his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a C.I.A. operative who is “a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade.” [9] While vote fraud in the last presidential election in Iran is only alleged, and without much supporting evidence, the fraudulent nature of the last Afghan presidential election is nowhere in dispute. [10] The Afghan president should be denounced as a dictator, (and would be, were he not a puppet of the United States and therefore immune from the demonizing criticism the Western media and Western governments dole out to leaders of countries that resist U.S. control and domination.) And yet, far from censuring the Afghan government for its human rights abuses and vote fraud, Canada helps prop up the country’s deeply unpopular government through an illegitimate military presence.

Despite calls in parliament for an inquiry into Colvin’s allegations, the Canadian government refuses to pursue the matter publicly, preferring instead to engage in attempts to discredit Colvin as unreliable, an effort undermined by its having seen fit to appoint him to a senior diplomatic post in Washington. Ottawa insists there is no evidence that Afghan officials tortured detainees turned over by Canadian soldiers. But the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, which receives substantial funding from the Canadian government, reported this year that a survey it conducted of detention center inmates found that 98 percent had been tortured. [11]

On top of complicity in the torture of the people of a country it is guilty of participating in an indefenesible military occupation of, the Canadian government is guilty of torturing the truth, in the service of the fiction that it has the moral authority to rebuke other countries for their human rights abuses. We in the West, and particularly those of us in Canada, ought to be more concerned about the behavior of the Canadian government and its military, than of the Iranian government, whose censurable activities (related to political survival in the face of an overthrow movement Western powers have had a hand in organizing [12]) are by far the lesser crimes, if indeed, they can even be called crimes.

Canada, then, is waging an unjust war, within which, the evidence suggests, it has committed a war crime. On top of this, it has been silent on the crimes and human rights abuses of its Western allies and non-Western countries that operate, as it does, under the umbrella of U.S. imperialism.

The only way Canada can begin to establish moral authority is to withdraw from Afghanistan, offer restitution to the Afghans it has been complicit in the torture of, and hold the United States, Britain, Israel and other allies to account for their crimes and human rights abuses. And that’s just for starters. It also needs to refrain from sponsoring movements to overthrow governments, such as Iran’s, that pursue an independent course outside the domination of other countries. (Tehran’s arrest of political activists who have sought, with Western assistance and encouragement, to overthrow the Ahmadinejad government, would never have happened had Canada and other Western countries not interfered in Iran’s affairs by financing regime change NGOs.) Until Ottawa makes these amends, its censure of Tehran remains tantamount to Dracula rebuking a mosquito for feasting on human blood.

1. “Transcript: Explosive testimony on Afghan detainees,” The Canadian Press, November 18, 2009.
2. Steve Chase, “Canada complicit in torture of innocent Afghans, diplomat says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 2009.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Steve Chase and Campbell Clark, “Many detainees were just farmers, Afghan official says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 20, 2009.
6. “Transcript: Explosive testimony on Afghan detainees,” The Canadian Press, November 18, 2009.
7. Ibid.
8. Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon seeks prison overhaul in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, July 20. 2009.
9. Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, “Brother of Afghan leader is said to be on C.I.A payroll,” The New York Times, October 28, 2009.
10. Stephen Gowans, “When election fraud is met by congratulations,” What’s Left, November 3, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/when-electoral-fraud-is-met-by-congratulations/
11. Steve Chase and Campbell Clark, “Many detainees were just farmers, Afghan official says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 20, 2009.
12. Stephen Gowans, “The role and aims of US democracy promotion in the attempted color revolution in Iran,” What’s Left, July 4, 2009. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/the-role-and-aims-of-us-democracy-promotion-in-the-attempted-color-revolution-in-iran/

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November 22, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Canadian Government’s Actions Belie Its Words

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By Stephen Gowans

The Canadian government has disavowed a training document written by its own bureaucrats that lists the US and Israel as countries that abuse prisoners and practice torture.

Officially, the Canadian government says the US and Israel aren’t torture states, no matter what its internal documents – or Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, The Centre for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem, an FBI investigation, the UN and photos of US soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib — say.

But Ottawa also says officially that Afghanistan doesn’t practice torture, despite the fact that the “Canadian military secretly stopped transferring prisoners to Afghanistan’s government in November after Canadian monitors found evidence that they were being abused and tortured.” *

Canadian soldiers began transferring prisoners to Afghanistan at the end of 2005. Prior to that, prisoners were handed off to the US military for interrogation. Ottawa ordered its troops to stop transferring captured fighters to the US when fears were raised that the prisoners were being abused and tortured.

