Tag Archives: Sanctions

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.

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.

How ‘unpresidential’ is Donald Trump?

How ‘unpresidential’ is Donald Trump?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
2 February 2017

If there is one thing everyone agrees on when it comes to Donald Trump, it’s that he is simply not presidential material.

The Los Angeles Times recently referred to his “self-indulgent and unpresidential demeanor”. A Daily Mirror headline from November 2016 noted Donald Trump’s invitation to meet with Theresa May “was bizarrely unpresidential”. The online US magazine Slate even went so far as to list “230 Things Donald Trump Has Said and Done That Make Him Unfit to Be President”, including stating he would force the military to commit war crimes, advocating water boarding and praising North Korean dictator Kin Jong-un.

When, I wonder, did American leaders conduct themselves in a presidential manner?

Was it when the first American president George Washington was in office, when he owned hundreds of slaves?

Was it during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency at the start of the nineteenth century, when many historians now believe the so-called ‘The Man of the People’ fathered a number of children with his slave Sally Heming – committing what would likely be defined as rape today?

Was Andrew Jackson, the seventh occupant of the White House, “presidential material” when, according to the historian Professor David Stannard, he supervised the mutilation of 800 Creek Indian corpses – men, women and children troops that he and troops under his command had massacred – cutting off their noses to record the number of dead, and slicing off strips of flesh to turn into bridle reins?

Was it during Harry Truman’s time in the White House when the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing 100,000s of inhabitants of two cities with no military value, even though the US government knew the Japanese would surrender without the nuclear weapons being used?

Was it during Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, when LBJ told the Greek Ambassador “Fuck your parliament and constitution”, escalated the US assault on Vietnam, with 3.8 million Vietnamese ending up dead in the war, according to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and backed General Suharto as he slaughtered around 500,000 Indonesians and?

Was it during Richard Nixon’s presidency when the White House began secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos, with the US dropping more bombs on the latter than they did on both Germany and Japan in World War Two, according to ABC News? In the final days of the Watergate scandal, the New York Times reports Nixon was drinking so heavily that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger “instructed the military to divert any emergency orders – especially one involving nuclear weapons – to him or the Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger.”

Was it during Bill Clinton’s time in office, when the Clinton Administration drove forward the United Nations sanctions on Iraq that led to 500,000 Iraqi children dying, according to United Nations Children’s Fund figures, and two of the UN officials running the sanctions regime resigning because they considered the policy one of “genocide”? Clinton, of course, confirmed he had had sexual relations with 22-year old Monica Lewinsky, a junior member of White House staff, shortly after he had told the nation “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.

Was it during the second Bush Administration, when the president and his neoconservative cronies tortured and renditioned hundreds of suspected terrorists, and illegally and aggressively attacked Iraq, with around 500,000 Iraqis dying in the invasion and subsequent occupation, according to a PLOS medicine journal study?

Or was it during Obama’s presidency, when the author of The Audacity of Hope bombed seven majority Muslim nations, sold more weapons than any other US administration since World War Two, and held weekly “Terror Tuesday” meetings to decide which suspected terrorists to kill next? Obama “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatant”, the New York Times noted. Counterterrorism officials told the newspaper this approach was based on simple logic: that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”

Regrettably, in their rush to monster Trump for being the ignorant, narcissistic, misogynistic, racist, turbo-capitalist, lying, power hungry thug he undoubtedly is, most of the media have often consciously or unconsciously boosted the ethical and moral records of previous American presidents.

But, as I have set out above, the briefest scan of history tells a very different story. Trump may well be an extreme right-wing president, but his odious behavior and public statements follows a long tradition of very ‘unpresidential’ actions of many former inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Before making further references to what is or isn’t “presidential behaviour”, commentators and journalists would do well to consider Noam Chomsky’s famous indictment of the US imperial’s politics: “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”

International Relations scholars and UK foreign policy: interview with Professor Eric Herring

International Relations scholars and UK foreign policy: interview with Professor Eric Herring
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
13 May 2016

Recently I came across a 2006 article the Eric Herring published in the Journal of International Studies titled ‘Remaking the mainstream: the case for activist IR scholarship’. In the article Herring argues that “British IR [International Relations] academics… produce very little primarily empirical work which documents the record of the British state in creating human misery abroad”. In addition he goes onto note “British IR academics engage in very little research exposing the deceptions and self-deceptions deployed by the British state to deny its responsibility for that human misery”.

