Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category
By Stephen Gowans
Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has been hailed as a champion of human rights and democracy. His jailing by Chinese authorities for inciting subversion of the state is widely regarded as an unjust stifling of advocacy rights by a Chinese state intolerant of dissent and hostile to ”universal values”. But what Western accounts have failed to mention is that Charter 08, the manifesto Liu had a hand in writing and whose signing led to his arrest, is more than a demand for political and civil liberties. It is a blueprint for making over China into a replica of US society and eliminating the last vestiges of the country’s socialism. If Liu had his druthers, China would: become a free market, free enterprise paradise; welcome domination by foreign banks; hold taxes to a minimum; and allow the Chinese version of the Democrats and Republicans to keep the country safe for corporations, bankers and wealthy investors. Liu’s problem with the Communist Party isn’t that it has travelled the capitalist road, but that it hasn’t traveled it far enough, and has failed to put in place a politically pluralist republican system to facilitate the smooth and efficient operation of an unrestrained capitalist economy.
Liu taught literature at Columbia University as a visiting scholar, but decamped for his homeland in 1989 to participate in the Tiananmen Square protests, bringing with him the pro-imperialist values he imbibed in the United States. For his role in the protests—which ultimately aimed at toppling Communist Party-rule and promoting a US-style economic and political system–he served two years in prison.
Liu is committed to a pluralist political model and untrammelled capitalist system of the kind he witnessed firsthand in the United States. Charter 08, the Nobel committee, the US government, and the Western media have all anointed free markets, free enterprise, and multi-party representative democracy as “universal values”. The aim is to discredit any system that is at variance with capitalist democracy as being against universal values and therefore doomed to failure.
Liu served more jail time in the 1990s for advocating an end to Communist Party-rule and conciliation of the CIA-backed Dalai Lama, the once head of a feudal aristocracy who owned slaves and lived a sumptuous life on the backs of Tibetan serfs, before the People’s Army put an end to his oppressive rule.
Liu’s latest run-in with Chinese authorities happened in December, 2008 after he signed Charter 08, a manifesto he helped draft. The charter was published on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms (UDHRF) and is a reference to Charter 77, an anti-communist manifesto issued by dissidents in Czechoslovakia. While the UDHRF endorses economic rights (the right to work and to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control), the only economic rights Charter 08 endorses are bourgeois privileges. In that respect, it is hardly in the same class as the UDHRF and, significantly, is emblematic of the kind of truncated human rights protocol favored in the United States.
On June 24 of last year Liu was charged with agitation aimed at subversion of the Chinese government and overthrowing the socialist system. He was convicted and is now serving an 11-year sentence.
The Western press describes Charter 08 as a “manifesto calling for political reform, human rights and an end to one-party rule”, but it is more than that. It is a manifesto for the untrammelled operation of capitalism in China.
The charter calls for a free and open market economy, protection of the freedom of entrepreneurship, land privatization, and the protection of property rights. Property rights, under the charter’s terms, refer not to the right to own a house or a car of a toothbrush for personal use but to the freedom of individuals to legally claim the economic surplus produced by farmers and wage laborers—that is, the right, through the private ownership of capital, to exploit the labor of others through profits, interest and rents.
While capitalism thrives in China, it does not thrive unchecked and without some oversight and direction by the Communist Party. Nor is China’s economy entirely privately owned. Many enterprises remain in state hands. The drafters of Charter 08 have in mind the elimination of all state ownership and industrial planning–in other words, the purging of the remaining socialist elements of the Chinese economy. At the same time, the Communist Party as the one mass organization with a programmatic commitment to socialism (if only to be realized in full in a distant future) and which zealously preserves China’s freedom to operate outside the US imperialist orbit, would be required to surrender its lead role in Chinese society. Political power would pass to parties that would inevitably come to be dominated by the Chinese bourgeoisie through its money power. (1) Rather than being a country with a mix of socialist and capitalist characteristics presided over by the Communist Party, it would become a thoroughly capitalist society with bankers and captains of industry firmly in control, their rule governed by the need to enrich their class, not make progress toward a distant socialism by raising standards of living and expanding the country’s productive base.
The charter also calls for the implementation of “major reforms in the tax system to reduce the tax rate”, and to “create conditions for the development of privately-owned banking.”
The US State Department itself could have written a manifesto no more congenial to corporate and financial interests.
Charter 08’s champions gathered 10,000 signatures before Beijing blocked its circulation on the Internet. While the Western media cite this as evidence of a groundswell of support for the charter’s demands (though 10,000 represents an infinitesimally small fraction of a population of one billion), the ANSWER Coalition in the United States has collected hundreds of thousands of signatures to letters calling for the lifting of the US blockade on Cuba, a level of opposition to US policy that dwarfs Charter 08’s support. Yet ANSWER’s collection of signatures in opposition to a policy aimed at promoting the interests of US capital is virtually ignored in the Western media, while a smaller movement that would benefit US capital is presented as having widespread backing. This, of course, is not unexpected. The Western media quite naturally represent the interests of the class of hereditary capitalist families and financiers from whose ranks its owners come. The class nature of capitalist society and patterns of ownership within it mean that the mass media construct a reality congruent with their owners’ interests.
Likewise, the Nobel Prize, founded by a Swedish chemist and engineer who amassed a fortune as an armaments manufacturer, is not free from politics. The Nobel committee, a five-person committee selected by the Norwegian parliament, has strayed quite a distance from Alfred Nobel’s original intentions. In his will, Nobel set out conditions for establishing and awarding the prize. “The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” While arguments may be made on either side of the question of whether Liu’s actions are praiseworthy, there is no question that trying to organize the transformation of People’s China into a replica of the United States of America, and getting arrested for it, amounts in no way to working for fraternity between nations, abolishing standing armies, or the holding of peace congresses.
