Tag Archives: Human Rights Watch

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus

US sanctions, Iran and coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21-22 March 2020

As Morning Star readers know, the BBC largely reflects the interests and opinions of the British establishment. Nevertheless, occasionally discerning consumers can find important, critical information on one of the corporation’s many platforms.

For example, at the end of February BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme broadcast a brief interview about the UK’s response to coronavirus with Dr Bharat Pankhania, a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the College of Medicine and Health, University of Exeter.

Though he wasn’t asked about Iran, Pankhania, who has over 20 years’ experience working as a consultant in communicable diseases, snuck in an inconvenient truth: “What happens in other countries can come to bite us too”, he said. “I am very concerned about Iran and the health sanctions by America against Iran. Because when you have uncontrolled transmission of infection in Iran it will affect the Middle East and it will affect us too.”

As those following the outbreak will know, Iran has been hit particular hard by the virus. Before the Italian outbreak fully took hold, Iran had the highest number of deaths from coronavirus outside China. “Iran has the highest mortality rate in the world”, ITV News Correspondent John Irvine noted on 13 March. “On a daily basis it fluctuates between eight and eighteen per cent.” As of 19 March the statistics website Worldometer had recorded 18,407 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran, with 1,284 deaths.

So what is the connection between US sanctions and Iran’s response to coronavirus?

The US began sanctioning Iran in 1979, following the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostage crisis. More recently, President Obama – along with the European Union – implemented a tough sanctions regime from 2012 to 2015, which was largely suspended when the US and Iran agreed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Obama Administration’s sanctions caused mass suffering for ordinary Iranians. “Among those bearing the brunt of the crisis are patients and hospitals reliant on currency for imported medicines and foreign-based services”, the Guardian noted in October 2012. “Iran’s Haemophilia Society, for example, has blamed the sanctions for risking thousands of children’s lives due to a lack of proper drugs.”

Following the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from JCPOA in 2018, the US implemented an even harsher set of sanctions on Iran.

“The sanctions we have imposed are the toughest ever… the Iranian economy this year could contract by as much as 14 percent”, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook stated in January.

“More than 700 individuals, entities, aircraft and vessels” including 50 Iranian banks and their foreign subsidiaries are sanctioned, according to a July 2019 report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman. “The sanctions have hit oil sales, imposed wide ranging restrictions on traders and businesses and significantly contributed to a devaluation of the currency and inflation.” Importantly, the US sanctions regime effectively applies to nations and organisations without any ties to the US doing business with Iran. The effect of these “secondary sanctions” has been “to deter international banks, pharmaceutical companies, NGOs and charities from facilitating the flow of goods and services and money to Iran”, Salil Patel, a junior doctor at Imperial College, explained in the Independent in January.

In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur said he was concerned that the sanctions “will unduly affect food security and the availability and distribution of medicines, pharmaceutical equipment and supplies.”

Similarly, Human Rights Watch raised the alarm in an October 2019 report: “The consequences of redoubled US sanctions, whether intentional or not, pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines – and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages – ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”

In an attempt to understand the link between US sanctions and coronavirus in Iran I spoke to Dr Pankhania. “When you have a completely super-stretched and almost bare-boned healthcare system as a result of sanctions you do not have any reserves for dealing with a surge in the number of patients”, he told me. “Furthermore, you wouldn’t have extensive laboratory facilities”, which are essential in the early stages of an outbreak to “recognise that you had the presence of the coronavirus in your midst – because you only know if you look for it.”

Indeed, earlier his month the BBC reported Ramin Fallah, a board member of Iran’s Association of Medical Equipment, saying he is unable to purchase testing kits for coronavirus due to US-imposed sanctions.

The sanctions have had a broader influence on the Iranian government’s response to the virus, according to Amir Afkhami, an Associate Professor of psychiatry, global health and history at George Washington University, writing for Politico earlier this month: they “have made matters worse by making the Iranian regime more skittish about taking any public health measures – such as reducing contacts with its main trading partners or declaring a public health emergency – that could further damage its already ailing economy.”

The evidence, then, strongly suggests that the US’s barbaric, isolating sanctions regime has caused widespread pain and misery in Iran – and endangered the rest of the world. Many of the first cases of coronavirus registered in other locations, including Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, New Zealand and New York, have been attributed to individuals who travelled from Iran, a recent Foreign Policy article explained.