A rare self-critical admission from an academic about his own work and that of his profession, Herring’s argument struck me as very important and deserving of a wider audience. Currently a Professor of World Politics and Research Director in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, I asked Herring about his 2006 article and whether anything had changed ten years later.

Ian Sinclair: In the article you argue there has been “almost complete silence on major acts of oppression abroad carried out or supported by the British state” from British International Relations academics. This claim will seem counterintuitive to many people as the dominant view of scholars and universities is of highly intelligent people, generally on the political Left, thinking critically about society and the world. How can you make such an argument? Can you provide any concrete examples to back up your thesis?

Eric Herring: The example I used in the article in 2006 was on British IR academia’s record of empirical research exposing Britain’s role in the horrendous economic sanctions on Iraq that had a devastating impact on the civilian population. I pointed out that from 1990 to 2003 (the period of the sanctions), “there was a total of three articles in British IR journals on the sanctions – mine, one (by US scholars) which I had commissioned as editor of a special issue, and one assessing them in relation to their gendered implications.” (p. 109). That is the sort of near silence you would expect from a near totalitarian state. No-one told academia not to research this topic. It was formally free to do so, but it occurred to almost no-one among the British academic left to research it. So, sure British IR academia had a somewhat leftist self-image and there is plenty of evidence of the critical thinking that you mentioned, but focused heavily on theory. It was not even a decision to avoid researching the sanctions – it seemed to not even arise as a question.

The article summarised the work of Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkin, showing that this is a more general problem: “The coverage of the Third World/South in leading British and US IR journals, textbooks and monograph series between 1998 and 2003 was assessed by Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkins. They concluded that the coverage of the South was dominated by analyses which framed the South as a problem for, and threat to, the North. As they argue, this reflects the near-monopoly of US and UK based scholars in writing these analyses and the dominance of state-centric realism and liberalism, with imperialism and colonialism treated as subordinate issues if they are mentioned at all.” (p. 106).

I wrote “Despite this, there is a substantial amount of progressive IR scholarship in US and British universities” but also that “progressive IR scholarship generally tends to be under-empiricised. This is not an anti-theoretical line of argument: the point is that the progressive force of theory is severely limited if IR academics do not complement it with extensive empirical work focused specifically on the contemporary actions of the state and which provides the raw material with which to assess whether what it is doing is normatively acceptable and whether it has the right to act as it does” (p. 107).

I would turn the argument around: where was all the empirical scholarship about the acts of oppression carried out by or supported by the British state abroad? Did I miss it? I hope I did but I doubt it? I would welcome an annotated bibliography of it.

IS: Your article was published in 2006. Has much changed ten years later?

EH: There have been some positive changes that have generated a greater amount of critical empirical scholarship in British IR academia, though nothing that would look like a much wider mobilisation. The combination of the George W. Bush administration and Blair’s New Labour was so egregiously and visibly revolting with deception about Iraq and WMD plus the occupation of Iraq, Guantanamo, torture, rendition and the ‘war on terror’ (actually a war of terror in many respects) that academics felt much more impelled to challenge all these practices as a matter of principle (as opposed to policies that don’t work and would have been acceptable if they had worked). This easy visibility matters a great deal. A crucial role has been played by the growth of the hardware of the internet, the software of the World Wide Web and the staggeringly effective (if far from unproblematic) Google search engine. A major aspect of empirical research has been so much easier. These tools have allowed journalists and activists beyond academia to serve up so much data – images as well as words – that it created easy opportunities for academics to write about them and also reduced the sense that you were out there on your own in writing about them. In other words, in a way that I did not anticipate, the transformed global information environment has to some degree remade the British IR academic mainstream.

IS: Why do you think British International Relations academics, on the whole, do not focus on the international crimes and misdemeanours of the British state?