A further double standard is evident in the condemnation of China’s crackdown on anti-communist dissent—one of the goals of awarding Liu the Nobel Prize (the others: to legitimize Charter 08 and demonize Communist Party-rule in China.) The reality is that any revolutionary society, if it is to successfully defend itself against counter-revolution, must limit the rights that would be used to organize the revolution’s reversal. To place political and civil liberties ahead of the preservation of the revolution, where the revolution is aimed at improving the economic condition of Chinese peasants and workers, would be to declare political rights to be senior to economic rights. Liu has clearly worked toward a counter-revolution that would push economic rights to the margins and bring the rights of the owners of capital to organize society exclusively in their interests to the fore. Allowing Liu to freely organize the overthrow of the current system and to replace it with one modelled on the US political and economic system would be to set political liberties above goals of achieving independence from imperialist domination and building the material basis of a communist society.
Other societies—including those which trumpet their credentials as liberal democracy’s champions—have freely violated their own pluralist and liberal principles to counter individuals, movements and parties which have threatened the capitalist mode of property ownership. The history of Western capitalist democracy is replete with instances of states running roughshod over their own supposedly cherished liberal democratic values, from the persecution, harassment and jailing of labor, socialist and communist militants to the banning of strikes and left political parties to open fascist dictatorship. Whenever militant leftists have seriously threatened to disrupt the tranquil digestion of big business profits, their freedom to openly advocate, organize and act has been abridged. Think of the Palmer raids in the United States, jailing of anti-WWI activists, the purge of communists from the civil service and Hollywood, the banning of the Socialist Workers Party, and the suppression of the Black Panthers. Similar practices were replicated in many other capitalist countries. In Italy and Germany, strong workers’ movements were suppressed by fascist dictatorship.
This is a pattern of behaviour so recurrent as to have the status of a social scientific law. The state, whether in capitalist or revolutionary societies, almost invariably violates rights of advocacy, free association, and the press, in order to preserve the dominant mode of property ownership wherever it is seriously under threat.
As a matter of politics, restrictions on the rights of individuals, movements and parties to openly advocate and organize the overthrow of the current economic system are good or bad depending on what one’s politics are. Nationalists in liberated countries will approve restrictions on the rights of foreigners and colonial settlers to own productive property unchecked; measures to prevent movements from encroaching on capitalist interests will be deemed warranted restrictions by capitalists; and communists will oppose the right of individuals and groups to openly organize a capitalist restoration within socialist societies, just as republicans opposed the right of individuals and groups to openly organize the restoration of monarchies within republican societies.
While Liu is cleverly portrayed by the Western media as a fighter for human rights and democracy, his organizing for low taxes, call for the jettisoning of the remaining elements of China’s socialism, and promotion of a robust capitalism, have received virtually no Western media attention. It is difficult to persuade people that capitalism is “a universal value”, and Liu’s commitment to making over China into a replica of the United States—with its economic crises, bail-outs for wealthy financiers and mass unemployment for the rest—is hardly the kind of thing that is going to marshal much popular support. Hence, the Western media have wisely (from their point of view) dwelled on Beijing’s seemingly unjustified crackdown on dissent and failed to elaborate on Charter 08’s implications for China, while playing up Liu’s advocacy of the pleasant sounding terms, democracy and human rights, pushing his commitment to free markets, free enterprise and low taxes into the shadows. Carrying out all the charter demands would almost certainly result in China being sucked into the US imperialist orbit, and whatever chances the country has of achieving socialism, would be forever dashed.
For anyone concerned with the promotion of economic rights, or the weakening of US imperialism, or with the chances that socialism might one day flourish in the world’s most populous country, the Nobel committee’s attempt to lend credibility to Charter 08 by conferring its peace prize on Liu Xiaobo is hardly to be welcome. It is as inimical to the interests of peace and the welfare of humanity as was last year’s awarding of the prize to US President Barack Obama, who has expanded the number of countries in which the US is waging war, and has tried to create the illusion that the continuing US combat mission in Iraq has ended by renaming it. Likewise, Liu has done nothing to advance the welfare of humanity. His remit, as that of last year’s peace prize winner, is to expand the interests of the owners of capital, particularly those based in the United States. He deserves no support, except from the tiny fraction of the world’s population that would reap the benefits of Charter 08’s demands. Instead, it is Beijing’s action to preserve its freedom and independence from outside domination, and to maintain elements of a socialist economy, that deserve our support.
1. The Chinese Communist Party has, with justification, rejected “Western-style elections …(as)a game for the rich.” As a party representative explained: “They are affected by the resources and funding that a candidate can utilize. Those who manage to win elections are easily in the shoes of their parties or sponsors and become spokespeople for the minority.”
Edward Wong, “Official in China says Western-style democracy won’t take root there,” The New York Times, March 20, 2010
See also Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, “Do supporters of Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo really know what he stands for?” The Guardian (UK), December 15, 2010.
By Stephen Gowans
In political contests the objective of each side is to discredit the opposition, and when that can’t be done, to silence it. This is done to prevent the opposition from persuading others to take its point of view. If one side can persuade others to its position, it can count on their support and possibly gain an advantage over the other side.
While all sides seek to silence their opposition, or at least, to marginalize it, they often present themselves as being champions of free speech, prepared to jump into the rough and tumble of the free market of ideas, confident their ideas will, through their sheer force, prevail. If they seek to silence the other side, it’s not because they oppose free speech, but because they’re against “propaganda” and providing platforms to “monsters.” By contrast, their own propagandists are not to be understood as propagandists. Nor do they promote the views of monsters. Instead, they are neutral, objective and balanced.
Coverage of foreign affairs in the West is almost wholly dominated by news media that are controlled by the wealthy, operating to amplify the views of the Council on Foreign Relations and high state officials who are either wealthy themselves or owe their position to the patronage of the wealthy and will likely end up at the CFR when they leave their government positions. But for a few obscure publications, coverage of foreign affairs is dominated by the interests of the rich; that is, of investment bankers, corporate lawyers, the chairmen of corporations and members of hereditary capitalist families. Even those who write for obscure publications that profess to take an alternative view are usually so immersed in the received media wisdom that they either can’t escape it on all matters, or are afraid to escape it on some, for fear of being dismissed as extreme.