As Open Democracy editor Adam Ramsay recently tweeted: “The coronavirus is an important reminder that health isn’t private. As a species we live in herds. Everyone’s health relies to some extent on everyone else’s.”

In addition, to helping to trigger an economic crisis and having deleterious impacts on the Iranian health system during this health emergency, the US sanctions have had a number of other specific impacts on Iran.

First, air safety: “There have been scores of plane crashes in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mainly because western sanctions for decades limited its ability to purchase spare parts or buy new planes”,  the Guardian reported in February 2018. This was a welcome acknowledgement in the mainstream press of the West’s culpability for hundreds of needless deaths, though, to be clear, this information appeared in paragraph 19 of 21 of the article, so will likely have been missed by many readers.

Second, US sanctions have likely strengthened the hand of hardliners in Iran. In 2013 several hundred Iranian political and human rights activists, academics, and students wrote an open letter to President Obama warning of exactly this. Referring to the deadly US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, they noted “We are deeply concerned about the recurrence of the Iraqi experience for Iran, which would eliminate the only opportunity for peaceful and democratic change in our country. We are certain that economic sanctions will continue to weaken Iran’s civil society and strengthen the hands of extremists.”

Incredibly, on 17 March Reuters reported the US had imposed fresh sanctions on Iran, targetting a number of entities and individuals, “keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as it offered to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic”.

“The US government is run by sociopaths”, was journalist Mehdi Hasan’s response to the US doubling down on its crippling sanctions regime.

Close observers of Western-Iran relations will be aware historical facts that undermine the official Western narrative, such as the 1953 US-UK led coup against Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, are, conveniently, rarely mentioned in the Western mainstream media (though they are not forgotten in Iran, of course).

With this in mind, it is essential we do not let the key role of US sanctions in the ongoing coronavirus crisis in Iran to be pushed down the memory hole too.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
29 November 2015

In the sometimes hysterical political debate that has happened since the Paris terrorist attacks, a strange consensus has coalesced around how the UK should respond to the rise of Islamic State.

With the Kurds garnering a great deal of sympathy in the West since the 1991 Gulf War, prominent progressive commentators opposed to direct UK military intervention in Syria agree that we should be “systematically arming” the Kurdish militia, as Labour leftist Owen Jones forcefully argued on a recent edition of BBC Sunday Morning Live. Similarly, last year Aljazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan wrote that “Progressives need to get behind the Kurds”. Ditto George Galloway. The Tory Government agrees, and has been training and arming Kurdish forces in Iraq since 2014.

The respected human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is another supporter of arming the Kurds, recently arguing a “successful strategy might be to empower” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq – both of which have been fighting Islamic State.

However, in October 2015 Amnesty International released a report that found “evidence of alarming abuses, including eyewitness accounts and satellite images, detailing the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages” in areas of northern Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD (the political party of the YPG). “By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the [PYD-controlled] Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes,” Lama Fakih, a Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, noted.

I challenged Tatchell on Twitter, asking why he was urging support for groups that were committing war crimes, linking to the Amnesty International report. His reply? “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians.”

“Exceptional & untypical” is certainly one way to describe what Amnesty International call “the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians” from atleast eight villages. Reporting from the same area in July 2015, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn explained the conflict “has many aspects of an ethnic war: the Kurds are driving out Sunni Arabs, whom they accuse of being Islamic State supporters.” In June 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 107-page report on the human rights situation in PYD-run enclaves in Syria. According to HRW there are arbitrary arrests of the PYD’s political opponents, abuses in detention, the use of child soldiers and excessive force was used to quell political protests.

A similar picture emerges of the Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq. A February 2015 report by Human Rights Watch highlighted how “Kurdish forces have confined thousands of Arabs in ‘security zones’ in areas of northern Iraq that they have captured since August 2014” from Islamic State. In addition, “Kurdish forces for months barred Arabs displaced by fighting from returning to their homes… while permitting Kurds to return to those areas and even to move into homes of Arabs who fled.” Local Kurds told HRW that Kurdish forces had destroyed dozens of Arab homes. One European diplomat with familiarity of the areas under Kurdish control explained there was “deliberate, systematic destruction of Sunni Arab property” by the Peshmerga. “It’s not just collective punishment for perceived support. It’s wholesale ethnic cleansing.”

Another recent report for the Middle East Eye describes a recent Dutch television documentary that filmed a commander of the Kurdish People’s Defence Force in Iraq saying that his forces did not take any prisoners. “Not in my forces, nowhere actually. Let’s be honest – simply nowhere. We don’t want prisoners.” (Unsurprisingly, the Kurdish authorities in Syria and Iraq have denied the claims made by the documentary and the reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).