EH: I set out an argument with Piers Robinson on this in general terms in ‘Too Polemical or Too Critical? Chomsky on the Study of the News Media and US Foreign Policy’, Review of International Studies, 29:4 (2003), pp. 553-68:

“Noam Chomsky argues that, while the US news media are adversarial towards the US government on foreign policy, institutional filters operate to ensure that the criticisms made generally stay within narrow bounds set by the US political elite. Chomsky’s research in this area is largely ignored even by academics who agree with this conclusion. The institutional tendency to filter out anti-elite perspectives applies not only to the news media but also to academia. Consequently, Chomsky’s work is marginalised due to its emphasis on corporate power, principled opposition to US foreign policy and the role of academia in buttressing elite power.” (p. 553).

In locally specific ways of course, the propaganda model’s corporate, advertising, sourcing, flak and ideological filters all operate in British IR academia, though with the advertising filter least prominent (see pp. 561-566 of that article – focused on the US but the parallels with Britain wouldn’t be particularly difficult to work out).

IS: What was the response to your article and broader argument from your fellow academics? I ask because your article surely brings into question the very core of many IR academics’ image of themselves as independent freethinkers and troublemakers?

EH: The response was overwhelmingly one of silence. There were negative ones that activism is unscholarly and advice that I should drop the commitment to activism as it would be damaging for my career. There were also positive responses of relief and recognition. There is nothing special about my case in terms of the silence and I would not want to portray myself as some kind of martyr – my article with Piers mentioned above points out that the same thing happened regarding [Edward] Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model.

What can academics do to protect themselves from the pressures that lead them to steer clear of critical work on British foreign policy?

EH: The ones I argued for in the article are still ones I would stand by: always adhere to the highest scholarly standards in research and teaching, organise with non-academic activists, assess your scholarship in relation to its contribution to collective struggles against oppression and measure the worth of your work by the extent to which it serves your own values not those of the institutions which employ and monitor you. This is individual and collective intellectual self-defence.

Furthermore, the ‘impact’ agenda is now a major opportunity for activist scholarship. Activist scholarship was frowned upon but impact is rewarded, so repackage what you do as impact when you are connecting your research to social change, in terms of informing it or in terms of being directly part of it. My work now has two strands. The first – with Piers Robinson and now also Vian Bakir and David Miller – is research on propaganda as organised persuasive communication, with an empirical focus thus far on British Government deception in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. See:

The second strand, not yet written up for publication, is the Somali First initiative. The purpose of the Somali First is to promote Somali-led development through impartial facilitation, research and education. Somali First is a joint initiative of the University of Bristol and Somali-led company Transparency Solutions. The Somali First team are mostly not delivering development directly: instead, we facilitate numerous Somali-led projects and processes to deliver it. We are aiming to transform the process of development itself so that it is Somali-led by integrating our approach across issues and through levels of governance. Our approach involves the following sequence of steps: find good people, agree commitment to a Somali-led approach, build strong relationships and then assist cooperation to identify needs, design projects, secure funding and deliver those projects.

The approach to development seen far too often is that foreign organisations generate project ideas and appoint consultancy teams at arm’s length and short notice, with limited chance of leaving a positive longer-term legacy. In that flawed approach, Somalis are kept in subordinate positions and are defined as lacking capacity that has to be provided by outsiders. In contrast, Somali-led development encourages self-help and builds on local capacities. It is more cost effective, more relevant to local needs and more sustainable. It is more respectful of the dignity of the Somali people. Somali First received the University of Bristol Engagement Award 2014-15. See our 5 minute film.

Our approach is exemplified by our new project to support Somali-led social science research. The Somalia First team and Somalia’s Observatory of Conflict and Violence Prevention (OCVP) has been awarded $698,000 by the internationally-funded Somalia Stability Fund to train two cohorts of thirty Somali mid-career social science researchers over the next two years beginning August 2015. This is an innovative integrated programme of research training followed by internship on a Somali-led research team and then individual fieldwork leading to publication with mentoring throughout. At the end of two years there will be 60 trained Somali researchers and 60 publications, proof of the programme’s success. These Somali researchers will then be able to take up a range of leadership positions.

Organising with Somalis committed to transforming the process of development, using the opportunities provided by the new global information environment and packaging what we do as impact rather than activism have been vital.

The major change for me since I wrote that article in 2006 is that I place much more weight on creating positive alternatives while not losing sight of the critique. I find that is much better for my morale and attracts lots of positive energy. It shows that there is significant potential space to work for positive alternatives and I would emphasise working to expand that space more than I did in the past.