In countries that have taken a strong anti-imperialist stand, the Western media monopoly is often broken. In these countries, some media outlets, usually state-controlled, provide a point of view that radically departs from that of Western ruling classes. This deprives the wealthy in the West of monopoly control of the means of persuasion. Accordingly, they try to disrupt and disorganize media that challenge their monopoly.
In Zimbabwe, state owned newspapers, including The Herald and The Sunday Mail, reliably present the point of view of the Mugabe government. The Western media criticize these newspapers as “Mugabe’s mouthpieces,” which, in large measure, they are. But while Western media criticize The Herald and The Sunday Mail for reflecting the point of view of the Zimbabwe government, they hide the fact that they too are mouthpieces – not of governments directly, but of the wealthy interests that own them, and indirectly, through the inordinate influence the wealthy exert on Western governments, of Western governments, too. Some of the competing media outlets in Zimbabwe, from community newspapers to SW Radio Africa and the Voice of America’s Studio 7, are mouthpieces of the US and British governments that fund them. The rabidly anti-Mugabe SW Radio Africa, for example, bills itself as the independent voice of Zimbabwe, but operates on funds from the British and other Western governments and Western ruling class foundations. There is nothing independent about it.
Arrayed against Zimbabwe’s state-owned newspapers are “six anti-Mugabe weekly newspapers, three based in Harare, two from South Africa and one from the UK, and all freely distributed in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.”  On top of these are the US government’s Studio 7 and the British government’s SW Radio Africa, plus the ubiquitous – and uniformly anti-Zanu-PF – Western media.
Despite the formidable weight the West has thrown behind anti-Mugabe media, it has still found virtue in going beyond countering The Herald’s and The Sunday Mail’s content, to seeking to intimidate its journalists. In July 2008 the EU announced it was expanding sanctions to include Munyaradzi Huni, the political editor of The Sunday Mail, and Caesar Zvayi, the former political editor of The Herald and a frequent contributor to the newspaper.
Zvayi is nothing, if not anti-imperialist and committed to the Mugabe government’s efforts to invest Zimbabwe’s nominal political independence with real economic content. He describes the Movement for Democratic Change, the Western-created and -guided opposition party, as “a counter-revolutionary Trojan horse that is working with outsiders to subvert the logical conclusion of the Zimbabwean revolution,”  rather than as an organic expression of grassroots Zimbabwean opposition, as Western propagandists would have it. He likens Zanu-PF’s political platform to “getting beyond the façade of flag independence to full socio-economic empowerment of the historically disadvantaged Africans,”  rather than as a program to enrich Mugabe and his cronies, the Western media line. To Zvayi “Zimbabwe represents the last frontier in Africa for the struggle between black nationalist resistance and Western neo-colonial encroachment by proxy,”  rather than the accustomed Western media view of the country as a former breadbasket that has become a failed state owing to “disastrous” land reform policies.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which says it “seeks ways in which to promote the free flow of information and co-operation between media workers,” refused to condemn the sanctions the EU slapped on Zvayi and Huni. MISA is funded through USAID by the US State Department, through The Westminster Foundation for Democracy by the British Parliament, and through Fahamu by the European Union, the British Department for International Development, and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Small wonder then that MISA refused to condemn the EU’s sanctions on journalists.  Zvayi, who landed a job as lecturer at the University of Botswana, was later fired and booted out of the country by its president for his association with The Herald.  It seems Botswana puts as little store in the free flow of information as MISA does. Predictably, MISA uttered not a word of protest about Botswana’s actions.
The Zimbabwe Guardian, also known as TalkZimbabwe.com, is a British-based online newspaper that offers a radically different take on what’s going on in Zimbabwe than found in the Western media, or in Western government-funded “independent” news sources, like Studio 7. While it would be going too far to say the newspaper is a Mugabe mouthpiece, it is conspicuously absent of the hysterical anti-Mugabe line that marks the British-based SW Radio Africa. This refusal to contribute to the limitless demonization of Mugabe has landed the online newspaper in hot water in the UK. On December 14, the UK newspaper, The Observer, reported that,
“…there are concerns that a website that carries articles written by UK-based Zimbabweans is acting as a propaganda machine for the Mugabe regime. Talkzimbabwe.com started life as a critic of Mugabe but in recent months has positioned itself strongly behind him and against his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. Sekai Holland, a veteran political activist who has been targeted by the Mugabe regime, said she was worried the site had been ‘infiltrated’ by Zanu-PF supporters. ‘It’s very dangerous,’ Holland said. ‘This website is being used to spread stories in support of Mugabe.’” 
This portended the beginnings of a campaign of intimidation to disrupt The Zimbabwe Guardian for refusing to toe the West’s anti-Mugabe line. The campaign was given momentum when Lance Guma invited the website’s founder, Itayi Garande, onto SW Radio Africa’s “Reporters Forum.” Guma told Garande,
“A lot of people are saying in view of targeted sanctions that target people who are said to be aiding and abetting the regime and Mugabe, you qualify under that criteria, because you are supporting the regime from here in the United Kingdom and as a result you should be deported. What’s your response?” 
It was clear from what followed that Guma wasn’t particularly interested in Garande’s response; what he was interested in was building momentum for Garande’s eviction from the country and demonizing anyone who publicly challenges Western propaganda. This echoed an earlier media campaign to have an expatriate Zimbabwean who writes opinion pieces for The Herald fired from his job as a London transit worker for “aiding and abetting Mugabe,” that is, challenging the West’s campaign of vilifying the Mugabe government.
