Category Archives: US Foreign Policy

Keeping the spotlight on the West’s ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Syria

Keeping the spotlight on the West’s ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21-22 January 2023

Amnesty International’s 1991 Annual Report should be required reading for all media studies and journalism students.

“The Iraqi Government headed by President Saddam Hussein had been committing gross and widespread human rights abuses” in the 1980s, including using chemical weapons, the human rights organisation explained.

The report goes onto note Amnesty International publicised gruesome evidence of the atrocities and appealed directly to the United Nations Security Council in 1988 to take urgent action. “However, the world’s governments and media took only token interest, and none of the UN bodies took action.”

Then something happened. “The response to Amnesty International’s information on Iraq changed dramatically on 2 August 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait.”

“Suddenly, the telephones at the organization’s International Secretariat in London were busy with inquiries about Iraq’s human rights record. Pictures of the victims of chemical weapons appeared widely on television. Exiled Kurds, who had battled for so long to have their stories heard, were invited to speak to the media. Amnesty International’s own reporting of the abuses perpetrated in Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion made front pages across the world”.

What Amnesty International doesn’t mention is the shameful support given to Hussein in the 1980s by the US and UK, meaning it was in their interest not to draw attention to the Iraqi leader’s atrocities. However, in August 1990 Iraq’s human rights record suddenly became useful to the UK and US governments.

This is a textbook example of the propaganda role played by the UK media – how their laser-like focus on human rights abuses is switched on (and off) depending on the UK government’s interests, and not because of anything to do with the human rights abuses themselves.

This sudden shift also occurs after Western military intervention ends. Take, for example, what happened following the saturation news coverage of the Gulf War when deadly US-UK-led UN sanctions were levelled on Iraq in the 1990s.

“During the worst years of the sanctions, the Western media largely ignored the horrifying impact in terms of hunger, disease and physical and mental stunting of Iraqi children – and hundreds of thousands of child deaths,” Milan Rai, the founder of Voices in the Wilderness UK, which campaigned against the sanctions, tells me. “On our sanctions-breaking visits to Iraq as part of the Voices in the Wilderness campaign, we would often be accompanied to children’s wards by journalists from other parts of the world, such as TV Globo from Brazil, but rarely by media from our own countries, the US and the UK.”

Similarly, once Muammar Gaddafi had been lynched in October 2011, and Libya supposedly liberated, the UK media’s attention quickly shifted away from the collapse of the North African country, despite – or because of? – the US-UK-NATO playing a key role in destroying Libya as a viable state.

Today, Afghanistan and Syria have the unfortunate distinction of being nations the Western media, after a period of intense coverage, has largely forgotten about, even though the US, supported by its faithful lapdog the UK, continues to ravage these nations.

In Afghanistan “nearly 19 million people are estimated to remain acutely food insecure in the second half of 2022, with nearly 6 million people still considered to be on the brink of famine,” the Disasters Emergency Committee warned in November.

In August 2022 United Nations special representative Dr Ramiz Alakbarov said “the situation can be best described as a pure catastrophe… you’ve seen people selling organs, you’ve seen people selling children.” (Hat tip: these two quotes were published in Peace News newspaper).

The same month, Vicki Aken, the Afghanistan country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), explained the causes of the humanitarian emergency: “At the root of this crisis is the country’s economic collapse. Decisions taken last year to isolate the Taliban – including the freezing of foreign reserves, the grounding of the banking system, and the halting of development assistance which financed most government services – have had a devastating impact.”

To be clear, it the US, UK and other Western countries who have undertaken these actions, following the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan in August 2021. After speaking to several international experts, in December 2021 the Guardian reported “large parts of Afghanistan’s health system are on the brink of collapse because of western sanctions against the Taliban”. Even David Miliband, the warmongering ex-UK Foreign Secretary and now CEO of the IRC, understands the West’s culpability. “We are not punishing the Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans that are paying the price of peace,” he told the Guardian in February 2022. “It is not just a catastrophe of choice, but a catastrophe of reputation. This is a starvation policy.”

Shockingly, in February 2022 US President Joe Biden signed an executive order releasing some of the $7bn in frozen Afghan reserves held in the US to be given to American victims of terrorism, including relatives of 9/11 victims.

In Syria successive waves of Western sanctions have broadened in number and scope over time, a 2022 UNICEF discussion paper explained. “Initially targeting individuals at the beginning of the conflict in 2011” the sanctions implemented under the 2019 US Caesar Act targeted “Syrian government’s financial resources, economic foundations and external actors dealing with the Syrian government.” In addition to these direct targets, the sanctions “create a ‘chilling effect’ that discourages technically legal transactions that business judge to be too risky,” researcher Sam Heller explained in a 2021 report for The Century Foundation US think-tank. This “raises the cost” of “even humanitarian transactions”, he noted.

The same year the World Food Programme estimated 12.4 million Syrians – nearly 60 percent of the population – were food insecure.

After interviewing more than 24 humanitarian aid workers, diplomats and aid workers, in his report Heller noted “The deterioration of Syrian food security is the product of many factors. It is, foremost, the result of an economic crisis that has overtaken Syria since 2019, and the dramatic depreciation of the national currency. Many Syrians can simply no longer afford to feed their families… key imports have also been disrupted, including wheat needed for bread; and fuel, whose scarcity has affected food supply and prices.”

“All this has been exacerbated by Western sanctions on Syria,” he stated.

Similarly, a 2021 report written by Zaki Mehchy and Dr Rim Turkmani for the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics noted sanctions “have directly contributed to… a massive deterioration in the formal economy associated with a weakening of legitimate business and civil society, and increased suffering of ordinary people.”  (Incidentally, the report also argues sanctions have contributed to “greater reliance of the Syrian regime on Russia and Iran, and less political leverage for Western countries” and “the establishment and strengthening of a network of warlords and ‘cronies’ with a vested interest in regime survival and a criminalised economy”).

The role of western sanctions in creating extreme hardship for ordinary Syrians has been understood for years. In 2016 The Intercept obtained an internal email written by “a key UN official” that cited the sanctions as a “principal factor” in the erosion of the country’s health care system. And a 2017 Reuters report was titled Syria Sanctions Indirectly Hit Children’s Cancer Treatment.

More recently, after a fact-finding mission to Syria in November, Alena Douhan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures, concluded “Primary unilateral sanctions, secondary sanctions, threats of sanctions, de-risking policies and over-compliance with sanctions have been exacerbating Syria’s humanitarian crisis, which is already affected by 12 years of conflict and terrorist activity, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19, a growing economic crisis in the region, and millions of IDPs and refugees.”