IS: In your 2006 article you refer to Activist Scholars (as opposed to Mainstream Academics). What is an Activist Scholar?

EH: In general terms, an Activist Scholar is one who, through their scholarship, exposes the deceptions and self-deceptions deployed by elites to deny their responsibility for the human misery they create, and who challenges the right of elites to act in these ways.

Which IR academics do you think are doing the best critical work on British foreign policy today?

EH: The two who stand out for me are Ruth Blakeley (Kent) and Sam Raphael (Westminster) for their stunning Rendition Project on the globalisation of rendition and secret detention. It is a stunning achievement which meets every criterion I have set out: superb scholarship, taking the argument into the mainstream, using the resources provided by the global information revolution, organising with non-academic activists, packaging it as impact and so on. Their work shows just how good activist scholarship can get.

The media and public intellectuals: Fred Halliday vs Noam Chomsky

The media and public intellectuals: Fred Halliday vs Noam Chomsky
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
27 November 2015

Compare and contrast the different responses by the media and academia to two of the most prominent public intellectuals who have focussed on the Middle East – Professor Fred Halliday, who died in 2010, and Professor Noam Chomsky.

As Al-Akhbar newspaper notes, Halliday, a Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science for 20 years, “received wide acclaim in his lifetime, and after his death.” In his obituary in the Guardian his friend Professor Sami Zubaida noted: “Fred made an enormous impact in both academia and the media. He always spoke with a sure and lucid voice, backed by extensive knowledge, and knew many languages… Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, French, German and Russian.” Writing in the left-leaning Nation magazine, Susie Linfield was even more effusive in her praise: “In his scholarship and research, in his outspokenness and courtesy, in the complexity of his thinking, he was the model of a public intellectual. It is Halliday’s writing – not those of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens or Tariq Ali – that can elucidate the meaning of today’s most virulent conflicts.”

In contrast, Chomsky is repeatedly smeared and attacked by the mainstream media, receiving particular ire from liberal journalists and intellectuals. Chomsky, the author of tens of books and speaker at hundreds of sold out public events, is often labelled as “controversial”, “angry”, “raving” and “simplistic”. Chomsky is keenly aware of this phenomenon, comparing the reception he receives from the largely conservative MIT faculty with his relationship with the liberal Harvard academic staff: “I get along fine with the MIT faculty, even when we disagree about everything (which is the usual case). If I show up at the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill settle; it’s as if Satan himself had entered the room.”

So how do Halliday and Chomsky compare in their analysis of events in the Middle East since 2001? If one accepted the media and academic consensus one would assume world events have repeatedly proved Halliday right, and Chomsky to have been consistently off the mark. However, as the American historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

According to his obituaries in the Guardian and Independent, Halliday supported the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These invasions and subsequent occupations are now widely understood to have been complete disasters – for Afghans and Iraqis, for US and British troops, for the threat of terrorism in the west and for the cohesion and stability of the whole Middle East. The 2003 Iraq invasion breached international law, weakened the UN, and led to US and UK troops committing war crimes and torturing the local people. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis died because of the invasions, with many more wounded. Over four million Iraqis were forced from their home. Afghanistan continues to be one of the top countries of origin for refugees today. And, as even Tony Blair recently admitted, the invasion and occupation of Iraq played a key role in the creation of Islamic State and the crisis the world is currently dealing with today.

It gets worse. If we go back before 2001 we find Halliday publicly denied the impact of (US and UK-led) UN sanctions on Iraq from 1991 to 2003. In a review of Geoff Simons’s book on economic sanctions in the Independent in 1999, Halliday rubbished “claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food”. Compare Halliday’s repetition of the US-UK governments’ line to those of Hans von Sponeck, one of the UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq during the sanctions regime. “At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food Programme”, von Sponeck notes in his 2006 book A Different Kind of War.

Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq prior to von Sponeck, resigned in protest in 1998, noting the sanctions were causing the deaths of up to 5,000 children a month: “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” Halliday later explained: “I was instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide — a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.” Von Sponeck himself resigned in protest two years later, asking in his resignation letter, “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Later he told journalist John Pilger: “I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable.”