Interestingly, SW Radio Africa Guma’s view boils down to this: if you’re not writing propaganda for us (i.e., SW Radio Africa’s sponsors, the former colonial master, Britain) you’re writing propaganda for the other side. Guma would never use the word “propaganda” in connection with SW Radio Africa, though it’s clear that’s what Radio SW Africa does: it propagates a point of view (one congenial to British financial and corporate interests.) Garande, too, writes propaganda, as does anyone who writes to persuade others. The relevant question is: is the content of the persuasive communication true or false, and should someone be fired from his job, deported or sanctioned for writing it? The normative question can be skirted by pointing out that whether it ought to happen or not, it does happen, and it happens often. There is no free environment of public advocacy, no limitless freedom for one to say whatever he pleases with impunity, and there never has been. As George Galloway points out, no one could have marched through the streets of London in 1941 urging support for Hitler and escaped punishment. Today, it many places, no one can deny that Nazi Germany sought to systematically exterminate Jews without facing a jail sentence. You can say that journalism is different from persuasive communications related to political views, but that accepts the fiction that journalism is politically neutral. It never is, whether in the journalism of The Herald, The Zimbabwean Guardian, Radio SW Africa or The New York Times.
Political battles can be waged as much at the level of ideas as on the streets or in the battlefield. Those who engage in battle accept that as a consequence of joining the battle they may face adverse consequences, including death. While those who wage the battle from the field of persuasive communications face less severe penalties (though some are occasionally killed) they’re no more immune from some form of injury than a guerilla or insurrectionist is; they may be fired, deported or sanctioned.
As to the normative question, the answer depends on which value you place higher: the victory of your side in a political battle, or the right of others to advocate an opposing view to marshal support to defeat your side? When conflict represents exploitation versus the end of it, the question becomes, which is senior: The right to be free from exploitation or the right to justify it? There are similar conflicts: between protection of children from sexual exploitation and the right of pedophiles to advocate the production of child pornography; between the right of Africans to achieve true independence and the right of imperialists to demonize anti-imperialist movements to undermine them. Public advocacy rights ought never to be senior to the right to be free from exploitation and oppression. If they are, free expression becomes more important than freedom from exploitation. Inasmuch as exploiters, by virtue of the wealth that is the fruit of their exploitation of others, are likely to have greater access to platforms that allow their free expression of ideas to count, the view that the right of public advocacy is inviolable and absolute is congenial to their interests, but not to those of the exploited. The exploited and oppressed need to struggle to create their own platforms, and preserve the few they have, from the depredations of exploiters who would silence them, by intimidation or otherwise; at the same time, they must be prepared, where they have the upper hand, to subordinate the right of free expression to the right to be free from exploitation and oppression.
1. New African, May 2008.
2. TalkZimbabwe.com, August 1, 2008.
3. The Herald (Zimbabwe), May 29, 2008.
5. The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), July 26, 2008.
6. The Herald (Zimbabwe), August 9, 2008.
7. Jamie Doward, “Key Mugabe ally is free to live in London,” The Observer (UK), December 14, 2008.
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
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.
There are dozens of US client states whose leaders fit the description “cruel dictator” who most people don’t know rig elections, jail opponents, close newspapers and start wars. On the other hand, there are a few leaders, invariably elected, who preside over governments that pursue traditional leftist goals of socialism or escape from neo-colonialism or both who many people understand incorrectly to be cruel dictators (Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Alexander Lukashenko, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Robert Mugabe.) Government officials, news media and even many leftists in the West reserve the term cruel dictator for the opponents of imperialism, while saying virtually nothing about the real dictators who defend and promote Western strategic and economic interests at the expense of their own people. This essay focuses on Robert Mugabe, one leader the West vilifies as a cruel dictator, and compares the accusations made against him with the records of such US allies as Hosni Mubarak, Meles Zenawi, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Mikheil Saakashvili and Pervez Musharraf.
By Stephen Gowans
The government of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is accused by Western governments and assorted left-wing groups of breaching the civil and political liberties of Zimbabweans and of operating a human rights horror show. Were all of the accusations against Mugabe’s government true, Harare’s actions would still pale in comparison to those of scores of other governments that imperialist powers support and the anti-Mugabe left says nothing about. While the left critics of Mugabe are vociferous in their condemnation of the Zimbabwean president, and prepared to accept uncritically all damning accusations against him, they remain virtually silent on the grave assaults on civil and political liberties carried out by US client states.
The charge sheet against Mugabe includes intimidation of political opponents, restrictions on press freedoms and electoral fraud. But there are dozens of US client states whose leaders steal elections, shut down newspapers, arrest bloggers, jail opposition leaders and ban opposition political parties. These assaults on civil and political liberties are as grave, if not graver, than anything the Mugabe government has been accused of, and yet the leaders of these governments are not widely vilified in the West (though they are in their own countries.) The point, here, is not to engage in apologetics by saying that even if we assume all the charges against Mugabe are true his actions are still minor in comparison to those of scores of other governments, but to ask why imperialist powers, their media, and assorted left-wing groups remain virtually silent on the grave human rights violations committed by scores of other governments. Why Mugabe and not Seles or Mubarak?
Those who rail against Mugabe as Africa’s great anti-democratic Satan appear to have failed to recognize that, in every country in north Africa, Islamist opposition parties have been banned. Significantly, these parties are acknowledged to be sufficiently popular to win large parliamentary blocs, if not outright majorities. (1) While Mugabe is accused of using the state to intimidate Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, he has never banned it, though some would say as a Western-created and funded organization, Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change, the MDC, ought to be banned. The MDC was cobbled together through funding provided by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the British equivalent of the US National Endowment for Democracy. The NED does overtly what the CIA used to covertly (i.e., destabilize foreign governments.) Both the Bush administration and the British government acknowledge that they are working with the opposition to bring down the Mugabe government. (2) Certainly, neither the US nor Britain would tolerate outside interference in their own electoral politics. Zimbabwe, held to a higher standard, is expected to, and does.