All this is not to say that, all things considered, arming the Kurds might not be the least worst realistic option available to Western governments and publics interested in defeating Islamic State. However, when deciding on what action, if any, to take in Syria and Iraq, it is essential the general population has an accurate understanding of what is happening in these conflicts, and a realistic picture of those we are supporting or plan to support. The prominent progressives named above have not told their readers the truth about the Kurdish forces they are urging the West to arm. Furthermore, it is likely that the defacto ethnic cleansing the Kurdish forces are reported to have carried out in Syria and Iraq is likely to have been counterproductive, pushing local populations into the arms of the Islamic State or other forces they feel can protect them.

“The charges also raise a complex question for the countries that train and equip Kurdish forces”, journalist Sara Elizabeth Williams notes in her Foreign Policy article about the abuses carried out by Kurdish forces in Iraq. “Can they continue to supply military aid if their weapons are used to commit what experts say amount to war crimes?”

Another nail in the coffin of the case for Libyan ‘intervention’

Another nail in the coffin of the case for Libyan ‘intervention’
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 February 2015

Though the British press have chosen to ignore it, a recent report in the Washington Times newspaper is the latest nail in the coffin that is the mainstream narrative of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

An intervention, perhaps not coincidentally, which received the support of the vast majority of the British newspapers and 557 wise MPs, with just 13 opposed.

The mainstream narrative runs something like this. After the Tunisian-inspired protests erupted in February 2011, the Libyan Government forces responded with overwhelming, deadly violence, beating the rebels back to the eastern city of Benghazi. At this point NATO, authorised by the United Nations, set up a no-fly zone, supposedly to protect civilians in Benghazi.

Justifying the intervention, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to Kosovo and the Rwandan genocide in an interview with ABC News. “Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled”, she said. “The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” Likewise, speaking to parliament a couple of days after the operation had begun, British Prime Minister David Cameron said NATO had helped to avoid a “bloody massacre” in Benghazi “in the nick of time”.

However, citing secret audio recordings between a an intermediary working for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Libyan Government, the Washington Times suggests genocide was not imminent: “Defense intelligence officials could not corroborate those concerns and in fact assessed that Gadhafi was unlikely to risk world outrage by inflicting mass casualties”. The report goes onto quote the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division: “At that point, we did not see the imminence of massacres that would rise to genocidelike levels”.

This conclusion is supported by Alan J. Kuperman, Associate Professor of Public Affairs in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. “Qaddafi did not perpetrate a ‘bloodbath’ in any of the cities that his forces recaptured from rebels prior to NATO intervention… so there was virtually no risk of such an outcome if he had been permitted to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi”, Kuperman argued in a 2013 policy brief prepared for the world-renowned Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

At the time there were shocking stories about Libyan Government forces using mass rape as a weapon of war and Libyan aircraft bombing peaceful demonstrators. Amnesty International and Human Right Watch found no evidence for the former. Hugh Roberts, a former director of the International Crisis Group’s North Africa project, found the latter claim to be false too: “The story was untrue, just as the story that went round the world in August 1990 that Iraqi troops were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies by turning off their incubators was untrue and the claims in the sexed-up dossier on Saddam’s WMD were untrue.”

The Washington Times also highlights the various attempts made by the Libyan Government to push for a negotiated settlement. Early in the conflict the head of the US African Command attempted to negotiate a truce but was ordered to stand down by Clinton’s State Department. Again, this account chimes with many other reports that show NATO repeatedly ignored ceasefire proposals coming from the Libyan Government and the African Union. According to Roberts “London, Paris and Washington could not allow a ceasefire because it would have involved negotiations… and all this would have subverted the possibility of the kind of regime change that interested the Western powers.”

Today, Libya is a chaotic mess. In November 2014 Amnesty International warned “lawless militias and armed groups on all sides of the conflict in western Libya are carrying out rampant human rights abuses, including war crimes.” The same month the UN Refugee Agency reported that nearly 400,000 Libyans had been displaced by the on-going violence, whilst the Associated Press noted the Libyan city of Darna had become the first city outside of Syria and Iraq to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.

Misinformation and propaganda used as a pretext for war. A war that plays a significant role in destroying an oil-rich nation in the Middle East. Sound familiar? Like Iraq, we should demand a public inquiry into the UK’s involvement in this duplicitous aggression. At the very least all those journalists who backed the intervention need to start asking the searching questions they should have asked back in 2011.