While the government of Canada is willing to play along with the deception that the US and Israel don’t torture prisoners, its actions add to the weight of evidence that the US is not the beacon of democracy, freedom and human rights its leaders say it is.

* New York Times, January 24, 2008

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January 24, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Canadian Government Acknowledges the Obvious, US Ambassador Fumes

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By Stephen Gowans

An internal document of the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department has listed both the United States and Israel as countries that potentially torture and abuse prisoners.

The U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkens, says his country’s inclusion on the list is “offensive”, as if the Canadian designation of the U.S. as a country that practices torture is a baseless slander, rather than a near certainty based on mountains of evidence.

A perusal of newspaper headlines over the last few years at the very least makes the case that there’s reason to believe the U.S. and Israel abuse prisoners, if not torture them.

For example, on October 6, 2007 The New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department in 2005 authorized the CIA to use torture techniques that produce no permanent physical injury.

You can quibble about whether non-injurious interrogation procedures are torture, but anyone who is subjected to such techniques, which include simulated drowning, have no illusions about whether they’re being tortured.

The United Nations agrees. On May 19, 2006 the world body concluded that the use of so-called extreme interrogation techniques – torture without permanent physical injury — is a violation of the U.N. Convention against Torture.

Consider this headline, from the British newspaper the Guardian, dated May 7, 2007, summarizing the findings of the Israeli human rights groups The Centre for the Defense of the Individual and B’Tselem: “Palestinians ‘routinely tortured’ in Israeli jails”.

Guantanamo Bay, identified by the Canadian government as a place where torture is likely practiced, has a deservedly infamous reputation. As British cabinet minister Harriet Harman asked, “If there’s nothing wrong with what’s going on at Guantanamo Bay, why isn’t it in America?”

The answer to that question was offered by the FBI on January 2, 2007. According to a Bureau investigation, captives at Guantanamo Bay were chained to the floor for 18 hours or more, forced to urinate and defecate on themselves, and were subjected to extremes of temperature. A United Nations investigation declared these acts to be tantamount to torture.

Gauntanamo isn’t the only prison that is deliberately located outside the U.S. Locating prisons on foreign soil allows U.S. interrogators to escape the restraints U.S. law imposes on abuse of prisoners at home.

On June 9 of last year, The New York Times revealed that the Council of Europe confirmed suspicions that the U.S. operated secret prisons in Europe. Prisoners were abused and tortured, according to the Council.

On January 7, The New York Times reported that prisoners held by the U.S. at Bagram prison in Afghanistan are subjected to cruel treatment. This was according to the Red Cross, which says the U.S. routinely keeps prisoners away from its inspectors. Bagram, it’s said, is worse than Guantanamo.

Prisoners are being abused at other U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan, as well. Human Rights Watch said it has separate consistent accounts from eight men detained at a secret U.S. prison in Afghanistan of being tortured.

And let’s not forget the abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. On March 7, 2006 The New York Times reported that Amnesty International had found that the U.S. had committed “widespread abuses in Iraq, including torture.”

What, then, should we make of the inclusion of the U.S. and Israel on the Canadian government torture list – misguided and baseless, or simply a reflection of what has been clear to anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last five years?

If the U.S. ambassador is astonished, he hasn’t been paying attention.

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January 19, 2008 at 12:02 am

Ignatieff’s mea culpa

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Even in apologizing for backing the war, Ignatieff defends “imperialism lite”

By Stephen Gowans

Former Harvard professor and now Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff is admitting he made a mistake in backing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (1). But not because the invasion was based on a fraud, but because the humanitarian goals he and others attributed to the invasion have not been achieved.

Ignatieff’s mea culpa comes on the heels of an Oxfam report that paints a grim and disturbing picture of an Iraq that has become a shocking charnel house, where four million are displaced, infrastructure remains in a shambles, and poverty is rampant. More than Darfur, Iraq is a humanitarian disaster; it is an acute embarrassment for those who plumbed for war on humanitarian grounds, promising the ouster of Saddam Hussein would usher in an era of peace, prosperity and the flowering of human rights between the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.