While Zimbabwe is sanctioned and demonized by the US, Egypt’s government, whose leader Hosni Mubarak rules with an iron fist, is showered with Washington’s largesse, and only occasionally shows up on the radar screens of the West’s anti-Mugabe left. Mubarak, and his son Gamal — who is expected to succeed his father as president, and not through means that would be considered fair in the West — are regarded by Egyptians as US lackeys. (3) Mubarak bans the Muslim Brotherhood, a party strong enough to unseat him, and by implication, to end US domination of Egypt. He also jails opposition figures, locks up bloggers who criticize him, but receives over $1 billion a year in US military aid. The US may present itself as the world’s champion of civil and political liberties, but it rewards dozens of states that severely limit formal political rights with billions of dollars in aid. In return, foreign strongmen keep their countries open to US trade and investment, carry out proxy wars on Washington’s behalf, and repress their own populations.
Late last year, Mubarak announced a full-scale retreat from the social security gains of the 50s and 60s. The socialist principles the country adopted in the 60s would be scrapped to establish conditions more favorable to the profit-making interests of US banks, corporations and investors. (4) This came in the wake of strides the government had already taken to impose neo-liberal reforms, which have seen illiteracy rise and social services crumble, in a country teeming with the poor.
The Muslim Brotherhood, banned since 1954, has moved in to fill the gaps left by the retreating state, setting up clinics, nurseries and after-school tutoring. (5) Hezbollah, in a similar way, has built support in southern Lebanon by providing social services the state won’t provide. Not surprisingly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity has soared. Its members, running as independents, contested 161 seats in the 454 member Egyptian parliament, and won 88 of them. Mubarak countered by rounding up hundreds of party members (paralleling the Israeli practice of jailing Hamas legislators.)
The comparison with Zimbabwe is instructive. The MDC operates freely and has contested elections. But unlike the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the freely operating MDC favors a neo-liberal tyranny. This is no surprise, given the MDC’s connections to the dominant economic interests in Britain and the United States.
In September, an Egyptian “judge ordered a year’s hard labor for the editors of four leading opposition newspapers, saying they had made the ruling party, Mubarak, and his son Gamal, appear dictatorial.” (6) Had Mugabe jailed the editors of Zimbabwe’s opposition newspapers, complaining they had portrayed him as a dictator, the story would be blanketed across the Western media, state officials in the West would howl with outrage, and demands would be made for immediate intervention to turn back Mugabe’s intolerable tyranny. Soon after, three more opposition journalists were sentenced to two year prison terms for impugning Egypt’s justice system. On top of this, an Egyptian human rights organization was banned. One thousand of its members have been jailed over the past year. Perhaps all the indignation of newspaper editorial writers, Western state officials, and various left-wing groups was exhausted in denunciations of Mugabe. It certainly hasn’t been exhausted in denunciations of Mubarak.
Jordan, a centralized monarchy with a largely ceremonial parliament, jailed government critic Toujan al-Faisal for criticizing the state’s auto-insurance policies. Author Ahmad Oweidi, who wrote e-mails critical of the government, was arrested for harming the government’s reputation. (7) By comparison, the Mugabe government not only tolerates critics but also tolerates those who openly call for its forcible removal. Hajia Aminata Sow, a retired Guinean jurist attended NGO meetings in Zimbabwe at which “speaker after speaker openly advocated for forcible removal of Mugabe’s government.” She was astonished the speakers weren’t arrested. (8) The principal leaders of the opposition routinely threaten violence to drive Mugabe from office, but nevertheless remain free to continue to call for insurrection. MDC faction leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s threats began early on, and have continued since. In 2000, he told Mugabe that if he didn’t step down peacefully, “we will remove you violently.” (9) The then Archbishop of Bulawayo Pius Ncube told the London Sunday Times that he thought “it is justified for Britain to raid Zimbabwe and remove Mugabe.” He complained that though he was ready “to lead the people, guns blazing” nobody was willing to follow him. (10) Last Easter, the Roman Catholic Church posted messages on church bulletin boards around the country calling on Mugabe to leave office or face “open revolt.” Mugabe’s failure to step down, the Church warned, would lead to bloodshed and a mass uprising. (11) Arthur Mutambara, leader of a breakaway MDC faction, pledged to “remove Robert Mugabe…with every tool at my disposal.” Asked what tools he was referring to, Mutambara replied, “We’re not going to rule out or in anything – the sky’s the limit.” (12) Unlike Jordanians Toujan al-Faisal and Ahmad Oweidi, who were jailed for merely criticizing their government, Tsvangairai, Ncube and Mutambara are free to issue threats to remove the Mugabe government through extra-constitutional means, to call on foreign powers to impose sanctions, and to importune a former colonial power to intervene militarily – a freedom few governments, including those in the West, are willing to grant. In light of revelations that Britain has considered attacking Zimbabwe on several occasions (13) and that the US is bankrolling opposition activities aimed at regime change (14) some measure of restriction on fifth column activities is wholly justified and is a necessary part of defending the gains of Zimbabwe’s program of breaking free of neo-colonial domination. If Mugabe is to be criticized, he should be criticized for allowing agents of imperialism too much latitude, not too little.
On top of the Jordanian government’s other affronts to civil and political liberties, it can be faulted for drawing electoral boundaries to favor rural areas in which support for pro-government parties is strong, threatening to ban election monitors, and ordering soldiers to vote for pro-government candidates. (15) Such blatant contempt for basic standards of representative democracy, displayed by the Mugabe government, would elicit howls of outrage from Whitehall and indignant editorials calling for immediate action, from an escalation of sanctions to military intervention. But Jordan, a US ally, can practice a tyranny that exceeds anything Mugabe is accused of, without comment. George Bush calls Mugabe’s government “a brutal regime.” (16) Washington’s March 2006 National Security Strategy refers to Zimbabwe as a “stronghold of tyranny.” Jordan, which fits these categories, is called neither of these things.