An “inclusive and credible” Iraqi government? Obama vs. Reality

An “inclusive and credible” Iraqi government? Obama vs. Reality
By Ian Sinclair
13 November 2014

Announcing an increase in the tempo of the US-led military action against the Islamic State (aka ISIL) on CBS’s Facing The Nation on 9 November 2014, President Obama stated:

“What we knew was that phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible, and we now have done that. And so now what we’ve done is rather than just try to halt ISIL’s momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense.”

As it is being used to justify an expansion of the US-led military action in Iraq, it is worth examining Obama’s claim that the current Iraqi government is “inclusive and credible”. Here, then, are some quotes from Iraq experts and observers on the nature of the government of Haider al-Abadi, who replaced Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s president in September 2014:

Patrick Cockburn, veteran Middle East correspondent and author of ‘The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising’, 25 September 2014: “Mr [David] Cameron blames all this on the mis-government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose sectarian and kleptocratic rule has just ended. But it is doubtful if much has changed since Mr Maliki was replaced by the more personable Haider al-Abadi, whose government is still dominated by Shia religious parties. Mr Cameron’s stated belief that he is supporting the creation of a government that is inclusive of Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians is a pipe dream.”

Borzou Daragahi, Middle East and North Africa correspondent, Financial Times, 26 September 2014: “Despite commitments by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to disband the [Shia] militias, they grow stronger, bolder and more politically influential.”

Erin Evers, Iraqi Researcher, Human Rights Watch, 26 September 2014: “Residents [of the Iraqi town of Latifiyya] told me that Shia militias, still operating under the control of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki [now a Vice-President of Iraq], are laying siege to the town, especially the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq militia. Sunni residents of other towns to the north accused that group and other militias of carrying out summary executions there after the militias took control in the wake of US air strikes against the Islamic State.”

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Iraqi journalist, The Guardian, 9 October 2014:The problem in Iraq… is it’s not a problem of a person. It’s not Abadi versus Maliki. The whole institution, the whole system, is so rotten to the core. Every single soldier is appointed after paying a bribe. Every military officer is appointed after paying a bribe. And the bribes are still being paid.”

Sarah Margon, Washington director, Human Rights Watch, 24 October 2014: “[An] imam made clear that the Iraqi air force is still using indiscriminate ‘barrel bombs’ to ‘go after ISIS’ in Fallujah, despite instructions from Baghdad to stop using them. Other governments, including that of the United States, have condemned the use of these horrendously destructive bombs across the border in Syria but have said nothing about them in Iraq.”

Tirana Hassan, Senior Emergencies Researcher, Human Rights Watch, 3 November: “While the Iraqi central government has virtually no formal authority over the militias, who act as a law unto themselves, some key politicians in Baghdad have strong alliances to individual militias. In October, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appointed Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban – a prominent member of the Badr Organization, a Shiite political group that controls one of the largest and most infamous militias – as interior minister. Despite being almost completely unaccountable to any official ministry, the Shiite militias have been tasked by the government with a key role in the war against the Islamic State.”

Fazel Hawramy and Luke Harding, The Guardian, 13 November 2014: “According to Amnesty International, Shia militias have abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months, and enjoy total impunity for what are ‘war crimes’. It says the Iraqi government under prime minister Haider al-Abadi has supported and armed the groups, in effect fuelling a new and dangerous cycle of lawlessness and sectarian mayhem.”

So, to summarise, the new Iraqi government that Obama said is “inclusive and credible” is horribly corrupt, is continuing to conduct air strikes on Sunni-dominated areas in Iraq – sometimes with barrel bombs – and includes key figures connected to the emboldened Shia militias, which have been carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Sunni population with impunity.

The dangers of all this are made clear by Middle East researcher David Wearing: “The West is going ahead with military support for Baghdad as though replacing Maliki with al-Abadi ticks all the required boxes in itself. It doesn’t. Al-Abadi comes from the same party as Maliki – a fact that won’t be lost on many Sunni Arabs – and the danger of supporting him in advance of the required political transformation is that it disincentivises Baghdad from seriously addressing the core political issues.”

And, as Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Margon, argues: “By turning a virtual blind eye to the abuses committed by Iraqi government forces and its proxy militias, key partners [the US, UK etc.] may be helping to push reluctant Sunnis into the Islamic State camp.”