That doesn’t mean that Igantieff is backing away from the doctrine of humanitarian intervention he and others championed to justify the “imperialism lite” that has wrought such misery in Iraq. On the contrary, his mea culpa is a defense of the thinly disguised justification for military imperialism left-liberal public intellectuals have promoted since Yugoslavia to elevate wars of conquest waged on behalf of the corporate elite to human rights crusades.

Ignatieff says his support for the war grew from the moment he “saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds (2).” It was at that point he became convinced that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that a war to remove him could be justified on those grounds alone. Others, including Noam Chomsky, also believed the Iraqi leader was a menace whose forced removal from power would constitute a major gain for humanity, though, to be sure, not all of those who shared this view backed the war. With hundreds of thousands dead as a result of the invasion, and a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since WWII, one wonders how many of those who invested the war with moral gravitas by demonizing the Iraqi leader, regret their craven pandering to Washington’s propaganda requirements. I suspect few do.

That doesn’t mean, however, that a few soft-left public intellectuals are not squirming in embarrassment. Ignatieff, for one, can no longer leave unaddressed the uncomfortable gulf between the reality of what the invasion has created and the promises of the war’s ameliorative effects the humanitarian interventionists inveigled the public into accepting.

Ignatieff’s error, he says, was in letting his good intentions cloud his judgment. He didn’t realize it would be so difficult to hold Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites together without “Saddam’s terror” or that it would be impossible to build a “free state” on the foundations of “35 years of police terror.” What’s more, his revulsion at Saddam’s repression of the Kurds (apparently one he doesn’t feel for the Turk’s repression of the same people, at least not enough for him to plead for a war on Turkey on humanitarian grounds) left him blinded to the reality that just “because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo (didn’t mean) it had to be doing so in Iraq.”

Ignatieff’s mea culpa has enough references to “Saddam’s terror” to make plain he still regards the invasion as justifiable on moral grounds (as in, it’s all right to kill 600,000 to depose one man from power, especially when he keeps giving away all the oil concessions to the wrong countries.) Moreover, his claim that US intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo represented a defense of human rights and freedom genuflects to the myths upon which the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is built. Ignatieff isn’t apologizing for “imperialism lite”; he’s defending it.

The United States no more defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo than it is doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for the rights of those who own income-producing property and the freedom of US corporations, banks and investors to secure profitable investments, i.e., rights that are against the interests of you and me but are dearly held by those who give Ignatieff high-profile academic posts, open the op-ed pages of the New York Times to him, and encourage him with money and advice in his bid to become Canada’s prime minister.

Ignatieff speaks the language of the bamboozler. It is enough, he knows, to invoke the terms human rights and freedom, without in any way indicating whose rights he’s talking about and what referent he’s pairing freedom with (free to achieve what or be free from what?) to get people to at least acquiesce to the idea of war. This, George Bush, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown also know. And so, in his mea culpa, human rights and freedom get star billing. Ignatieff wants us to believe his intentions, like those of America, were good; it’s just that his zeal to promote human rights and freedom kept him from seeing that Saddam had poisoned the soil in which the US government has so painstakingly tried to plant the seeds of democracy.

It’s impossible to take Ignatieff seriously. His self-appointed role is to justify the US ruling class’s naked pursuit of its class interests by dressing them up in the galvanizing language of humanitarianism to bring the rest of us onboard. His job is to enlist you and me to be the dupes who will sign up to fight in, promote, or acquiesce to, wars Bechtel, Exxon-Mobil, Lockheed-Martin, Chase Manhattan and scores of wealthy investors will profit from.

For this he is amply rewarded with high-profile academic positions, a pulpit in high-circulation establishment newspapers, and financial backing for his dalliances with electoral politics. Were he a German in Hitler’s Germany he would be on Goebbels’s payroll, putting a humanitarian gloss on the Fuehrer’s aggressions; in Mussolini’s Italy he would be demonizing Haile Selassie, pleading for an Abyssinian invasion; and in Tojo’s Japan, he would be calling for the invasion of China to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.

Like the sophists who hired out their forensic skills to the highest bidder, Igantieff is an intellectual whore who trades his credentials and skills of persuasion to shape public opinion in support of his patron’s wars for profits. His mea culpa is no apology; it is simply an attempt to save face now that the humanitarian disaster of Iraq has become an embarrassment that can no longer be ignored.