In the Philippines another US ally, president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is waging an all-out war against communist militants. Karapatan, a Philippines human rights organization, has documented 900 cases of extra-judicial killings, in which the Philippine military has hunted down militants and summarily executed them. Human Rights Watch complains that in failing to prosecute members of the military implicated in the killings, Arroyo has failed to uphold international law. But the larger crime lies in the fact that an all-out war (i.e., one outside the rule of law) is being waged to eliminate a militant opposition. (17) Dispatching the military to take out members of a political opposition, even if it is a militant one, would be loudly decried as a heinous crime, meriting military intervention on humanitarian grounds, if undertaken by a leader of a country resisting imperialist domination. Were the Zimbabwean military to hunt down MDC militants for summary execution, there would be no end to the incensed cries for justice from the West. It’s no so outlandish to suggest a war crimes tribunal would be established, and the accused dragged before the court. Arroyo, however, can hunt down and exterminate as many militant opponents as she likes, with little fear anyone in the West will notice, and even less fear of being dragged before a tribunal. Tribunals are reserved for leaders who resist imperial domination, not accept, welcome and promote it.
In Zimbabwe, “there are frequent calls by the opposition party and its allied trade unions for street protests. Once, in what they termed as the ‘Final Push’, the opposition called for a march on the State House, the seat of government, for its overthrow. No government folds its arms in the face of such provocations. And when the police are used to restore law and order, it becomes a human rights violation.” (18) That is, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere outside the US imperial orbit. Inside, it becomes a justified police action to restore law and order.
The Mugabe government was roundly criticized earlier this year for a crackdown on demonstrators, especially when police beat Morgan Tsvangirai, who had tried to force his way past police lines into a police station. Demonstrations had been banned in the wake of several fire-bombing incidents, but the opposition chose to defy the ban. When the police moved in to disperse demonstrators, the opposition, predictably, cried foul, and the Western media, NGOs (funded by Western governments), opposition newspapers, and Western state officials echoed the cry.
Not too many weeks later, 900 German police officers swept down on 40 sites in half a dozen German cities in a “show of force against potentially violent demonstrators” who were planning to protest outside the G8 summit. German authorities said they were investigating 18 people they believed were planning fire-bombings. (19) Although clearly intended to intimidate a civil opposition movement, no hue and cry was raised at the heavy-handed tactics of the German police. The protests that accompanied the actions of Zimbabwe’s authorities were, however, deafening, even though actual, and not anticipated, fire-bombings had occurred in Zimbabwe. A show of force by 900 Zimbabwean police swooping down on hundreds of MDC activists to prevent possible fire-bombings would have been denounced by state officials, journalists and various left groups in the West as blatant political intimidation, the work of a strongman. The German incident passed virtually unnoticed.
Ethiopia and Somalia
The Meles government of Ethiopia receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid from the US and Britain. These injections have been used to build one of the largest and strongest armies in Africa, which stands ready to be deployed to enlarge and defend US and British economic and strategic interests in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian forces invaded neighboring Somalia late last year at the behest of US officials, a blatant violation of international law on par with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, for which Ethiopia has not been censured at the UN, bombed by a coalition of the willing, or sanctioned by the international community. No one has denounced Meles as a strongman, said the world would be a better place without him, or deplored the humanitarian disaster the invasion has touched off. An estimated 850,000 Somalis have been displaced, almost one-tenth of the population. (20) The New York Times acknowledges that “the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa may not be unfolding in Darfur” but in Somalia. (21) The head of the United Nations humanitarian operations in Somalia complains that “if this were happening in Darfur, there would be a big fuss.” (22) But it’s not happening in Darfur, it’s happening in Somalia, as a result of an illegal invasion undertaken by Ethiopia, assisted by US military forces, and at the request of the United States. It’s for this reason there has been no big fuss. Washington had pushed for the invasion to oust a popular Islamist government Somalis had embraced and to restore the rule of the unpopular US-backed government that US firms had been planning undercover missions to support, with the full knowledge of the CIA. (23) For doing the West’s bidding in this and other ways, the murderous Meles was handpicked by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair to sit on Britain’s Commission for Africa, to lead the “African renaissance.”
Meles’ repugnant behavior goes further than this. Following Ethiopia’s May 2005 general election, which the opposition claimed was rigged, Ethiopian authorities opened fire on protesters, killing 193 people. Thousands of opposition supporters and leaders were rounded up and jailed. Meles asked that the death penalty be imposed on 38 opposition leaders, including the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, a former UN war crimes prosecutor and the mayor-elect of Addis Ababa. The court rejected Meles’ request, but imposed life sentences (overturned after the US, embarrassed by its client’s actions, intervened.)
Meles is all that Mugabe is accused of being, and more. He’s a strongman who rigs elections, and then beats, shoots at, jails and threatens to execute the opposition when it protests. He’s a war criminal. And he’s the architect of an unfolding humanitarian tragedy. Yet 99 percent of those who rail against Mugabe have never heard of Meles. How curious that Meles, whose government has engaged in far more repressive actions than any Mugabe has even been accused of, is showered with honors and aid, while Mugabe is treated as Africa’s version of Hitler. How curious that such patently silly charges as come from some fairly visible Western leftists can be made (among them that Mugabe is, appearances aside, an agent of imperialism ), while the same people have next to nothing to say about such conspicuous agents of imperialism as Meles and Mubarak.
Only recently, after Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf invoked a state of emergency, has Western media coverage and left-wing commentary got around to lambasting Musharaff for his restrictions on civil and political liberties. Significantly, this sudden concern for human rights coincides with Washington’s realizing that Musharraf has lost control and bungled the war against militants on Afghanistan’s border. The Bush regime is making clear to Pakistan’s military, and in particular, to the favored successor to Musharraf, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that the $1 billion in military aid it receives every year is in jeopardy, unless Musharraf is gently pushed aside. Washington would like a civilian president to be appointed to douse the flames of growing civil unrest, who would call for new elections. De facto power, however, would remain with the military, and, by implication, with Washington, through the leverage over Pakistan’s military its substantial military aid provides.