She went on to note “the imposed sanctions have shattered the State’s capability to respond to the needs of the population, particularly the most vulnerable, and 90% of the people now live below the poverty line.”

I’m not aware of any polling done on the US and UK public’s awareness of the West’s role in intensifying these two humanitarian crises but given the paucity of media coverage it seems likely it’s very low.

So UK anti-war and peace activists have an important job to do: push past the media’s indifference and concentrate the public’s gaze on the continuing deadly impacts of Western foreign policy in Afghanistan and Syria.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Yemen’s Forgotten Children

Yemen’s Forgotten Children
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 December 2022

With Christmas and New Year very much centred around children, how many of us have given a thought over the holiday season to the children of Yemen?

I recently gained an insight into the horrific conditions in the troubled Middle East nation when I watched Hunger Ward. Released in 2020, the MTV documentary is filmed inside two therapeutic feeding centres in Yemen, following two women healthcare workers treating starving children in the midst of the war.

Just 40 minutes long, it’s a harrowing, heart-breaking watch: we see resuscitation being carried out on a baby, and the family wailing in grief after the child dies.

“These children are dying as a result of malnutrition,” Mekkia Mahdi, a nurse who manages the largest network of rural malnutrition clinics in North Yemen, explains. She scrolls through photos of children on her phone: “Amal died, Ibrahim died, Fatima died.”

While Yemen has long been impoverished, the military intervention by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in March 2015 against the Houthi rebels, who had recently ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, massively intensified the death and destruction. The fighting continues, with Saudi Arabia undertaking a huge bombing campaign, along with an air, sea and land blockade. “Conflict remains the primary underlying driver of hunger in Yemen,” 30 NGOs operating in Yemen, including the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted in September.

In October the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned the situation in Yemen remained the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. According to a November briefing from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), 17 million Yemenis, over half of the population, are estimated to be food insecure, with 3.5 million acutely malnourished.

“Malnutrition rates among women and children in Yemen remain among the highest in the world,” the WFP reports. “1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under 5 requiring treatment for acute malnutrition.”

Sadly, there is no shortage of horrifying statistics highlighting the plight of Yemen’s children. An estimated 77 per cent of the 4.3 million people displaced in Yemen are women and children, according to ReliefWeb, the information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2018 Save the Children reported that “an estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger” since April 2015.

By the end of 2021 the United Nations Development Programme estimated the number of direct and indirect deaths due to the war was 377,000. “Of the total deaths, 259,000 – nearly 70 per cent of total conflict-attributable deaths – are children younger than five years old,” the report noted.

Shamefully, the UK (and US) has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in fuelling the conflict, and therefore bears significant responsibility for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

Asked by Majella magazine in 2018 “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?” Alistair Burt MP, then UK Minister of State for the Middle East, replied “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

For once, a Tory politician was telling the truth. In September the Campaign Against Arms Trade estimated that since March 2015 the UK government has licensed at least £23 billion of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. However, as Burt intimates, UK support goes far beyond just selling weapons. “Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors,” Arron Merat noted in the Guardian in 2019. Appearing in the Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Hidden War the same year, a former Saudi Air Force officer noted Saudi Arabia “can’t keep the [British-made] Typhoon [aircraft] in the air without the British. The pilots they can’t fly it without maintenance and without the logistics.”

We also know British military personnel are based in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes, and have access to target lists. And according to a 2019 Daily Mail report British Special Boat Service soldiers are on the ground in Yemen, operating as Forward Air Controllers, requesting air support from the Royal Saud Air Force. On the world stage, the UK provides diplomatic cover for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing slaughter. “The UK is the penholder at the UN over Yemen [the lead country on the security council, with the power to draft resolutions and statements], and some former Conservative cabinet ministers, notably Andrew Mitchell, say Britain has been protecting Saudi Arabia from criticism there,” the Guardian reported in 2018.

All of this extensive support is the reason Dr David Wearing, Lecturer in Lecturer in International Relation at the University of Sussex and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, argued in 2018 “The reality is that Washington and London could have stopped the Saudis’ war any time they liked.”

As well as footage from medical centres, Hunger Ward also highlights an aerial bombing of a funeral, showing distressing camera phone footage taken by a survivor in the immediate aftermath of the attack. It was a ‘double tap’ airstrike, the second strike commonly understood to target those coming to the aid of the initial victims.

“The world needs to know the depth of the Yemeni people’s suffering,” the man pleads.

The problem is polling conducted by YouGov in 2017 found just 49 per cent of Britons were aware of the war in Yemen – something that should mortify everybody who works in the mainstream media.

Frustratingly, the rare times the war is reported on, the UK role is often omitted. For example, a 2022 episode of the BBC World Service Inquiry programme, titled What Will End The War In Yemen?  and presented by journalist Tanya Beckett, made no mention of the massive UK (and US) involvement. One can only imagine the depth of ideological training and education necessary for a BBC journalist to ignore the UK’s enabling role.

Of course, some wars –and victims – are more newsworthy than others. Indeed, an analysis of the scale and quality of media coverage given to the Russian attack on Ukraine compared to the Saudi-led attack on Yemen would make an illuminating PhD research project. In terms of solidarity from Britons, Ukraine has been very lucky, with supportive street demonstrations, people flying Ukrainian flags from their homes and on their Twitter profiles, record-breaking donations to humanitarian organisations working to help Ukrainians, and warmly welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the UK.

Far from being apathetic, this shows the British public’s humanity and concern can be lifted to unexpected heights by extensive media coverage of injustice and suffering. With last year’s temporary ceasefire in Yemen having now lapsed, what we now need to do is expand our sympathy and outrage to include those in Yemen, especially Yemeni children, whose lives are being destroyed by the UK’s abhorrent foreign policy.

Hunger Ward can be watched for free on Pluto TV: https://pluto.tv/en/search. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock

Book review. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2022-January 2023

In 2019 the Washington Post published a treasure trove of documents which proved ‘US officials had repeatedly lied to the public about what was happening in Afghanistan, just as they had in Vietnam.’ This industrial-scale deception was spread across the three presidencies of Bush, Obama and Trump.

The papers included notes from over 1,000 interviews with people who played a direct role in the war – taken from huge Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports unearthed by Freedom of Information lawsuits, Army oral history interviews, Defense Department memos and testimony from senior members of the Bush Administration.