(1) Michael Ignatieff, “Getting Iraq Wrong”, The New York Times, August 5, 2007.
(2) Ignatieff’s deep feelings of humanitarian solidarity extend only to ethnic minorities whose plights Washington uses as a pretext to intervene in the affairs of other countries. Ignatieff feels sympathy for the Muslim community of Bosnia and ethnic Albanian Kosovars, but not for Palestinians or Lebanese. During the summer, 2006 Israel re-invasion of southern Lebanon, Ignatieff dismissed deaths of Lebanese civilians by Israeli forces as something “he wasn’t losing sleep over.” Globe and Mail, August 31, 2006.

Written by what's left

August 5, 2007 at 4:41 pm

Sicko

with one comment

By Stephen Gowans

Michael Moore’s Sicko is an entertaining and emotionally compelling film. It exposes the harshness of profit-based healthcare to the majority of Americans, and does so in the film-maker’s accustomed engaging way. There is no one as deft in connecting on issues of concern to the left and ordinary people with as large an audience as Moore. On this, he has no peer.

While the film has been labelled controversial by the US media, it is anything but. Few Americans would disagree with the thesis of the film – that for them a program of universal healthcare would be far better than the current profit-based system.

What controversy the film has generated has been confined to those in whose interest universal healthcare is inimical: insurance companies whose profits would suffer grievously were universal healthcare adopted; banks, investors and corporations, who have an interest in shrinking the commons, not seeing it expanded; and the media, which – owned by the same class — reliably promotes its interests.

Media pundits accuse Moore of fudging the facts, warn Americans that Canada, France, Britain and Cuba (countries whose healthcare systems are highlighted in the film) are not healthcare paradises, and stress that free healthcare for all is not free, but comes with crushing taxes. (It is not pointed out, however, that the taxes are mainly shouldered by those most able to pay, i.e., the same people sounding the alarm about universal healthcare.)

For a Canadian who knows something about the single-payer health insurance plan Moore idolizes, the US media campaign against Moore’s film is a transparent propaganda offensive whose goal it is to discredit Moore and universal healthcare. It’s true the Canadian system has flaws – fatal ones if you believe the US media spin — but the flaws US scare-mongers cite have nothing whatever to do with the system itself, and everything to do with what Canadian politicians have spent the last two decades doing: under-funding the system to make Canadians increasingly dissatisfied so they’ll demand the wonders of the US for-profit system CNN is always touting and investors privately clamor for.

The fact of the matter is that the US spends considerably more per capita on healthcare than Canada does, and yet healthcare outcomes for ordinary people are better in Canada. The US spends infinitely more than Cuba does, but only manages to place a few notches higher on healthcare rankings. That the richest country in the world only manages to edge out a Third World country – and one it has spent the last four and half decades trying to strangle economically — says (1) much for Cuba’s system, (2) unless your wealthy, the US for-profit system sucks and (3) the Cuban system in an industrialized country would — by comparison to what’s available today — be the “healthcare nirvana” the US media warns doesn’t exist.

While Moore has cogently exposed the deep flaws of the US for-profit healthcare system, his comments to the media on what Americans should do to secure a better system are less compelling.

In a testy exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Moore suggested that “the people (who) have gone to my movie, the people that are concerned about this issue … write to Mrs. Clinton and say, please, universal healthcare that’s free for everyone who lives in this country.”

In response to the charge that the government is incapable of competently administering healthcare, Moore counters that there’s nothing wrong with the government, only with the people who get elected.

The implied solutions are straight out of Moore’s high school civics class textbook. Vote, write letters, be informed. If we press for universal healthcare, and elect the right people, we’ll get what we ask for.

But a deeper analysis would ask two questions:

Why is it that the “right” people rarely, if ever, get elected?

Why did Hilary Clinton’s proposal for healthcare reform die 14 years ago?

Contrary to what Moore and others learned in their high school civics classes, the US political system is not democratic, but plutocratic. It is minimally responsive to the interests of the majority of people, but maximally responsive to the interests of the slim minority that owns and controls the economy, and is able, by virtue of its ownership and control position, to command the resources that allow it to tilt the playing field decidedly in its own favor. Sure, there are elections, and most everyone is free to vote. But those who have money – and lots of it — can dominate the system. And who has lots of money?

Money power plays an overwhelming role in selecting candidates to stand for election, and not surprisingly, those candidates who are best able to command the considerable financial backing needed to get elected lean towards looking after the interests of the wealthy people and corporations cutting the checks. As a Canadian prime minister once said of politicians elected in capitalist democracies, “You dance with the one who brought you to the dance.”