For a man who professed a deep admiration for the people and cultures of the Middle East, Halliday repeatedly supported US-UK government policies that caused and continue to cause untold misery for the people of the region. In contrast Chomsky was arguably the foremost critic of the US and UK invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to being a key voice in drawing attention to the horrifying effects of UN sanctions on Iraq. So, in summary, the media and intellectual elite continue to fete a man who supported Western policies that decimated the Middle East and killed hundreds of thousands of people, while they have attempted to marginalise arguably the foremost critic of these destructive and criminal actions.

What is going on here?

Chomsky himself has much to say on the subject, telling Pilger in 1992 that “The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it I’d be ashamed of myself.” Mark Curtis, a British historian of UK foreign policy and former Research Fellow at Chatham House, broadly agrees, noting “British academics are generally responsible for keeping students and the public in ignorance about this country’s real role in the world.” On the topic of sanctions on Iraq, Eric Herring, Professor of World Politics at the University of Bristol, notes that the record of British academics has been shameful: “The sanctions on Iraq illustrate the fact that the immiseration of most of a society and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens can get hidden right out in the open (the facts are there for anyone who cares to consult them), with barely a peep from academics as well as journalists”. Just three articles were published in British International Relations journals during the sanctions regime, Herring notes (Herring wrote one of them and commissioned the second).

What explains the timidity of most intellectuals? A number of factors, of course, including how one progresses through the education system (Chomsky: “There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100 percent but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination”), and the social class of intellectuals and their attendant social and ideological ties to established power. Those whose work and politics fit within the dominant ideology will usually gain the respect of their peers and may even be courted by the media. And while there is no early morning knock on the door for those independent-minded academics in the west who expose the lies told by those in power, there are still real consequences for stepping out of line. You may be overlooked for promotion, your job may be under threat, publishing work may become more difficult, funding opportunities may dry up, you may receive a lot of flak from the establishment and you may be ostracised by colleagues.

Obviously criticism of western foreign policy does take place – is positively encouraged – but this is usually “within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.” For example, beyond his support for the aggressive US-UK invasion of Iraq, Halliday inadvertently repeated the US-UK government’s framing of the war when he argued “the American approach that you can suddenly install a democracy” is “nonsense” at the 2004 Labour Party conference. Chomsky, on the other hand, distinguishes between government’s “declarations of benign intent” and the real reasons for the invasion: control of Iraq’s energy resources. Indeed fully 1 percent of Baghdad residents in an October 2003 Gallup poll agreed with Halliday that establishing democracy was the main intention of the US invasion, while 43 percent said the invasion’s principal objective was Iraq’s oil reserves. Similarly a 2003 YouGov poll of the British public found that just 5 percent of respondents thought the US and UK’s primary motivation was “to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq” (the most popular answer to a question asking why the US and UK wanted to invade Iraq was also “to secure and control oil supplies”). In reality the US and UK “don’t want democracies in the Arab world”, Chomsky explains. “If Arab public opinion had any influence on policy, the US and Britain had been tossed out of the Middle East. That’s why they are terrified of democracies in the region.”

All this is not to dismiss Halliday’s undoubted expertise and experience on the Middle East and the knowledge he has passed onto thousands of students and readers of his work. But considering just how wrong he was on Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and Iraqi sanctions surely we need to ask some hard questions of Halliday and our dominant understanding of education, expertise and intellectuals?

“There is in orthodox thinking a great dependence on experts”, notes Zinn in his 1990 book Passionate Declarations: Essays On War And Justice, explaining there are two false assumptions often made about experts. “One is that they see more clearly and think more intelligently than ordinary citizens. Sometimes they do, sometimes not. The other assumption is that these experts have the same interests as ordinary citizens, want the same things, hold the same values, and, therefore, can be trusted to make decisions for us all.” Our dependence on “great thinkers” and “experts” is, Zinn argues, “a violation of the spirit of democracy.”

Chomsky has repeatedly rejected attempts by others to lionise him. Rather than look to leaders and the intellectuals for wisdom and guidance, to make progressive social change Chomsky argues individuals should educate themselves, undertaking a course of intellectual self-defence through popular movements. With the Middle East in flames, the UK government champing at the bit to bomb Syria and the media in “full propaganda mode” the need for the general public to be informed and active is as great as it has ever been.