Now summarised in book form, the vast majority of people quoted are from the US military and government, which means the criticisms are highly circumscribed. The gap between rosy official statements and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is repeatedly highlighted, as is the level of cultural ignorance and bureaucratic inefficiency exhibited by Western forces. However, the idea the military occupation itself was the fundamental driver of the insurgency is never seriously considered.

A veteran Washington Post journalist, Craig Whitlock himself occasionally reveals his own ideological blinkers. Describing Bush’s publicly stated aim of transforming Afghanistan as ‘noble and high-minded’, he notes the US ‘inadvertently built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government’ and ‘tolerated’ warlords. This massively downplays US culpability – only a few pages earlier he explains the CIA ‘dangling bags of cash as a lure… recruitedwar criminals, drug traffickers, smugglers’, including Abdul Rashid Dotsum, a notoriously brutal warlord, who received $70,000 a month from the CIA, according to a 2014 Washington Post report.

The most eye-opening chapters are those on US-assisted corruption and the strained relations between the US and the increasingly independent Hamid Karzai, leader of Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014. For example, before the 2009 Afghan presidential election, Obama’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke encouraged other candidates to stand to reduce the chances of Karzai winning. Later Karzai impeded the signing of a US-Afghan security pact which would authorise the US to keep troops in the country after 2014, insisting US soldiers be banned from raiding Afghan homes. In response the US threatened to withdraw all of their forces. Karzai prevailed in this dispute, though the US signed the agreement with Karzai’s successor in 2014.

With in-depth references and copious quotes from government documents there is lots of interesting information here. However, there is a frustrating lack of joined-up thinking. If the US repeatedly tried to force Karzai’s hand what does it say about the US’s so-called democracy promotion?

And other than a couple of passing mentions, Whitlock never properly explores why the US government repeatedly lied – because they feared US (and European) publics would turn against the war. It is this insight – that domestic public opinion is always a crucial battleground in Western wars – that is arguably the most important message peace and anti-war activists can take from the book.

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 November 2022

Since 1976 the award-winning US media watchdog Project Censored has printed an annual list of the most under-reported news stories in the US media – the “news that didn’t make the news”.

Should someone start publishing a similar book about the UK media, the top under-reported story of 2022 will almost certainly be the news the UK government worked to prevent a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war in March-April 2022.

Here’s what we know.

Following Russia’s aggressive and illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, in March Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Istanbul for talks. On 17 March a Sky News headline summarised: “‘15-point’ peace deal being ‘seriously discussed’ as Putin says he’s ‘ready to talk’”.

The deal included “a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal, with Kyiv having to accept neutrality and curbs on its armed forces,” the report noted. “Citing three sources involved in the negotiations, the FT [Financial Times] said Ukraine would have to give up its bid to join NATO – something Mr Zelenskyy has already hinted at.”

“It would also have to promise not to allow foreign military bases or weaponry into the country in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey.”

Quoted in a 20 March Al-Jazeera report, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated “We see that the parties are close to an agreement”.

This is also the conclusion of Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist in the Bush and Obama Administrations, and Angela Stent, an ex-Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. Writing in the September/October issue of the establishment Foreign Affairs magazine after having spoken to “multiple former senior US officials”, they note “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement” in April 2022. “Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, where it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”

However, in May the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, citing “sources close to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy,” reported UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “appeared in the capital [Kyiv] almost without warning” on 9 April, bringing “two simple messages.”

“The first is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not.”

According to the Ukrainska Pravda – described by Encyclopædia Britannica as “one of Ukraine’s most-respected news sites” – “Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelenskyy should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to ‘press him.’”

Three days after Johnson returned to the UK Putin said the talks “had turned into a dead end”. In September Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that “the Americans and the British… forbade Ukraine to conduct further dialogue with Russia” and “since then, the Ukrainian authorities have been shying away from negotiation process.”

Of course, hopefully it goes without saying we should be highly sceptical of public statement from Putin and Lavrov, especially about their willingness to seriously pursue a negotiated settlement. And it should also be noted that the Ukrainska Pravda also reported that Russian atrocities in Bucha and other locations in Ukraine affected the course of the peace talks.

But as the Morning Star is a British newspaper, and as I am a British citizen, let’s get back to the actions of the UK and the US. Johnson publicly confirmed his opposition to talks during a trip to India later in April, telling reporters that negotiating with Putin was like dealing with “a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaws,” according to Reuters.

Why did the UK government try to torpedo the peace talks? The answer likely lies in the references above to the “collective West” and the opportunity to “press” Putin. As Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA under President Barack Obama, explained in March: the conflict is “a proxy war with Russia whether we say so or not.”

This fits with comments made by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference in Poland in late April. Asked whether the US aims had shifted since February, he replied the US supported Ukraine in retaining its sovereignty and defending its territory, before adding a second, previously unstated, goal: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, concurs with this “proxy war” framing, writing in May that “For NATO, the payoff has been damaging some of the most important parts of the Russian military – its ground and mechanized forces, its airborne units, its special operations forces – so badly that it may take them years to recover.”

However, while the West has continued to ramp up their military support for Ukraine, there are increasing calls for the US – and UK – to change their position and make a serious diplomatic push for peace negotiations.

Commenting on Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons, in October Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told ABC News “We’re about at the top of the language scale, if you will. And I think we need to back off that a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing… the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Speaking to Newsweek magazine about President Biden’s comment that he was “trying to figure out what is Putin’s offramp”, a “senior intelligence officer” said “We have the power to influence how that offramp might work. I’m not comfortable criticizing a president, as if I’m some partisan animal, but we are just not doing enough.”

A “senior military source” quoted by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman last month made the same point: “Military action is ineffective on its own. It’s only truly effective when it’s combined with economic and diplomatic efforts. And we’re not seeing enough diplomacy.”

Tellingly, I didn’t find out about Johnson attempting to block peace negotiations from the UK’s famously stroppy and disputatious Fourth Estate but from small, progressive publications and writers – namely Milan Rai at Peace News and Branko Marcetic from Jacobin magazine.

With the war dangerously escalating and President Biden warning the world is the closest it’s been to nuclear “Armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis, concerned citizens simply cannot afford to rely on the mainstream media to gain an accurate understanding of the world.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution by Nils Melzer

Book review. The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution by Nils Melzer
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2022

Opening with a quote from Otto Gritschneder – ‘Those who sleep in a democracy will wake up in a dictatorship’ – Nils Melzer notes his newis intended as ‘an urgent appeal… a wake up call to the general public’.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2016 until March 2022, Melzer provides a damning indictment of the US, UK, Sweden and Ecuador for their treatment of Wikileaks founder Assange. Writing in methodical and accessible language, he runs through the key events, starting with Wikileaks momentous work with Western media outlets in 2010 to publish the leaked US Afghanistan and Iraq war logs and diplomatic cables. Describing Assange as a ‘high-tech terrorist’, in 2010 then US Vice-President Joe Biden said ‘he has made it difficult to conduct our business with our allies and our friends… it has done damage.’