One would think the sudden flowering of concern for human rights in Pakistan is a reflection of Musharaff doing a sudden about-face, but the Pakistani strongman is doing nothing new. He has been arresting opposition activists and blocking transmission of TV coverage critical of his rule for some time, and he has been doing so with the full knowledge of his paymasters in Washington. (Pakistanis call their president Busharraf, an acknowledgement of Musharraf’s role as a proxy for Washington.) Even so, the various left-wing groups, and the Western media, who seem to know no limit when it comes to denouncing Mugabe’s government for imagined lapses, have been largely silent on the human rights violations of Musharraf’s government, until now. Now that it serves US interests to harp on Musharraf’s generous abridgment of liberties in Pakistan in order to justify his removal have the Western media and pro-imperialist left decided to loudly condemn Musharraf.
While there are two state-owned newspapers in Zimbabwe, The Herald and Sunday Mail, most newspapers, including the Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard, Financial Gazette, The Zimbabwean and The Mail & Guardian of South Africa are pro-opposition and are sold freely on the streets. You would think, from the tales that are told about Zimbabwe, that there are no opposition newspapers and that they have all been closed by a tyrannical government that brooks no opposition. On the other hand, press freedoms are restricted in dozens of countries in which US strongmen rule as virtual dictators, and yet these affronts against freedom of the press are barely acknowledged, let alone condemned. This is another case of the Mugabe government being demonized for something it hasn’t done, while those who are actually engaged in practices the Mugabe government is accused of, get a pass because they are US client states.
The list of US allies that have jailed journalists or banned newspapers or both is endless. An impartial list, counting only recent crackdowns on press freedoms: Saudi Arabia, a human rights horror show if ever there was one, but one that rarely provokes much complaint from Western state officials, the media and the left groups that deplore the Mugabe government, recently banned a leading Arab newspaper, al-Hayat, because one of the newspaper’s columnists criticized the government.” (24) In September, Egypt’s Mubarak government sentenced four newspaper editors to one year jail sentences, and sentenced three journalists to two-year prison terms, because they criticized the government and made Mubarak look like a dictator. (25) In Georgia, the darling of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, has moved to crush the Rose Revolution II, in part by violently closing down the country’s most popular television station, because, he said, it was fomenting a coup. (26) Predictably, the people power enthusiasts who thrilled at protests against US target governments in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Zimbabwe, have shown no interest in the people power protests of Hezbollah supporters against the US-supported Lebanese government or of Georgians against Washington’s man in Tbilisi, Saakashvili. It seems that what represents a genuine expression of people power depends on whether it is instigated and bankrolled by the West and elevated to significance by the Western media.
Saakashvili deserves more attention from the anti-Mugabe left than he gets. The color revolution poster boy is described by many of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who marched against his government in early November in a way that is reminiscent of the picture the anti-Mugabe forces paint of Mugabe. He is described as “domineering and abrasive.” His opponents accuse him of “hoarding and abusing power, and of running the nation through a clique that will neither tolerate dissent nor engage in dialogue with the opposition, which Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly made clear he despises and considers weak.” On top of that “the government also faces pressure from rising prices and lingering underemployment” and “economic conditions remain difficult enough that many Georgians travel abroad for work.” (27) Surely, those who thunder against Mugabe should be expressing their outraged indignation at Saakashvili, for, in the real world, Saakashvili is all they imagine Mugabe to be. Tony Blair’s chief of staff for 10 years, Jonathan Powell, says that Britain should intervene militarily in Zimbabwe, rather than standing back and watching Zimbabweans suffer. (28) He’s silent on Georgia.
Charges of Economic Mismanagement
On top of accusing Mugabe of rigging elections, repressing the opposition and stifling a free press, the Zimbabwean president is also accused of grossly mismanaging the Zimbabwean economy, turning the breadbasket of southern Africa into a basket-case. Even if you show that all the other accusations against Mugabe are gross hyperbole at best, and that there are dozens of other governments doing with impunity what Mugabe’s government is falsely accused of, one charge remains: Mugabe has wrecked Zimbabwe’s economy by carrying out a misguided land redistribution program.
There’s no doubt Zimbabwe is in the grips on an economic crisis. Food and electricity shortages plague the country. But not all of Zimbabwe’s economic problems are unique. In fact, many of its problems are part of a wider pattern of scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa. Last summer, The Washington Post (29) pointed out that “daily power outages are forcing Zimbabweans to light fires to cook and to heat water.” The result is that wood poaching has stripped nearly 500 acres of conservation woodland. But what the Post didn’t point out was that it’s not only Zimbabweans, but people throughout sub-Saharan Africa, who are stripping forests bare to provide heat and cooking fuel. (30) Because rolling power blackouts are depriving southern Africans of electricity to cook their food, they’re turning to wood fires. Drought, climbing oil prices, and the chaos caused by the privatization of formerly state-owned power companies have created an “unprecedented” power crisis that not only affects Zimbabwe, but Zambia, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Togo. Even South Africa was hit by rolling blackouts in January and sporadic power failures continue to bedevil the country.
But it is in Zimbabwe alone that the electricity shortages are attributed to economic mismanagement. The Washington Post noted that Zimbabwe’s “power, water, health and communications systems are collapsing,” and that “there are acute shortages of staple foods and gasoline.” These problems are attributed to economic mismanagement and Harare’s land reform policies. But acute food and gasoline shortages are common to neighboring countries. If Zimbabwe is short of gasoline, “Uganda’s gas stations are…short of diesel for vehicles.” (31) If there are shortages of food staples in Zimbabwe, there are close to two dozen other sub-Saharan countries that are contending with food scarcity, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Since neighboring countries have not pursued Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform policies, and have tended to shy away from the economic indigenization policies Harare favors, gasoline, electricity and food shortages can hardly be attributed to policies uniquely pursued by Harare.