The biggest crime you’ve never heard of

The biggest crime you’ve never heard of
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 May 2015

They must have known, mustn’t they? How could they not? Perhaps they chose not to know? With the world commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi-run death camps the question of what ordinary Germans knew (and did) about the genocide their government was perpetrating has once again been in the news.

Of course, the assumption behind much of the coverage of the liberation of Belsen and other camps is that we, living enlightened lives in contemporary Britain, are lucky to live in a society where horrendous crimes do not happen. And if they did, they would be quickly reported by our free and stroppy media and quickly halted.

But what if our own government has been responsible for genocide-level suffering, without the media raising the alarm and therefore leaving the general public in a state of ignorance? What would this say about our political class? What would it say about the media? And what would it say about us?

Unfortunately this isn’t a hypothetical debate but the cold, brutal reality.

To understand this distressing fact we need to return to February 1991 when the US-led coalition kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, which it had illegally invaded in August 1990. According to John Hoskins, a Canadian doctor leading a Harvard study team, the US-led air assault “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and healthcare”. Purportedly to compel Saddam Hussein’s government to give up its Weapons of Mass Destruction, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, which lasted until the 2003 invasion. The sanctions regime was enforced by the US and UK who took the toughest line on compliance.

“No country had ever been subjected to more comprehensive economic sanctions by the United Nations than Iraq”, notes Hans von Sponeck, the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, in his 2006 book A Different Kind Of War. “Communicable diseases in the 1980s not considered public health hazards, such as measles, polio, cholera, typhoid, marasmus and kwashiorkor, reappeared on epidemic scales.” In 1999 the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died because of a lack of medication, food or safe water supplies.

To counter some of the worst effects of sanctions, in 1996 the UN set up the Oil-For-Food Programme, which allowed Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other goods. However, the programme was far from adequate. “At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food Programme”, von Sponeck notes in his book. In 1998/99, each Iraqi received a food allocation of $49 – 27 cents a day – for a six month period. In contrast, the dogs the UN used to help de-mine Iraq each received a food allocation of $160.

In protest at what seventy members of the US congress called “infanticide masquerading as policy”, Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq who ran the sanctions regime, resigned in 1998. Noting the sanctions were causing the deaths of up to 5,000 children a month, Halliday bluntly stated “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” Speaking to journalist John Pilger, Halliday later explained “I was instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.”

Halliday’s successor, von Sponeck, resigned in protest two years later, asking in his resignation letter “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Later he told Pilger “I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable”.

Making a hat-trick, Jutta Burghardt, head of the UN World Food Program in Iraq, resigned two days after Von Sponeck, describing the sanctions regime as “a true humanitarian tragedy.”

With a few honourable exceptions such as Pilger, Tony Benn and George Galloway, the response of the British political class and media was to either to ignore or dismiss the fact sanctions were killing Iraqis on a mass scale. According to the media watchdog Media Lens, in 2003 Halliday was mentioned in just 2 of the 12,366 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq. Von Sponeck was mentioned a grand total of 5 times in the same year. Von Sponeck’s book on the sanctions has never been reviewed in the British press, and has been mentioned just once – by the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.

Echoing the denials of New Labour ministers such as Peter Hain and Robin Cook, in 2002 Observer Editor Roger Alton responded to a reader challenging him about the sanctions, stating “It’s saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry”. The highly respected Middle East specialist Professor Fred Halliday was equally dismissive, rubbishing “claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food” in a book review in the Independent in 1999.

The governing elite, assisted by a pliant media and the silence of much of academia, have carried out a magic trick of epic, sinister proportions: in a world of 24-hour news culture they have effectively managed to bury the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a direct result of British foreign policy. The lack of coverage, concern or discussion today about the sanctions shows how shockingly successful they have been in this endeavour.

As Harold Pinter sarcastically noted in his Nobel Peace Prize speech: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

No conspiracy is needed. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban”, writer George Orwell argued in his censored preface to Animal Farm. He provides two reasons for thought control in democratic society: first, the owners of the British press, socially, politically and economically part of the governing elite, “have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.” And second, he explains that “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

As always, it’s up to those who care about the lives of people regardless of their nationality or skin colour, who care about truth, who take their responsibility as world citizens seriously, to raise their voice and remember this moral and historical outrage.