In August 2010 the Swedish authorities opened an investigation into allegations of sexual assault by Assange, and two years later he took refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. When he was forcibly removed from the embassy in April 2019 the US quickly issued an extradition request, charging him with violating the 1917 Espionage Act. Since then Assange has been incarcerated in the UK’s high-security Belmarsh prison as the legal battles over his fate play out.

Interestingly, Melzer himself initially dismissed requests to investigate the case, believing Assange to be ‘a rapist, hacker, spy, and narcissist.’ However, he eventually relented, visiting Assange in Belmarsh in May 2019, after which he wrote to the UK government arguing Assange had been exposed to ‘various forms and degrees of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment… which clearly amount to psychological torture.’ For Melzer, this is ‘a story of political persecution’, a deliberate attempt to deter other journalists and activists from challenging US power.

He is particularly critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of events, noting that just one journalist turned up to the press briefing he had organised during his visit to Assange – from Ruptly, a subsidiary of the Russian television network RT. Later he highlights how the three leading Russian newspapers printed a coordinated protest against the arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov by Putin’s government in 2019: ‘Without a doubt, a comparable joint action of solidarity by the Guardian, the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post would put an immediate end to the persecution of Julian Assange,’ he argues.

Though Melzer includes a list of key documents, the lack of references is frustrating. Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced his extensive, highly censorious examination of the sexual assault allegations is wise, or falls within his area of professional expertise (one of the women who accused Assange wrote to Melzer in 2020 criticising his public statements about the case).

Nevertheless, with Home Secretary Priti Patel recently approving Assange’s extradition to the US, where he could face up to 175 years in prison, The Trial of Julian Assange is an incredibly important, myth-busting book – especially when you consider Melzer’s job title. As he notes, ‘At stake is nothing less than the future of democracy.’

Book review. The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan

Book review. The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2022

Presumably hastily put together after the disorderly US-UK-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, The Ledger is written by two advisors to the Western militaries and Afghan government: David Kilcullen and Greg Mills. Their roles gave the pair an enviable level of access to top level US-UK government and military sources, whom they cite regularly, but is also likely a key reason why their analysis is so restricted, generally limited to what Noam Chomsky calls the ‘fight it better’ school of criticism.

Kilcullen and Mills provide a number of reasons for the West’s failure including: an absence of strategy and political leadership, shifting war aims, a refusal to stay in Afghanistan for the long-term, insufficient troop numbers, underestimating the Taliban, and failing to address a key source of support for the insurgency – Pakistan.

As the endorsements from the UK chief of defence staff and former US chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff make clear, this isn’t a book written for peace activists. Nevertheless, it does contain some useful information.

For example, in December 2001, after the US-led invasion and defeat of the Taliban, anti-Taliban Afghan leader Hamid Karzai pushed for peace negotiations with the Taliban. This move was blocked by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

This was a huge missed opportunity – the war’s ‘original sin’, according to United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi – opening the door to 20 years of death and destruction.

How Rumsfeld overriding Karzai’s wishes fits with the authors’ claim elsewhere that a central objective of the US-led occupation was ‘promoting democracy’ is never explained.

Elsewhere, Killcullen and Mills mention in passing that the reduction of Western advisors and contractors in the last two years of the Obama administration ‘was driven by American domestic politics.’

This is a significant and hopeful acknowledgement for peace activists, and fits with evidence public opinion had a constraining influence on British forces in Afghanistan (see PN 2644 – 2645).

Frustratingly, the authors ignore a lot of important arguments and information. The high levels of violence meted out by US-UK forces is barely mentioned, while the idea that a police operation should have been conducted to capture the perpetrators of 9/11 is never considered, nor the argument that it was the military occupation itself that was the root problem.

Those interested in reading more critical analyses of the war in Afghanistan should seek out Fred Ledwidge’s Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War (Yale University Press, 2013) or Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls (Seven Stories, 2006).

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system

The Russian attack on Ukraine and the Western propaganda system
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 March 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the criminal barbarity of the Russian government and the leadership of its armed forces.

On 8 March Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said two million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian attack on 24 February. The same day the World Health Organisation reported attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other healthcare facilities had surged, and the International Committee of the Red Cross described the conditions in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as “apocalyptic”. On 10 March the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 564 civilian deaths, with close to 1,000 injured.

In addition to this horror, the crisis has also highlighted the extraordinary power and influence of the mainstream media. In particular, it has proven the continuing relevance of Edward Herman’s and Noam Chomsky’s analysis in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: A Political Economy of the Mass Media. “A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy”, the argue. “The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.”

Following this framing, the Ukrainians under Russian attack are, rightly, considered worthy victims. For example, as of 11 March, the Guardian has devoted no less than 13 pages in the news section of each day’s newspaper to the crisis since Russia’s invasion (not counting the extensive coverage in the Finance, Sports and G2 sections of the paper, and the many op-ed columns and editorials devoted to the topic). Media watchdog Media Lens has highlighted a similar level of coverage on the BBC News website, noting the first 26 stories on the BBC News’s home page on 27 February were devoted to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

As well as focussing on the military situation, the Guardian has provided extensive coverage of the refugee crisis and civilians living under Russian bombardment, focussing on personal, often heart-breaking stories. It has published powerful front page images of people injured in Russian airstrikes and covered debates in parliament about how many Ukrainian refugees the UK should take in. The ongoing protests in Russia against the invasion have also been reported, while columnists and reporters have shown understandable outrage and indignation about Russia’s attack. There have also been reports on moves to get the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court to address Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

All this coverage has led to an extraordinary – and very welcome – show of solidarity and support for Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression. The UK and other nations have delivered significant amounts of arms to the Ukrainian forces, aid has been sent to assist refugees, protests have been held across the country, and many corporations, under public pressure, have stopped doing business with or in Russia.

However, as Herman and Chomsky intimate, we should not forget the people considered unworthy victims by the media propaganda system. These tend to be non-white people in the Global South who are on the business end of Western military and corporate power, either directly or indirectly through the West’s clients.