Moore himself points to the subversive role money plays in politics. Hilary Clinton, who has reconciled herself to the monstrosity of the US healthcare system, is one of the largest recipients of insurance industry backing. Moore’s website calls her a leading “Sicko for Sale.”

So why does the film-maker think that people writing letters to beseech a co-opted Clinton for free healthcare is going to make a difference, especially when, as Moore acknowledges, 14 years ago the insurance industry “went after her” and “stopped her cold”? What has changed in 14 years to deny the insurance industry the power to stop (or co-opt) champions of universal healthcare?

Moore also genuflected to the nonsense he learned in high school civics classes when he scolded Wolf Blitzer and the US media for not doing their job in acting as an unofficial opposition, not safeguarding the public interest, and “not bringing the truth to (Americans) that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.”

Like other liberals, Moore is aggrieved that the US and its institutions don’t live up to their rhetoric, believing that through pressure and moral suasion, politicians, CEOs, and the media can be forced to hew to civics textbook ideals.

But where, outside of the nonsense kids are force-fed in school, does it say the media have to be an unofficial opposition? And where does it say the media have to behave in a manner that puts the mission of informing the public ahead of their first and only obligation – to make profits for their owners?

CNN, FOX, The New York Times and other major media are under no obligation to ask tough questions of US leaders, to act in the public interest (is there a public interest that reconciles the conflicting interests of class?) or to “tell the truth to Americans that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.” As businesses, their only obligation is to their owners, and their owners’ interests are decidedly at odds with those of the people who go to Moore’s films.

Call it a class-issue. If you deploy capital to generate profits, you have interests opposed to those of Moore’s audiences: war for oil profits versus not dying as a grunt in Iraq; the profits to be secured from private healthcare versus the security of free healthcare; a media that instils an ideology congenial to your profit-making interests versus one that challenges it.

Notwithstanding Moore’s complaints, Blitzer and other journalists haven’t failed to do their jobs. They’ve performed remarkably well. What Moore hasn’t figured out is that there isn’t a public interest for Blitzer to serve, only class interests. And since it’s not white and blue collar workers who own CNN, but the owners of Time-Warner who do, Blitzer isn’t working for us. He’s working for people who have an interest in private, for-profit healthcare, an aggressive foreign policy that’s good for business, and any other policy that takes money, wealth, labor and sweat from you, me, Iraqis, Venezuelans, Cubans and so on, and gives it to them.

Moore has also shown a certain blindness when it comes to Canada. On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Moore pointed favourably to Canada for not invading other countries and for operating a healthcare system Moore believes the US should adopt.

Canada’s healthcare system, while preferable to that of the US, still comes up short against Cuba’s. Moore explored the relative merits of the US, Canadian and Cuban healthcare systems in a “healthcare Olympics” segment of his former TV program TV Nation. While network censors forced Moore to declare Canada the winner, the film-maker admitted that Cuba had really won. If Cuba’s system is better (and it is) why endorse Canada’s?

As to Moore’s lionizing Canada for not invading other countries, he’s under the spell of an illusion.

•Canada took part in the UN “police action” in Korea in the 50s, which saw a US-led coalition invade the Korean peninsula to put down a national liberation movement operating in both the north and south.

•Canada is part of a force that invaded Haiti after its president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was ousted by US intrigues.

•Canadian troops are occupying Afghanistan. Since US forces kicked down the door, and were never invited in, Canada’s occupation – which frees up US military resources to concentrate on the occupation of Iraq — is in any practical sense an invasion.

It might also be pointed out that Canada doesn’t play in the same league as the US and Britain when it comes to invading other countries, not because Canadians are peace-loving, but because Canada doesn’t have the military heft to mimic its neighbour to the south. Canada is driven by the same profit-making imperatives that impel US and British policy makers to use force, subversion, economic pressure, diplomacy and civil society to secure export and investment opportunities in other countries. Had Canada its neighbor’s military muscle it would just as ardently use bombers, missiles and tanks to kick down foreign doors.

Moore’s film, Sicko, is to be commended for the entertaining and engaging way it addresses an important issue. But the film-maker’s high-school civics class understanding of system, and his naïve illusions about Canada, leave much to be desired.

Written by what's left

July 12, 2007 at 10:31 pm

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