The US and its Western allies use sanctions to pressure Zimbabwe to adopt policies that welcome, promote and defend foreign ownership. The former US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, urged Mugabe to “implement the market reforms the IMF and others, including the United States, have been recommending.” Dell emphasized “the importance of a free-market economy and security of property,” which is to say, abandonment of the expropriation policies Harare has used to redistribute land to Africans. (32) It’s clear that sanctions would be lifted if Mugabe were to return Zimbabwe to neo-colonialism.
The sanctions, imposed by the US and EU, deny Zimbabwe access to international development aid. NGOs, following the Western governments that provide their funding, have also cut off assistance. These aren’t trade sanctions, but even so they have a devastating bite, making region-wide drought and the oil-price-rise-induced energy shortages more acute. It may seem as if Mugabe has mismanaged the economy, but Zimbabwe’s economic troubles are exogenous: drought and oil price increases, worsened by economic sanctions. In a pastoral letter issued last spring, 13 Anglican bishops and one canon of the Anglican Church, observed that Zimbabwe’s economic troubles have “been exacerbated by the economic sanctions imposed by the Western countries” which have “affected the poor Zimbabweans who have borne the brunt of the sanctions.” The clergymen called upon “the Western countries to lift the economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe.” (33) To paraphrase Tim Beal, who has followed the effects of sanctions on north Korea, sanctions have three great advantages for the West. They cause virtually no pain to Americans and Europeans, they produce no Western casualties, and the results – the misery of ordinary Zimbabweans – can be blamed on Mugabe, which in turn is produced as evidence the sanctions are desirable and necessary. (34)
Edward Herman points out that “in the real world, both Musharraf and the Shah of Iran fit comfortably the category of ‘cruel dictator,’ whereas (Iranian president Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad does not.” And yet when Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University this year he was a called a ‘cruel dictator’ by university president Lee Bollinger. When Musharraf visited Columbia, Bollinger showered the Pakistani strongman with praise, calling him “a leader of global importance” and gushed “it is rare we have a leader of his stature at campus.” (35) Likewise, while in the real world Musharraf, Mubarak and Seles fit the description of cruel dictators, Mugabe, who was elected in a contest the Southern African Development Community declared to be free and fair, does not. Still, if you polled 100 people who claim to be well-informed, 99 would, like Bollinger, echo a line that reflects the interests of Western powers in demonizing a leader who opposes “our interests” and “our values”, to borrow the rhetoric of Blair advisor Jonathan Powell. What it’s important to recognize is that “our” does not refer to you and me, but to the dominant economic interests of the US and Britain, who would profit from Mugabe adopting IMF reforms, a free market, and safeguarding the property rights (of foreign firms and descendants of European settlers.)
What Western state officials and the media who amplify their words say about Zimbabwe should be considered critically and treated with the skepticism that is due highly partial sources that have well-established records of making false accusations (Western governments) and uncritically propagating them (the Western media.) One need point no further than the weapons of mass destruction that never were to make the case that what the US and Britain say and the media passes on should be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism. In taking on the project of liberating the country from neo-colonial domination, the Mugabe government has challenged powerful interests in the West. We should expect that Western governments, Western news media and NGOs (which are funded by wealthy Westerners to promote their privileged interests under the guise of doing good works) to be hostile to the Mugabe government, and to portray it accordingly. By the same token, we should expect these same forces to portray the affronts against international law and civil and political liberties of states that act to defend and promote privileged interests in the West in a dispassionate, if not, apologetic manner, according them little notice. The Bollingers and Blairs of the world will continue to bestow honors and flattery upon cruel dictators who serve US and British interests, while reserving the label ‘cruel dictator’ for leaders of struggles against imperial domination. We need not follow the same pro-imperialist practice. Politicians, state officials, university presidents, CEOs, NGOs, and editorial writers are not politically neutral. When we mimic their positions on foreign affairs, we’re not showing solidarity with all oppressed people, though we might think we are in opposing the people dominant Western interests call ‘cruel dictators’. More often than not we’re showing solidarity with people who are accepting money from Western powers to oppose governments motivated by traditional leftist values of socialism or national liberation. At the same time, we’re failing to show solidarity with people oppressed by strongmen the US has brought to power to ensure Western corporate and financial interests prevail over the interests of local populations.
1. New York Times, April 15, 2007
2. Guardian, August 22, 2002
3. New York Times, September 20, 2006
4. Al-Ahram Weekly, February 21, 2007
5. Guardian, July 19, 2007
6. Washington Post, October 1, 2007
7. Los Angeles Times, August 14, 2007
8. Hajia Aminata Sow, “Zimbabwe: Burying the truth,” New African, November 2007
9. BBC, September 30, 2000
10. The Sunday Times, July 1, 2007
11. The Herald, April 15, 2007
12. Times Online, March 5, 2006
13. According to General Lord Charles Guthrie, The Sunday Mail, November 18, 2007
14. US State Department, “Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record, 2006”, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/shrd/2006/
15. New York Times, November 11, 2007
16. Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2007
17. New York Times, June 29, 2007
18. Hajia Aminata Sow
19. New York Times, May 10, 2007
20. Washington Post, November 14, 2007
21. New York Times, November 20, 2007
23. New York Times, December 14, 2006; Observer, September 10, 2006
24. Financial Times, August 29, 2007
25. Washington Post, October 1, 2007
26. New York Times, November 8, 2007; New York Times, November 18, 2007
27. New York Times, November 3, 2007
28. Jonathan Powell, “Why the West should not fear to intervene,” Observer, November 18, 2007
29. July 28, 2007
30. New York Times, July 29, 2007
32. Christopher Dell, “Response to Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe monetary policy statement,” February 7, 2007
33. Pastoral letter issued by 14 Anglican bishops and one canon of the Anglican Church, Province of Central Africa, April 12, 2007
34. Pyongyang Report, October, 2007, http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~caplabtb/dprk/pyr9_4.mht
35. “More Nuggets From A Nut House, reprinted from Z Magazine at http://www.globalresearch.ca, November 17, 2007
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.