For example, since 2016 the United Nations has repeatedly described Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”. 377,000 people have been killed, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease, since Saudi Arabia’s military intervention began in March 2015, according to the United Nations. In March 2021 Save The Children estimated that over the past three years almost one in four civilian casualties in Yemen were children. In 2019 the World Health Organisation reported an estimated 24.4 million Yemenis –roughly 80 percent of Yemen’s total population – needed humanitarian assistance to survive.

By supporting the Saudi intervention, both diplomatically and militarily, the UK and US bear significant responsibility for the continuation of the carnage in Yemen. However, as per Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, apart from a few honourable exceptions, the UK media has largely ignored the slaughter in Yemen.

Take the Guardian, which is generally viewed as the most anti-establishment mainstream newspaper. It has published some in-depth, on the ground reporting from Iona Craig and Bethan McKernan. However, all too often the Guardian’s news reports on Yemen are buried deep inside the paper. On 20 February 2021 a report with the frightening headline Yemen At Risk Of World’s Worst Famine In Decades was published on page 28, while a tiny report titled Cholera: Yemen On Course For Catastrophe appeared on page 27 of the 29 July 2020 edition of the paper.

Sometimes this media’s laser-like focus on worthy victims becomes too much to take. For example, on 10 March the first two headlines during the BBC Today Programme 8 am news were the Ukrainian president saying a Russian attack on maternity hospital was a war crime, and that Russia had been accused of deploying powerful vacuum bombs in Ukraine. All of which is important news, of course.

However, in 2019 The Yemeni Archive, a Danish-based database project tracking human rights violations in the war, stated the Saudi-led coalition was allegedly responsible for 72 attacks on medical facilities in Yemen, while Action on Armed Violence confirms the US has previously dropped vacuum bombs – AKA thermobaric weapons, which take oxygen from the air around them to create an explosion with a more deadly blast wave – in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t have a time machine but I’m willing to bet none of the Saudi and US actions made it into a BBC News headline at the time.

One conclusion seems inescapable: if the war in Yemen received the level and quality of media coverage Ukraine has had for just a couple of days the UK would be forced to end its support for Saudi Arabia. This would mean the end of the Saudi bombardment of Yemen as they wouldn’t have the crucial UK logistical support they need to continue their air war, as one BAE employee explained to Channel 4’s Dispatches in 2019.

In case it is not already clear, I am not arguing the media shouldn’t focus on the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine. I am arguing the media should also be focusing on the atrocities the UK is helping Saudi Arabia commit in Yemen.

Indeed, a case can be made that the media have a responsibility to focus more on Yemen than Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been fuelled by the UK, the home country of the UK media, and the vast majority of its journalists and audience. It is where we pay our taxes and have the greatest opportunity to impact government policy. And while stopping the Russian government’s attack on Ukraine will be a very difficult task, ending the Saudi attack on Yemen is comparatively simple: the UK just needs to stop providing support to Saudi Arabia.

So, yes, of course we should all show solidarity and support for Ukrainians under Russian attack. But at the same time we would do well to understand, as Herman and Chomsky argue, that the media coverage of the conflict “is evidence of an extremely effective propaganda system.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.


How do we stop the UK enabling the bloodbath in Yemen?

How do we stop the UK enabling the bloodbath in Yemen?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 February 2022

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military intervention and blockade in Yemen, the horror continues.

By the end of 2021 the United Nations Development Programme estimated 377,000 people had been killed in Yemen, either directly through violence or indirectly through hunger and disease. This follows 2018 analysis from Save the Children that estimated “85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger since the war in Yemen escalated” in March 2015 with the Saudi involvement. More broadly, in September 2021 the United Nations World Food Programme warned that 16 million Yemenis – over half the population – were “marching toward starvation”. And in 2018 Mark Lowcock, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said Yemen was dealing with “what most people think is the biggest epidemic of cholera outbreak the world has seen.”

Unsurprisingly, the United Nations calls Yemen “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

According to Saudi Arabia, their intervention started in support of Yemen President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been overthrown by Houthi rebels. Working with a coalition of Middle East states (including Egypt, UAE and Kuwait), and backed by the US and UK, Saudi Arabia has been bombing and blockading Yemen, long known as the poorest country in the Middle East.

Speaking to the Guardian’s Owen Jones, Sam Perlo-Freeman from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) noted “The Saudis are maintaining [the blockade] without suffering any consequences or diplomatic efforts. The attention given by the world’s powers to end the war or at the least the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is woefully inadequate to nonexistent.”

This is especially pertinent to the UK’s role in the conflict, as the UK is the “penholder” on Yemen at the UN Security Council. “That means that the UK has the power to draft and table Security Council products on Yemen – including press statements, resolutions, and presidential statements, and more,” Save the Children explains. “It means they have the power to lead the way in efforts to forge a political, not military, solution to the conflict.”

But the UK’s role in Yemen goes far beyond refusing to act to end the fighting – the UK has actively worked to shield Saudi Arabia from criticism. For example, in 2018 the Guardian noted the UN Security Council “failed to agree to a statement calling on forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to implement a ceasefire, with the US and UK both voicing opposition to the text introduced by Sweden.”

This is unsurprising when you consider the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated in March 2015 that “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

With the UK one of the leading arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, in January CAAT reported “the published value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi-led coalition since the bombing began in March 2015 is £6.9 billion”. However, CAAT themselves estimate the real value of UK arms to Saudi Arabia to be over £20 billion.

And as Hammond explains, UK support goes beyond arms sales, providing personnel and technical expertise to keep the Saudi assault going. Writing in the Guardian in 2019, Arron Merat notes “around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia”, where they train pilots and carry out essential maintenance on the planes. In 2016 the Telegraph reported British (and US) military officials were working in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes on Yemen, which included access to lists of targets. After conducting a survey of Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, in 2016 the Yemen Data Project, a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists, noted more than one-third of air raids on Yemen had hit civilian sites, such as hospitals, schools, mosques, markets and economic infrastructure.

“The Saudi bosses absolutely depend on [UK arms company] BAE Systems. They couldn’t do it without us,” John Deverell, the ex-defence attache to Saudi Arabia, told Merat. Appearing in a 2019 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary a BAE employee explained “If we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky.”

Moreover, it seems British troops have actually been fighting on the ground in Yemen, with the Mail on Sunday reporting in 2019 “at least five British Special Forces commandos have been wounded in gun battles as part of a top-secret UK military campaign”. According to the article “the SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include medics, translators and Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Despite this deep involvement, frustratingly YouGov polls in 2017 and 2018 found a large section of the UK public was not even aware the war was happening. That luxury is not available to Yemenis.

“The 70% of Yemenis living in Houthi rebel-controlled areas are well aware it is nations such as the UK that enable bombing raids on their weddings, hospitals and schoolchildren,” Bethan McKernan reported in the Guardian last year. “Technical information and serial numbers from missile parts are easily traced to western arms manufacturers, and many families hang on to such evidence in the hope that one day, justice for their loved ones will be served.”

So far the British left, anti-war and peace movement have been unable to stop the UK’s complicity in the slaughter in Yemen. It came close in 2019, when the government was forced to temporarily suspend new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after a legal challenge from CAAT led to the court of appeal ruling British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful. And there have been other impressive acts of resistance, including British soldier Ahmed al-Babati courageously protesting in Whitehall against Britain’s involvement in the war, and peace activist Sam Walton’s attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi general in London in 2017.

So what is to be done? How can the anti-war movement increase the public’s awareness – and anger – about Britain’s role helping to escalate the conflict, and therefore exacerbate the catastrophe?

It would be unwise to expect help from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which obviously doesn’t see the destruction of Yemen as a priority. In February 2021 Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard noted the Labour leader had “tweeted the word ‘Yemen’ once in history.”

Ditto the corporate media, including much of the liberal commentariat, which has all too often mirrored the British elite’s indifference to Yemen – a point Florian Zollmann, a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, made to me in 2018.

“Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force,” he noted. “Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.”

The editor of Interventions Watch blog recently noted the journalist Paul Mason had sent just three tweets including the word “Yemen” since the start of the Saudi intervention in March 2015. Similarly, a search in early February showed senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland has tweeted about Yemen five times in the same period – less than once every year of the conflict. In comparison, Mason had sent 18 tweets including the word “Russia” since the start of 2022 alone.

As is often the case, any shift in UK policy on Yemen will likely come down to the size and effectiveness of grassroots activism and pressure. The British left needs to make Yemen a campaigning priority. Perhaps the war should be a central focus for Jeremy Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project, which feels it has a huge amount of unrealised potential.

Could 2022 be the year the UK is forced to end its crucial role in enabling the world’s largest humanitarian crisis?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty

The Curious Incident of the Missing Article of the Russian Treaty
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22-23 January 2022

Last month Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial International, the nation’s oldest human rights group, which was devoted to researching and recording crimes committed in the Soviet Union.

“It is not hard to see how Putin, mired in historical conflicts over Crimea, Nato expansion and the fall of the Soviet Union, the second world war and more, sees investigation of Soviet history as a threat to national security”, the Guardian noted.

Back in the UK, such overt, authoritarian censorship is rarely deployed by the government. As George Orwell argued in his unpublished preface to his 1945 novella Animal Farm, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” he explains, the dominant orthodoxy and wealthy press owners creating an environment in which there is “a general tacit agreement that ʻit wouldn’t doʼ to mention” particular facts.

Over 75 years later and Orwell’s pithy analysis is as relevant as ever. “The wildest thing about Western establishment media is its journalists aren’t even working under threat of prison or violence,” Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard tweeted about the fawning media coverage of ex-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who died in October. “They do state propaganda – and sanitise our worst war criminals – totally off their own back. Incredible discipline and dedication to serving power.”

A good example of the propagandistic nature of the UK media is its coverage of the draft agreement Russia presented to the United States on 17 December – titled Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Russian Federation On Security Guarantees (Russia also presented a draft security agreement to NATO).

With tensions rising over Ukraine, amongst other things the draft text calls for an end to further eastward expansion of NATO, no US bases established in former USSR states and that “The Parties shall not use the territories of other States with a view to preparing or carrying out an armed attack against the other Party or other actions affecting core security interests of the other Party.”

Article 7 of the treaty is particularly interesting: “The Parties shall refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and return such weapons already deployed outside their national territories at the time of the entry into force of the Treaty to their national territories”.

For anyone interested in reducing the threat of nuclear war, this sounds like an extremely sane, fair proposal. As the Morning Star recently reported, US nuclear weapons are currently based in Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Russia does not currently station any nuclear weapons outside of Russia. Interestingly, a January 2021 YouGov poll found 74% of Italian respondents, 58% of Dutch and 57% of Belgians wanted US nuclear weapons removed from their countries. A July 2020 Kantar poll found 83% of Germans also supported the removal of US nuclear weapons from their country.

However, after conducting searches of Google and the Lexis-Nexus newspaper database, as far as I can tell the existence of Article 7 has only been acknowledged by two national newspapers in the UK – the Morning Star and the Financial Times, in one report on 17 December. Despite devoting a huge amount of column inches to the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia, the Guardian, Independent, Times, Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express do not seem to have mentioned Article 7. (A caveat: on 10 January the Guardian did briefly mention Russia’s demand for ”the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe”, which nods to the content of Article 7, though ignores US nuclear weapons in Turkey and, more importantly, erroneously presents the demand as one-sided).

This press blackout is important because productive and fair public debate requires an informed citizenry and politicians. What happens when the media do not report key facts? How are citizens and politicians supposed to make informed decisions about current affairs?

The memory holing of Article 7 echoes the British public’s broader ignorance surrounding the country’s nuclear weapons. This dearth of knowledge is no accident – the UK’s nuclear arsenal has been mired in secrecy from the start, with Labour Party hero Clement Attlee authorising the creation of the UK’s first atomic bomb in 1947, keeping it secret from parliament, the public and even some members of his own cabinet.

While the official government narrative – happily repeated by mainstream media commentators and academics – is one of defensive deterrence and use as a last resort, activist and author Milan Rai provides an alternative, very persuasive understanding of the UK’s nuclear weapons.

Rai, editor of Peace News newspaper, highlights the analysis of famed US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation in the early 60s on nuclear strategy, later challenging the popular belief the US hasn’t used its nuclear arsenal since 1945. “It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years… unused and unusuable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets”, Ellsberg argued in 1981. “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite difference purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.”

This revelatory framing indicates the UK uses its nuclear weapons every day. In every diplomatic meeting, both cordial and confrontational, the UK’s status as a nuclear power, and all this means, is there in the background, impacting the decision-making of participants. Every time a rival nation considers confronting the UK government or the UK military they are there in the background.

More precisely, Rai points out the UK has conducted nuclear terrorism – issuing nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapons states in the Global South, with the aim of intimidating their opponent and giving the UK the freedom to act on the world stage. Writing in Peace News in 2020, he explained that during the ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia between 1963-66 over the future of Brunei and North Borneo, British Victor strategic nuclear bombers were deployed to RAF Tengah in Singapore, carrying out low-level bombing practice. In his official history of the RAF in South-East Asia, Air Chief Marshall David Lee noted “Their potential was well known to Indonesia and their presence did not go unnoticed.” He continues: “the knowledge of RAF strength and competence created a wholesome respect among Indonesia’s leaders, and the deterrent effect of RAF air defence fighters, light bombers and V-bombers… was absolute.”

Rai has also highlighted the UK’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. “If we were prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons against the Russians, I can’t see why we shouldn’t be prepared to use them against Iraq”, a senior British minister was quoted saying by the Daily Mail in October 1990. 12 years later during the lead up to the US-UK invasion of Iraq UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee states like Iraq “can be absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Speaking to ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby a few days later, he explained what the “right conditions” might be – if British troops were threatened by chemical or biological weapons.

The secrecy and ignorance surrounding the reality of the UK’s nuclear weapons has very real consequences for public opinion, which broadly favours the retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. Who can forget, for example, the seven-minute primetime TV grilling Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about his position on Trident during BBC Question Time’s general election special in 2017?

A key job of anti-war and peace campaigners should be clear – to draw the public’s attention to the UK’s history of aggressively using its nuclear weapons to intimidate and coerce other nations. This can only undermine the government’s benign ‘deterrence’ narrative and shift the debate towards disarmament.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle

Why the UK Left is wrong to be so dismissive of non-violent struggle
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 November 2021

Non-violence is under attack.

Many influential figures on the Left in the UK dismiss, misrepresent or ignore the concept of non-violent struggle, also known as civil resistance. Indeed, two books have recently been published that explicitly criticise non-violence – Andreas Malm’s ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ and ‘In Defense of Looting’ by Vicky Osterweil. In a June 2020 editorial, the revolutionary Leftist magazine Salvage proclaimed: “Salvage glorifies the burning down of the Minneapolis third police precinct [in response to the murder of African-American man George Floyd]”.

Below I respond to some of the myths often repeated on the Left about non-violent struggle.

Myth One: violence is more effective than non-violence in making change

“Columnists did not cut it. Activists could not have done it. Peaceful protest did not do it. Sports boycotts, books, badges and car boot sales did not do it,” wrote Afua Hirsch in The Guardian in April 2018 about the end of apartheid in South Africa. “It took revolutionaries, pure and simple. People willing to break the law, to kill and be killed.”

Yet while there is disagreement about the relative importance of violence and non-violence in the struggle, it is clear that at the very least, non-violent struggle played an important contributory role in the end of apartheid.

Summarising the key events – which included labour strikes, boycotts, demonstrations and civil disobedience, activities involving hundreds of thousands of people – in a 2010 article for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Lester Kurtz, a professor at George Mason University, wrote: “In the end, a concerted grassroots non-violent civil resistance movement in coalition with international support and sanctions forced the white government to negotiate.” Of course, many highlight the importance of the armed resistance but I’m confident no serious historian or observer would be dismissive of the incredibly brave non-violent resistance to apartheid.

More broadly, to quote the non-violent action guru George Lakey, “the underlying assumption” of a view such as Hirsch’s “is that violence is the most powerful force in the world”. As Lakey noted in 2001: “This is conventional wisdom, shared by most right-wingers, left-wingers, and people in the middle. It’s as popular as the old consensus that the earth is flat. And it is just as incorrect.”

The 2011 book ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’ by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan provides academic evidence in support of the efficacy of non-violent struggle. The 2012 winner of the American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, given annually for the best book on government, politics, or international relations, the study was a key inspiration for the founders of Extinction Rebellion, arguably one of the most successful protest movements in recent British history (though writing in Peace News Gabriel Carlyle notes their analysis of the book isn’t quite right).

Analysing 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900 to 2006, the authors concluded that non-violent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objectives. They argued this difference is down to non-violent campaigns being more likely to attract mass support. This greater level of participation tends to lead to more tactical innovation, more loyalty shifts among the regime’s supporters, and raises the political, economic and social costs to the regime – all of which increase the chances of success.

Their findings are broadly supported by the research of Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Using a different data set of violent and non-violent strategies of groups seeking self-determination between 1960 and 2005, she concluded that non-violent resistance “is more effective than violence in obtaining concessions over self-determination”.

2020 journal article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow of Princeton University provides further evidence. Evaluating Black-led protests in the US between 1960 and 1972, he found that “non-violent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, congressional speech, and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to non-violent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share increase 1.6-2.5%.”

In contrast, “Protester-initiated violence… helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse, and public concern toward ‘social control’.” He concluded that violent protests likely caused a 1.5-7.9% shift among whites toward Republicans in the 1968 presidential election, tipping the close-run election for Richard Nixon.

Myth Two: non-violent struggle is passive

Hirsch’s framing above implies that ‘peaceful’ activists don’t break the law, aren’t willing to get killed, and aren’t revolutionaries. This ahistorical muddle feeds into another popular myth about non-violent struggle – that it is passive and avoids conflict.

Chenoweth sets out the reality in her new book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’: “Civil resistance is a method of conflict – an active, confrontational technique that people or movements use to assert political, social, economic or moral claims… In a very real sense, civil resistance constructively promotes conflict.”

Having created a list of 198 methods of non-violent action, Gene Sharp – sometimes called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” – described them as “non-violent weapons… the direct equivalent of military weapons”. Sharp saw non-violent struggle as a form of warfare, arguing that a non-violent campaign should have the same level of strategic vision, tactical smarts and coordination as a successful military campaign – one reason he sought out the influential military historian and strategist Sir Basil Liddell Hart to discuss the topic in the late 1950s.

The often strategically brilliant US civil rights movement provides a good case study. Writing about the representation of Martin Luther King in the 2014 film ‘Selma’, Jessica Leber noted that the non-violent campaign he led in 1965 for African-American voting rights “was incredibly aggressive, brave, and strategic – in many cases aiming to force the state into violent opposition”.

Myth Three: non-violent struggle isn’t a realistic option when confronting dictatorships

Writing last year in support of Palestinian armed resistance to the Israeli occupation, Louis Allday approvingly quoted the former resistance fighter and South African president, Nelson Mandela: “Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do, but if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

Like Allday, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University, also believes non-violent struggle is not a realistic tactic in the face of violence. Speaking to Giles Fraser on the latter’s Confessions podcast, Andrews argued: “You have to be realistic. If you create a politics which can overturn Western capitalism, you are going to have to use violence. You are not going to have a choice because there will be violence meted out against you.”

In contrast, Chenoweth and Stephan noted: “The notion that non-violent action can be successful only if the adversary does not use violent repression is neither theoretically nor historically substantiated.” They argued that their findings are “true even under conditions in which most people would expect non-violent resistance to be futile, including situations in which dissent is typically met with harsh regime pressure”. Writing in 2003 about the misconceptions around non-violent resistance, the political scientist Kurt Schock argued that the evidence actually points to the opposite conclusion: “In fact non-violent action has been effective in brutally repressive contexts, and it has been ineffective in open democratic polities.”

There are many historical examples showing how largely non-violent movements played a central role in overthrowing repressive governments. The Shah of Iran in 1979, President Marcos’s oppressive 20-year reign in the Philippines in 1986 and President Bashir in Sudan in 2019 are just a few.

One reason non-violent struggle can overthrow brutal dictatorships is because, as Chenoweth and Stephan note, government repression is more likely to backfire against a non-violent campaign than it is against a violent campaign. This backfiring often leads to even greater mobilisation against the government, shifts among loyalists to the regime and sanctions against the violent offender.

What’s more, using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, Chenoweth and Evan Perkoski, from the University of Connecticut, highlight a “counterintuitive paradox” – that those campaigns which remain non-violent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings. They concluded: “Non-violent uprisings are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.”

Myth Four: non-violence isn’t realistic in the Global South

Speaking on a Novara Media livestream last year, host Michael Walker explained that he supports a strategy of non-violence in countries like the US and UK, countries which “are liberal democracies where public opinion matters”. However, he went on to note “the limits of non-violence in Global South countries” such as Indonesia and Chile, where reformist, largely non-violent social democratic movements and governments were violently overthrown by the military and CIA.

Last year, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik wrote that in 2010, as she was travelling to Sudan, the country of her birth, at the beginning of what became the Arab Spring, “it was simply unfathomable that peaceful protests would overthrow an Arab dictator. It had never happened before.”

In reality, movements that have primarily relied on non-violent struggle have a long history in the Global South, including some successes in the Arab world.

Sudan itself provides two examples, with dictatorships toppled in 1964 and 1985 “through massive civil resistance campaigns”, according to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, an assessment confirmed by Dr Willow Berridge in his 2015 book ‘Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: the “Khartoum Springs” of 1964 and 1985’.

It is also worth noting that in the Novara Media livestream, Walker was referring to President Suharto’s murderous seizure of power in Indonesia in 1967, and Augusto Pinochet’s destruction of Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in 1973. But he failed to mention that non-violent campaigns played a central role in ousting Suharto in 1999 and Pinochet in 1988.

Though pretty much unknown in the West, there are many other examples of non-violent campaigns playing a central role in regime change in the Global South. In 1944 peaceful demonstrations overthrew the Guatemalan dictator General Ubico. The same year, President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador was removed by mass civil resistance. Influenced by Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah led a popular, largely non-violent uprising to win independence for Ghana in 1957. Many more examples of the power of non-violent struggle are listed in Chenoweth’s book ‘Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs To Know’ – from the campaign for Zambia’s independence in 1964 to Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to popular democracy in the 1980s, and Malawians bringing down 30-year dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda in the early 1990s.

Is the data on non-violence reliable?

As a seminal text with a bold conclusion, Chenoweth and Stephan’s ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ has unsurprisingly received some criticism, including a number of academic responses.

All of the three critiques I have read argue the NAVCO database that Chenoweth and Stephan base their conclusions on is flawed.

In 2018 Mohammad Ali Kadivar and Neil Ketchley noted: “The coding of violence used in NAVCO derives primarily from the Correlates of War data set, which requires that all combatants be armed and for there to be at least one thousand battle deaths during the course of a campaign.” This definition, they added, “excises incidents of unarmed collective violence, which are otherwise coded as episodes of nonviolent protest.” Therefore, in addition to non-violent and violent campaigns, Kadivar and Ketchley presented a third category: “unarmed collective violence”, described as episodes which “inflict physical damage on persons and/or objects… without the use of firearms or explosives”.

With this expanded terminology, they concluded: “An event history analysis finds that riots are positively associated with political liberalisation in 103 non-democracies from 1990 to 2004,” and that, “In contrast to the assertions by non-violent resistance literature… acts of [unarmed collective] violence have not been detrimental to the cause of democratisation but may have even enhanced the chances of a democratising outcome.”

In a 2020 journal article in Critical Sociology, Alexei Anisin highlighted a number of campaigns that are missing from the NAVCO dataset. When these are included, he noted that from 1900-2006 non-violent campaigns were successful 48% of the time, unarmed violent campaigns 56% of the time, and violent campaigns 29% of the time.

Similarly, writing in the Comparative Politics journal in 2016, Fabrice Lehoucq noted that Chenoweth and Stephan omitted several campaigns that took place in Central America after 1900. Adding in these omitted examples he finds the success rate of non-violent and violent campaigns to be pretty much the same – 42% and 41%, respectively.

Chenoweth replied directly to Lehoucq’s criticism, noting the NAVCO database had been expanded and refined since 2011, and that “the aggregate statistics are virtually identical to those cited in ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’, with non-violent campaigns having a much higher success rate than violent campaigns.” Moreover, even if one were to agree that Lehoucq’s and Anisin’s analyses are accurate, then non-violent campaigns have close to the same success rate as “unarmed violence campaigns”, and close to or better success rates than “violent campaigns” – results which are very far away from the dismissive assertions of the UK Left.

It is also worth highlighting two key takeaways from ‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ that I am not aware of being seriously challenged. First, non-violent campaigns are associated with far less death and destruction than violent campaigns – compare the orgy of violence in Syria and Libya after 2011 with what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, for example. Second, non-violent campaigns are more likely to lead to more democratic forms of governance than violent campaigns, a finding which is echoed by a 2005 Freedom House study.

As Chenoweth noted in her reply to Lehoucq: “‘Why Civil Resistance Works’ was not intended to be the final word on the matter, but it has helped to provoke systematic academic inquiry on a topic that has long been neglected or even derided in scholarly circles.”

Future research will refine and challenge our existing assumptions about non-violence and violence. Having read a little around the subject, I’m struck by how complicated and often contradictory campaigns and movements are in the real world – history rarely provides definite answers. In addition to actively reading about the topic, supporters of non-violent action should welcome sincere, evidence-based research and criticism. This is, after all, how one gains a greater understanding of how the world works and how to make it better – not by reflexively rejecting and misrepresenting a concept that has a long history of creating positive change.